ICYMI: DeSantis Helps Billionaires Dodge Their Taxes

New reporting from the Orlando Sentinel and the Seeking Rents newsletter show how Ron DeSantis has helped his mega-wealthy corporate donors dodge paying their fair share in taxes. The reporting comes less than a month after DeSantis signed yet another taxpayer-funded corporate bailout into law. As Floridians continue to struggle with unaffordable health care costs and skyrocketing housing prices, DeSantis continues to help the ultra-rich get richer while working Florida families foot the bill.

Seeking Rents: After taking money from Walmart heirs, Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature helped billionaires hide their family fortunes
By Jason Garcia
January 12, 2023

  • Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state Legislature teamed up to pass a pair of bills that made it easier for billionaires to hide their fortunes from the outside world — and from federal taxes.
  • …legislative, corporate and campaign-finance records suggest that DeSantis and the Legislature enacted the laws, at least in part, as a favor for the richest family in the world: The Waltons, the heirs to the Walmart empire.
  • Emails and text messages — first obtained by Jeff Schweers of the Orlando Sentinel, who broke the story Thursday morning — show that both bills were written in part by lobbyists hired by a front group called the “Florida Coalition for Modern Families.”
  • And state corporate records show the Florida Coalition for Modern Families was created by a trusts-and-estates partner at a Manhattan law firm who had recently set up a private trust company in Florida that, according to Bloomberg Law, is affiliated with the Walton family.
  • At the same time, in the weeks leading up to last year’s legislative session, campaign-finance records show that billionaire Walmart heir Jim Walton — a son of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton — showered roughly $100,000 on members of the Florida Legislature. Most of Walton’s donations went to lawmakers with direct roles in the family-trust legislation, including the bill sponsors and key committee chairs.
  • And shortly after the session ended, another billionaire Walmart heir — Rob Walton, Jim Walton’s brother — gave $25,000 to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor then signed both family-trust bills into law.
  • Representatives for the Walton family, who have a combined net worth estimated at $224.5 billion, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did a spokesperson for DeSantis, who raised more than $12 million from more than 40 billionaire donors during his 2022 re-election campaign.

Orlando Sentinel: “Florida leaders give more love to family trusts of the super-rich”
By Jeffrey Schweers
January 14, 2023

  • Florida has long been a tax haven, but new trust laws enacted over the past three years friendly to the heirs of the Walmart fortune and other families will make the state even more accommodating to the uber-rich looking to hide wealth and avoid taxes for generations to come.
  • They also make it harder to scrutinize the activities of family trusts to know how much property and money are being transferred, a lack of transparency that can hide assets.
  • Opponents, including the First Amendment Foundation and real estate and trust lawyers, said they created an elite, secret court system where the wealthiest families can air out their affairs without scrutiny, promote dynasty trusts that don’t have to pay taxes for 1,000 years, and protect trustees from adverse consequences.
  • The money at stake is astronomical.
  • The largest transfer of intergenerational wealth is about to occur over the next few decades, with an estimated $30 trillion to $68 trillion to be handed down, said Juan C. Antunez, a real estate and trust lawyer in Miami. With a maximum 40% tax on inherited wealth over $12.9 million, there is a potential loss of as much as $27 trillion in federal tax revenue.
  • There is no Florida residency required for the trustees of family trusts and no tax or economic benefit other than what the bankers and lawyers receive in payments.
  • Only 24 family trust companies are registered with the state Division of Management Services since the family trust company law was passed in 2014, but they represent some of the wealthiest families in the United States and Florida. 
  • Also on the list is the Greenway Family Trust, which manages the wealth of the owners of the Orlando-based Greenway Automotive Group. And another manages the wealth of the Demetree family, which helped put together land deals for Walt Disney to create Walt Disney World and Epcot.
  • Public records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel found that Mat Forrest of the powerful Tallahassee lobby firm Ballard Partners played an extensive role in drafting the trust legislation and preparing talking points to counter arguments made by opponents.
  • While they worked on drafting legislation, Walmart heir Jim Walton funneled nearly $200,000 over four years into the campaigns of the bill’s sponsors and the chairs of committees that would be responsible for pushing the bills through, state campaign finance records show.
  • He also donated $25,000 each to the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Another heir, Robson Walton, gave $25,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis.
  • Signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in June 2020, the law protects trustees from any adverse consequences when paying taxes for the beneficiaries of a trust.
  • It also created tax shelters in the form of nontaxable gifts to the beneficiaries of the trust and withdrawals without incurring gift or estate taxes and it protects trust assets from being subject to claims from creditors.