In a 2015 segment on his HBO comedy show, John Oliver defended the IRS and said people shouldn’t hate the agency because it serves the very necessary purpose of collecting the money the government needs to do its job. “If you’re angry about the amount of tax you pay, that’s nothing to do with them,” Oliver said. “That’s determined by a vote in Congress.”
In another 2014 segment, the left-leaning comedian said that America has "actively introduced policies disproportionately benefitting the wealthy.”
And indeed, while it’s technically true that tax laws are generally determined by legislatures, it’s only the wealthiest people who can fully take advantage of the complexities of the tax code via high-priced attorneys and accountants.
Ironically, one person who seems to be personally aware of this fact is John Oliver.
As former Salon writer Ken Silverstein reported for the Observer on Wednesday, Oliver and his wife, Kate Norley Oliver, appear to have used several property tax loopholes, that combined together, allow them to pay an effective rate of 0.25 percent on a penthouse condominium they purchased in October 2015 for $9.5 million.
Using a complicated system involving dual revocable trusts, a shell corporation named for their dog and a now-expired New York City tax law called the 421a exemption, Oliver and his wife managed to lower their condo’s tax assessment to just $607,000 in 2015, according to the real estate website Zillow.
As it happens, the 421a loophole for luxury properties was opened by Donald Trump in 1984 when he successfully sued the city to force it to make his high-rise Trump Tower development eligible for a tax benefit that was originally designed to encourage real estate firms to build single-family homes.
According to the Community Service Society, a New York City-based nonprofit that advocates for economic policies to reduce income inequality, the 421a exemption was costing the city more than $1 billion annually while providing essentially no stimulation to the local economy when it expired at the end of 2015.
“If the billion dollars a year expended on 421a were used to fund housing vouchers similar to Section 8, it would provide homes for 100,000 of the city’s poorest families,” the society noted in a May 2015 report.
Wealthy interests in the city are now pushing for the state of New York to bring the loophole back from the dead this year. They have not yet achieved their goal but, as Oliver said in another context, “you would think in a democracy, policies that benefit very few people at the expense of very many would not be able to succeed. But they have.”
Oliver’s actions may not be the “scam” that Silverstein portrays them to be but they nonetheless do appear to contravene the comic's proclaimed beliefs.
“Inequality is a bit like cinnamon,” Oliver said in his 2014 segment. “You definitely want a little bit of it to spice life up a bit, but too much of it can be very dangerous. And make no mistake, we are at cinnamon-dangerous levels right now.”
Salon reached out to Avalon Management, the talent agency that represents Oliver, for comment but has not received a response.
Oliver's fans may say that his actions don't matter since he's not a politician or a journalist. That's true on the former but concerning the latter, to dismiss Oliver's heavily researched and informative rants as nothing more than tomfoolery doesn't do them justice.
Update 2017-05-15. In a response to this story, a representative for Oliver emailed the following statement:
“The apartment was purchased through a trust, solely for privacy reasons - the trust confers no tax benefit whatsoever. As for the 421a tax exemption, the rate at which the city taxes the building in which Mr. Oliver lives was the result of the building developers applying for that exemption before construction years before he took up residence. It was not the result of any action or decision taken by Mr. Oliver."