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Company Accused of Dodging $2 Billion in US Taxes After Calling for Exemption for Tax Haven Profits and Attacking Illinois Tax Hike

A former global tax strategy manager of Caterpillar is suing the company for demoting him after he complained that it was using “tax and financial statement fraud” to avoid $2 billion in U.S. taxes.

Daniel J. Schlicksup’s specific claim is that the company improperly attributed at least $5.6 billion of profits from the sale of spare parts from a plant in Illinois to another unit in Geneva. He alleges that after telling his superiors that he believed the tax avoidance was illegal, they retaliated by transferring him to the company’s information technology division, which is entirely out of his area of expertise.

For their part, Caterpillar representatives have said that the company complies with all laws and regulations, but have not as of yet addressed the specific charges in the lawsuit.

Based on the details released so far, it is unclear how this case against Caterpillar will ultimately pan out. The problem, according to Harvard Professor Stephen Shay, is that a company does not need “much substance” to be considered legal in these circumstances under U.S. law. In other words, even if Caterpillar is using a Swiss subsidiary primarily to avoid billions in taxes, it’s possible that the maneuver could actually be legal depending on the specific details of the subsidiary’s operation.

Caterpillar has long been an especially outspoken critic of corporate income taxes. In May, the company’s CEO called for the US to adopt a territorial tax system, which would be a boon to multinational corporations and a disaster for everyone else.

On the state level, Caterpillar was the first company to protest the recent corporate tax increases in Illinois, where the company is headquartered. They led the opposition to the state increase, despite the fact that their total (all states including Illinois) state and local tax liability represented only a tiny fraction of their costs; a mere 0.7 percent of their global earnings in 2010. In addition, if the accusations prove to have any truth, Caterpillar may have been fraudulently avoiding Illinois taxes as well.

Photo via Cyrillicus Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0