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For a U.K. Satirist and His Online Fans, Comedy Is Catharsis

LONDON — He is the hyperbolic news anchor with an agenda, the disgruntled Meghan Markle skeptic vying for Piers Morgan’s job, the British aristocrat insisting he is simply middle class — and those are just a few of the characters in Munya Chawawa’s arsenal.

But during a Zoom interview last month, Mr. Chawawa, 28, speaking from his London apartment in a neon hoodie, was exploring his own persona.

“I make content because I need to express how I’m feeling about the world,” he said of his comedy. “You have to have some form of catharsis when the world throws stuff at you, otherwise you’ll just go crazy.”

Mr. Chawawa’s dry sketches about racism, classism and everyday life in Britain had already found an audience before the pandemic. But in lockdown, his potent combination of singing, comedy acting and rapping has helped establish him as a sardonic voice of progressive young people in an increasingly diverse nation who are unimpressed by elitism and skeptical of the establishment.

appears in promotions for Netflix U.K.

In such a year, “humor has been a much-needed tonic,” Mr. Chawawa said. And the string of successes has fueled an ambitious goal: “I’m working toward being one of the country’s most respected satirists.”

Satire, to Mr. Chawawa — whose comedy heroes are John Oliver, Andy Zaltzman and Sacha Baron Cohen, among others — feels “like a superpower.” That’s not only because of the challenge of execution but also because of satire’s ability to extract humor from situations that are not supposed to be funny at all, he said.

“Anything you laugh at can’t haunt or hurt you as much as it used to do,” he said.

Given the state of the world today, there is plenty of material for him to work with.

When critics called food packages for poor children too meager, Mr. Chawawa was ready with a sketch about a wealthy lawmaker scrambling to respond: “We can’t feed them but we could put them in a film — ‘The Hungrier Games.’” He has parodied British journalists brainstorming headlines about the Duchess of Sussex using the game Cards Against Humanity (“Meghan Kidnapped Peppa Pig,”) and a security guard letting rioters into the U.S. Capitol upon hearing they are white: “You’re already wearing your pass! It’s called white privilege.”

debate over U.K. drill — a subgenre of hip-hop music that British authorities have tried to censor, blaming it for a rise in knife crimes in London.

For many young Black men and women, drill was an important form of self-expression, Mr. Chawawa said, giving voice to the frustrations and realities of life in a period of austerity. Mr. Chawawa said he was disturbed by the appropriation of the genre, with “posh white kids singing the lyrics” as it filtered into private schools.

Born in Derby, England, Mr. Chawawa spent his childhood in Zimbabwe, his father’s birthplace, before his family moved to a small village near Norwich, England. His first exposure to comedy was through his grandfather, whose jokes over the dinner table made him the center of attention.

In England, where his was one of the few families of color in the area, Mr. Chawawa stifled his natural extroversion, which had been encouraged in Zimbabwe. “Slowly, I stopped putting my hand up,” he said.

In college, he studied psychology but found himself spending all his time in the student radio hub. He also worked as a waiter at a high-end restaurant in Norwich, where customers sometimes complimented his English. There, he picked up useful insights into the ways of the ultrawealthy. It struck him when he moved to London that this world could be a mine of comedy gold.

is real,” he said, grinning. He said he would welcome the opportunity for the character to “get some real cultural insights.”

For now, Mr. Chawawa is enjoying the chance to lean into that natural extroversion. “My dad always used to say to me, ‘When you were in Zimbabwe you were so bold.’” Being a satirist now, he added, is “a resurgence of the guy I used to be.”

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An Accidental Disclosure Exposes a $1 Billion Tax Fight With Bristol Myers

Almost nine years ago, Bristol Myers Squibb filed paperwork in Ireland to create a new offshore subsidiary. By moving Bristol Myers’s profits through the subsidiary, the American drugmaker could substantially reduce its U.S. tax bill.

Years later, the Internal Revenue Service got wind of the arrangement, which it condemned as an “abusive” tax shelter. The move by Bristol Myers, the I.R.S. concluded, would cheat the United States out of about $1.4 billion in taxes.

That is a lot of money, even for a large company like Bristol Myers. But the dispute remained secret. The company, which denies wrongdoing, didn’t tell its investors that the U.S. government was claiming more than $1 billion in unpaid taxes. The I.R.S. didn’t make any public filings about it.

And then, ever so briefly last spring, the dispute became public. It was an accident, and almost no one noticed. The episode provided a fleeting glimpse into something that is common but rarely seen up close: how multinational companies, with the help of elite law and accounting firms and with only belated scrutiny from the I.R.S., dodge billions of dollars in taxes.

infrastructure plan that the White House unveiled on Wednesday proposed increasing the minimum overseas tax on multinational corporations, which would reduce the appeal of such arrangements.)

For the three years leading up to 2012, Bristol Myers’s tax rate was about 24 percent. The U.S. corporate income tax rate at the time was 35 percent. (It is now 21 percent.)

The company wanted to pay even less.

In 2012, it turned to PwC, the accounting, consulting and advisory firm, and a major law firm, White & Case, for help getting an elaborate tax-avoidance strategy off the ground. PwC had previously been Bristol Myers’s auditor, but it was dismissed in 2006 after an accounting scandal forced Bristol Myers to pay $150 million to the U.S. government. Now PwC, with a long history of setting up Irish tax shelters for multinational companies, returned to Bristol Myers’s good graces.

sided with the agency after it challenged a similar maneuver by General Electric using an offshore subsidiary called Castle Harbour. The I.R.S. also contested comparable setups by Merck and Dow Chemical.

The Bristol Myers arrangement “appears to be essentially a copycat shelter,” said Karen Burke, a tax law professor at the University of Florida. Since the I.R.S. was already fighting similar high-profile transactions, she said, “Bristol Myers’s behavior seems particularly aggressive and risky.”

The next January, the company announced its 2012 results. Its tax rate had plunged from nearly 25 percent in 2011 to negative 7 percent.

On a call with investors, executives fielded repeated questions about the drop in its tax rate. “Presumably, all drug companies try to optimize their legal entities to take their tax rate as low as they can, yet your rate is markedly lower than any of the other companies,” said Tim Anderson, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “So I’m wondering why your tax rate might be unique in that regard?”

Charlie Bancroft, the company’s chief financial officer, wouldn’t say.

The more than $1 billion in tax savings came at an opportune moment: Bristol Myers was in the midst of repurchasing $6 billion worth of its own shares, an effort to lift its stock price. By January 2013, it had spent $4.2 billion. The cash freed up by the tax maneuver was enough to cover most of the remainder.

Tax Notes, a widely read trade publication, had also posted the document. When the I.R.S. provided a clean version, Tax Notes took down the original.

An I.R.S. spokesman declined to comment.

Cara Griffith, the chief executive of Tax Analysts, the publisher of Tax Notes, said the publication erred “on the side of not publishing confidential taxpayer information that was accidentally released through an error in redaction, unless it reaches a very high threshold of newsworthiness.”

David Weisbach, a former Treasury Department official who helped write the regulations governing the tax-code provision that Bristol Myers is accused of violating, agreed. PwC and White & Case “are giving you 138 pages of legalese that doesn’t address the core issue in the transaction,” he said. “But you can show the I.R.S. you got this big fat opinion letter, so it must be fancy and good.”

The current status of the tax dispute is not clear. Similar disputes have spent years winding through the I.R.S.’s appeals process before leading to settlements. Companies often agree to pay a small fraction of what the I.R.S. claims was owed.

“There is a real chance that a matter like this could be settled for as little as 30 percent” of the amount in dispute, said Bryan Skarlatos, a tax lawyer at Kostelanetz & Fink.

In that case, the allegedly abusive tax shelter would have saved Bristol Myers nearly $1 billion.

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Whistle-Blower Says Credit Suisse Helped Clients Skip Taxes After Promising to Stop

The Swiss bank also hired Mr. Wray, then a partner at King & Spalding in Washington who had served as the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division and oversaw the Enron task force. (Mr. Wray became the director of the F.B.I. three years after he negotiated the final plea deal for Credit Suisse.)

“It is a mystery to me why the U.S. government didn’t require as part of the agreement that the bank cough up some of the names of the U.S. clients with secret Swiss bank accounts,” Carl Levin, then a Michigan senator leading an investigation into offshore tax avoidance, said after the 2014 plea agreement.

In the interview, Mr. Neiman, the whistle-blower’s lawyer, said that in July 2014, after the plea deal was signed and as Credit Suisse awaited its final sentencing, he told officials at the tax division of the Justice Department and federal prosecutors who had worked on the case that his client had information that the bank had continued to cloak money held by some U.S. account holders. He gave them one name in particular — Dan Horsky, the retired business professor, who lived in Rochester, N.Y.

The tip checked out. The following year, federal agents arrested Mr. Horsky, who had amassed a $200 million fortune and hidden it with the help of Credit Suisse bankers using offshore shell companies, court documents show. The arrangement lasted for several months after the bank signed its plea deal.

It is unclear why the Justice Department did not notify the court and change the terms of its settlement with Credit Suisse based on the information from the whistle-blower — either before Credit Suisse’s final sentencing or after Mr. Horsky’s case became public. At the sentencing, lawyers for both sides told the court that they had no information to add that would affect the agreement.

Officials who would have had authority to make the decision to review the Credit Suisse case for possible breaches in 2014 and 2015 — including James Cole, who was then the deputy attorney general, and Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia — did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2015, Mr. Horsky pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. government and said that he would cooperate with prosecutors. In 2017, he was sentenced to seven months in prison. Some details of his sentencing are sealed, and a federal judge denied a request by Bloomberg News to unseal it. The judge said he denied the request after consulting with the Justice Department and Mr. Horsky’s lawyers.

Mr. Neiman’s client could be richly rewarded if prosecutors move to impose more fines on Credit Suisse. Under an I.R.S. rule, whistle blowers can get as much as 30 percent of the amount of any additional money the government gets. And, Mr. Neiman said, the whistle blower has more names of American account-holders beyond Mr. Horsky’s, although he wouldn’t say how many.

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A Buyout Fund C.E.O. Got in Tax Evasion Trouble. Here’s Why Investors Shrugged.

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.

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