Former Vice President Joe Biden is telegraphing that he plans to attack his rivals on the debate stage for a lack of transparency into their finances. Biden is expected to go after Sen. Elizabeth Warren in particular, Bloomberg reported, for failing to disclose details of private income during the 1990s and 2000s from the types of companies that she now lambasts for “rigging the system.”
Warren, as a law professor, did consulting work for private companies that involved her bankruptcy expertise, including advising Dow Corning in 1995, involving a major settlement with women harmed by breast implants. Warren has released her tax returns dating back to 2008.
Biden may be looking to hammer her for hypocrisy, but his charge of a lack of transparency is badly undercut by his own financial opacity — not decades ago, but in the last two years. Since leaving the White House, Biden, long proud of his wealth ranking near the bottom of the U.S. Senate, began delivering high-dollar speeches to well-heeled clients and raked in book revenue that elevated him well into the upper class. He earned some $15.6 million in the last two years alone, according to financial disclosures released by his campaign.
It is typical for presidential candidates to voluntarily release their tax returns, with the exception of Donald Trump. Despite those releases, the details of how Biden, whose career has been partially dedicated to enabling financial secrecy in Delaware, made a significant portion of that money remains a mystery.
The Bidens have used their home state’s financial privacy laws to shield his income from public view, by setting up two tax- and transparency-avoidance vehicles known as S corporations. He and his wife Jill Biden called them CelticCapri Corp. and Giacoppa Corp., respectively, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, have reported more than $13 million in profits the previous two years that weren’t subject to specific disclosure or self-employment taxes. As CNBC has described, money Biden made from book deals and speeches flowed into the S corporations and was then remitted to Biden and his wife as “distributions” rather than salary. When money is funneled through an S corporation, the recipient doesn’t owe Social Security or Medicare taxes on it, nor can the source of revenue be traced. (In addition to the distributions, the Bidens drew relatively small salaries from the S Corporations: under half a million dollars, for which they owed self-employment taxes.)
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The use of S corporations by politicians is known as the Gingrich-Edwards loophole, named for Newt Gingrich and John Edwards, who have deployed it in the past. The strategy has become popular among Republicans, but Democratic politicians typically avoid it, given its capacity to appear hypocritical. Warren, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, the Journal has reported, all shied away from the strategy when it came to reporting income from books and speeches.
In June, the Washington Post reported that Biden’s campaign said he had given fewer than 50 paid speeches since leaving the White House, but would not provide a list of them. The Post nevertheless obtained four contracts, finding that Biden charged $150,000 to $200,000 per speech. Biden has refused to disclose what he was paid for other speeches. He has also made money from the sales of his book, “Promise Me, Dad,” which he published in 2017.
Biden gave roughly 20 speeches in 2017 outside of the period covered by his most recent financial disclosure, the Washington Post reported in July, “because the form stretches back only through part of 2017, there are still several months of speeches whose specific payments remain unknown — although his overall income was listed in his tax returns. The Post found that during that period he delivered about 20 speeches.” Biden’s 2018 disclosure lists dozens of speeches, as well as the payment received, but he has not yet disclosed the speeches he gave or fees collected during that 2017 window.
Biden and Warren will meet on the presidential debate stage for the first time on Thursday in Houston. The Massachusetts senator’s campaign has been gaining traction, coming out as second to Biden in a number of recent polls. The gains she’s made have come at the significant expense of California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose supporters have gravitated to Warren, meaning that Harris will also have an incentive to target Warren during Thursday night’s debate. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, consistently polls second or third nationally and in early-state surveys.
Update: September 11, 2019
This story was updated to note that Biden has disclosed information about dozens of his speeches, while many others remain undisclosed.