Still, the low-key response to Mr. Smith’s tax violations stands in contrast to how a scandal played out involving Leon Black, a fellow private equity billionaire and a co-founder of Apollo Global Management. After the revelation, also last fall, that Mr. Black had paid Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and registered sex offender, tens of millions of dollars for tax and estate planning services, Apollo had an outside review conducted at Mr. Black’s behest. In January, Apollo announced that Mr. Black, 69, had done nothing wrong but would step down as chief executive by this summer and introduced several corporate governance changes.
Although investors didn’t pull their money from Apollo funds, shares of the firm, which is publicly traded and much bigger than Vista, have since lagged the performance of its rivals Blackstone Group and KKR. Some Apollo investors expressed their reservations publicly. Mr. Black’s dealings also prompted calls in the art world to oust him as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art.
The scandal involving Mr. Smith raised different ethical issues for investors, since Mr. Black’s dealings were with a convicted sex offender. But another reason both Mr. Smith, 58, and Vista have appeared unscathed from the tax evasion episode is that the firm was quick to alert investors — who dislike surprises and value disclosure — that trouble was brewing.
By the time federal prosecutors said in October that Mr. Smith had engaged in a 15-year scheme to hide $200 million in income and “evade millions in taxes” through a network of offshore trusts and bank accounts, Vista’s investors had been bracing for bad news for roughly four years. The scheme came to light after a long investigation into the ties between Mr. Smith and Robert T. Brockman, a billionaire Texas businessman who helped Vista, which is based in Austin, get off the ground.
Mr. Smith, who is Vista’s chairman and chief executive, learned in the summer of 2016 that he was the subject of a criminal tax investigation involving Mr. Brockman. That fall, Vista began providing investors with periodic — if minimal — updates on the federal inquiry, five people briefed on the matter said. The firm provided at least 10 updates to investors, said a person briefed on the firm’s activities, who declined to be identified because the matters aren’t public. The person did not provide details of what those disclosures included.