Australian-born millionaire Peter Lowy, now an American citizen living… (Robert Durell / Los Angeles…)
A Beverly Hills shopping center magnate whose family investments have been routed through a bank in the tiny country of Liechtenstein is set to testify next week before a Senate subcommittee in Washington conducting a probe of overseas tax havens.
The committee has called Peter Lowy to testify Friday as part of its investigation into how financial institutions in Switzerland and Liechtenstein may be engaging in banking practices that result in "tax evasion and other misconduct," according to the panel.
Australian-born Lowy, 49, is an American citizen and head of the U.S. division of Westfield Group, one of the world's largest shopping center chains. Ranked as one of the wealthiest individuals in Los Angeles, he is a major political donor and philanthropist.
The Australian company has 24 regional malls in California, including centers in Century City, Arcadia and Woodland Hills.
Lowy has hired prominent Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett, who said Friday that his client would testify voluntarily. He stressed that the committee was probing the role of the offshore banks and not his client or the Lowy relatives, the second-wealthiest family in Australia.
The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held hearings this week into the use of tax havens that cost the country an estimated $100 billion a year in lost revenue, according to the Treasury. The panel heard from witnesses who banked funds in Liechtenstein. Lowy was to be among them but he was out of the country then and so will testify next week.
"Tax havens are engaged in economic warfare against the United States, and the honest, hardworking American taxpayer is losing," subcommittee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement Thursday. "The iron ring of secrecy around tax haven banks and their deceptive banking practices enable and encourage tax cheats to hide assets from the United States. Congress needs to enact strong penalties on tax haven banks that help U.S. taxpayers avoid paying taxes to Uncle Sam."
The Senate hearings have focused on the Swiss bank UBS and a private bank, LGT, owned by the royal family of Liechtenstein. Levin said that Frank Lowy, Peter's father, set up a foundation with LGT in 1998 after telling the bank that he did not want Australian tax authorities to know about the money involved.
LGT took measures to hide the Lowys' ownership, such as routing incoming funds through an offshore corporation and using a Delaware corporation headed by Peter Lowy to name the foundation's beneficiaries, Levin said. In 2001, he said, the Lowys dissolved the foundation in Liechtenstein and moved about $68 million to Switzerland.
"These were charitable contributions," Bennett said. "Not one penny went to Lowy or his sons."
Bennett, who represented President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky investigation, downplayed the significance of the $68 million banked by the Lowys. "For me, that's a lot. For the Lowys it's not."
The Los Angeles Business Journal recently estimated Peter Lowy's net worth at $880 million, down from $1 billion a year ago. He and his wife own a seven-bedroom house in Beverly Hills with an assessed value of almost $11 million.
Lowy's father was a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust and fought as a commando for Israeli independence before moving to Australia. Peter Lowy has helped raise millions of dollars for Jewish causes and serves on the board of directors of American Jewish University and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Lowy has been a major donor to California state and federal politicians. He and his company, Westfield, also funded a major ballot fight over shopping mall development in Arcadia, spending $6 million on two local measures in 2006 to protect its position at its Santa Anita shopping mall against a planned competing center.
Lowy donated $44,600 in 2005 and 2006 to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign. In addition, Westfield gave the governor $44,600, and $10,000 to the governor's Democratic foe, Phil Angelides.
The shopping mall mogul and his firm also give heavily to federal candidates.
In the last decade, Lowy has given $365,000 to federal candidates and political parties. His largest donations have gone to national Democratic Party organizations: $53,500 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee; $35,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and $25,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
He gave $4,600 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, and the Westfield political action committee gave her an additional $10,000.
Bennett said Lowy had played by the rules. "There is no suggestion that Mr. Lowy has deprived U.S. tax entities of what they were entitled to," Bennett said.
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.