By Farah Stockman. Globe Staff / March 6, 2008
CAYMAN ISLANDS - Kellogg Brown & Root, the nation's top Iraq war contractor and until last year a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in this tropical tax haven.
More than 21,000 people working for KBR in Iraq - including about 10,500 Americans - are listed as employees of two companies that exist in a computer file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here in the Caribbean. Neither company has an office or phone number in the Cayman Islands.
The Defense Department has known since at least 2004 that KBR was avoiding taxes by declaring its American workers as employees of Cayman Islands shell companies, and officials said the move allowed KBR to perform the work more cheaply, saving Defense dollars.
[Now look at that. It saves the Pentagon money by not returning taxes to the general revenue of the whole nation. What kind of logic is that? The Pentagon runs on taxes. If the people pay in their taxes and the Pentagon spends those taxes on KBR and KBR does not repatriate their earnings (which they don't), then the taxpayers have lost more than they would have otherwise. The Pentagon belongs to the people, supposedly. This scheme is just another in an endless stream of shafts stuck into the people to bleed them to make KBR executives and top shareholders ultra rich. Don't forget. The Pentagon is a revolving door for so-called defense contractors.]
But the use of the loophole results in a significantly greater loss of revenue to the government as a whole, particularly to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. And the creation of shell companies in places such as the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes has long been attacked by members of Congress.
A Globe survey found that the practice is unusual enough that only one other ma jor contractor in Iraq said it does something similar.
"Failing to contribute to Social Security and Medicare thousands of times over isn't shielding the taxpayers they claim to protect, it's costing our citizens in the name of short-term corporate greed," said Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee who has introduced legislation to close loopholes for companies registering overseas.
With an estimated $16 billion in contracts, KBR is by far the largest contractor in Iraq, with eight times the work of its nearest competitor.
The no-bid contract it received in 2002 to rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure and a multibillion-dollar contract to provide support services to troops have long drawn scrutiny because Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive from 1995 until he joined the Republican ticket with President Bush in 2000.
Social Security and Medicare taxes amount to 15.3 percent of each employees' salary, split evenly between the worker and the employer. While KBR's use of the shell companies saves workers their half of the taxes, it deprives them of future retirement benefits.
In addition, the practice enables KBR to avoid paying unemployment taxes in Texas, where the company is registered, amounting to between $20 and $559 per American employee per year, depending on the company's rate of turnover.
As a result, workers hired through the Cayman Island companies cannot receive unemployment assistance should they lose their jobs.
In interviews with more than a dozen KBR workers registered through the Cayman Islands companies, most said they did not realize that they had been employed by a foreign firm until they arrived in Iraq and were told by their foremen, or until they returned home and applied for unemployment benefits.
Brown & Root won a $3.9 million contract from the Defense Department under Secretary Dick Cheney to develop contingency plans to support, feed, house, and maintain the US military in 13 hot spots around the world.
That small contract soon grew into a massive logistical-support contract under which the company did everything from building military camps to cooking meals and providing transportation for troops. Under the contract, the military agreed to reimburse Brown & Root for all expenses, and to pay a profit of between 1 and 9 percent, depending on performance.
...construction companies that avoid taxes by setting up foreign subsidiaries have obvious advantages in bidding for military contracts.
KBR is now widely believed to be the largest private employer of foreigners in Iraq, and it hires twice as many workers through its Cayman Island subsidiaries as it does by direct hires. Service Employers International alone employs more than 20,000 truck drivers, electricians, accountants, and engineers, roughly half of whom are American, according to Browne, the KBR spokeswoman.
KBR declined to release salary information. But workers interviewed by the Globe who served in a range of jobs said they earned between $48,000 and $85,000 per year. If KBR's American workers averaged even as much as $63,000 per year, they and KBR would have owed more than $100 million per year in Social Security and Medicare taxes, split evenly between them. Over the course of the five-year war, their tax bill would have been more than $500 million.
In 2004, auditors with the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency questioned KBR about the two Cayman Island companies but ultimately made no complaint. ...
"The argument that by not paying taxes they are saving the government money is just absurd," said Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice, a Washington advocacy group.
David Boiles, a truck driver in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, said that he realized he was working for Service Employers International when he arrived in Iraq and his foreman told him he was not a KBR employee, despite the fact that his military-issued identification card said "KBR."
For decades Congress has sought to crack down on corporations that use offshore subsidiaries to lower their taxes, but most of the debates have focused on schemes that reduce corporate income taxes, not payroll taxes. Last year a Senate subcommittee estimated that US corporations avoid paying $30 and $60 billion annually in income taxes by using offshore tax havens.
Globe correspondents Stephanie Vallejo and Matt Negrin contributed to this report.
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