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Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy Expose Stealth Campaign of Super-Wealthy to Repeal Federal Estate Tax

April 25, 2006

Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy Expose Stealth Campaign of Super-Wealthy to Repeal Federal Estate Tax

Report Identifies 18 Families Behind Multimillion-Dollar Deceptive Lobbying Campaign

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to repeal the federal estate tax has been aggressively led by 18 super-wealthy families, according to a report released today by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy at a press conference in Washington, D.C. The report details for the first time the vast money, influence and deceptive marketing techniques behind the rhetoric in the campaign to repeal the tax.

It reveals how 18 families worth a total of $185.5 billion have financed and coordinated a 10-year effort to repeal the estate tax, a move that would collectively net them a windfall of $71.6 billion.

The report profiles the families and their businesses, which include the families behind Wal-Mart, Gallo wine, Campbell’s soup, and Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms. Collectively, the list includes the first- and third-largest privately held companies in the United States, the richest family in Alabama and the world’s largest retailer.

These families have sought to keep their activities anonymous by using associations to represent them and by forming a massive coalition of business and trade associations dedicated to pushing for estate tax repeal. The report details the groups they have hidden behind – the trade associations they have used, the lobbyists they have hired, and the anti-estate tax political action committees, 527s and organizations to which they have donated heavily.

In a massive public relations campaign, the families have also misled the country by giving the mistaken impression that the estate tax affects most Americans. In particular, they have used small businesses and family farms as poster children for repeal, saying that the estate tax destroys both of these groups. But just more than one-fourth of one percent of all estates will owe any estate taxes in 2006. And the American Farm Bureau, a member of the anti-estate tax coalition, was unable when asked by The New York Times to cite a single example of a family being forced to sell its farm because of estate tax liability.

“This report exposes one of the biggest con jobs in recent history,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “This long-running, secretive campaign funded by some of the country’s wealthiest families has relied on deception to bamboozle the public not only about who must pay the estate tax, but about how repealing it will affect the country.”

Said Lee Farris, senior organizer for estate tax policy at UFE, “It’s time for the majority of Americans who support the estate tax to speak out, and not let a handful of wealthy families sway Congress to twist the tax laws for their own benefit. Polls now show that most Americans support this tax and the revenue it yields to pay for vital services, especially given our nation’s huge deficit.”

While they extol the hard work of individual farmers and small businesses, most of the 18 families have been wealthy for generations; only five still include the people who first earned the family fortune. Members of the families are far less likely than most Americans to have paid taxes on their wealth; to a large extent, that wealth lies in assets that have appreciated but, unlike paychecks, have never been taxed.

These super-rich families have spent millions in personal wealth and used their companies’ resources and lobbying power in repeated attempts to influence members of Congress to repeal the tax. They have financed groups who have launched multimillion-dollar attack ads against Republican and Democratic senators alike, including former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Olympia Snow (R-Maine), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

The stakes of the campaign are great, not only for the super-wealthy families, but for the public. If the families’ repeal bid succeeds, it will cost the U.S. Treasury a trillion dollars in the first decade – roughly what it would cost to provide health insurance for every uninsured person in the United States.

“The estate tax should be regarded as just paying back to the country for all the wonderful things it’s made possible for the people who have that wealth,” said Bill Gates Sr. in an audio statement played at the press conference. “I don’t think there’s any great societal goal being served by inherited wealth. And certainly there’s no sensible argument that I can think of for insisting on being able to pass the last penny of $100 million on to your three kids.”

Added Elizabeth Letzler, an investment manager from New York who will be subject to the estate tax and who spoke at the press conference, “The current estate tax structure should permit any wealthy household to pass on a legacy of financial security, education and family heirlooms to the next generations.” She challenged the families showcased in the report: “Do something spectacular during your life-time investing in the social welfare and well-being of the children and grandchildren at the bottom of the pyramid.” Her daughter Stephanie, also in attendance, said, “If keeping the estate tax means a step closer to a debt-free treasury, a step closer to improved health care, Social Security, education, and every other program that makes me proud to be an American, show me where to sign the check.”

Paul Newman, actor and founder of Newman’s Own food company, agreed in a separate statement: “For those of us lucky enough to be born in this country and to have flourished here, the estate tax is a reasonable and appropriate way to return something to the common good. I’m proud to be among those supporting preservation of this tax, which is one of the fairest taxes we have.”


To read the statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, click here.

To read the report, click here.

To hear the audio statement of Bill Gates Sr., click here.