Documents uncovered by openDemocracy reveal that Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice signed papers selling a valuable Florida property to an offshore company for just $10, in an arrangement which tax experts and politicians say “beggars belief”.
Tice is standing for election in the Brexit Party target seat of Hartlepool. Last month, openDemocracy reported that the largest shareholders in one of Tice’s family businesses – Sunley Family Limited – are two firms based in Panama and the British Virgin Islands, both of which are jurisdictions known to shield wealth for elite clients.
Tice said that he did not know and had “nothing to do with” the Panamanian company Sunciera, which for 25 years has owned a large stake in Sunley Family Limited.
However, new openDemocracy research reveals that Tice, acting on behalf of another family company, John B Sunley and Sons Limited, signed documents transferring a valuable property in Orlando, Florida to the Panamanian company Sunciera for only $10 in 1999.
Other documents show that a member of the board of John B Sunley and Sons Ltd also paid tax on the property years after it was transferred to Sunciera. The Florida property is also named after Tice’s maternal grandfather.
Speaking to openDemocracy, tax expert John Christensen said, “Why did Richard Tice sell a valuable property in Florida to an offshore business for only $10?”, adding: “This arrangement beggars belief. It strikes me as unbelievable that a sale like this can go ahead without full knowledge of who the other party is.”
Mike Hill, the Labour candidate in Tice’s target seat of Hartlepool, said: “Voters deserve to know why Richard Tice sold a valuable property to an offshore firm he claims to know nothing about for just $10. That’s not something most people would do.”
Hartlepool, which voted 70% Leave in 2016, is now a key Brexit Party target seat. While the party is in disarray following high-profile defections to the Conservatives last week, they are still understood to be “throwing tens of thousands at Richard Tice’s campaign,” according to Hill. “They’ve got three vehicles with electronic billboards. They’ve taken a full page advert in the local paper every single day, and bought the front page of the free paper as well. There’s all the leaflets that go through the doors, there’s advertising on Facebook.”
Stefan Houghton, the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool, said he expected voters in the constituency would take a “dim view” of Tice’s “strange dealings in other countries”.
Tice is the grandson of the famous property developer Bernard Sunley, and sat on the board of Sunley Family Limited from 1993 until 2017. During that time, 42% of the business was bought up by two firms based in tax havens – Sunciera Holdings Corporation in Panama, and Shuttlecock Holdings Limited in the British Virgin Islands.
Asked previously by openDemocracy if he is aware of who owns Sunciera and Shuttlecock, Tice said “I am not aware of the ownership of those companies.” He has also said, of the companies: “I don’t own them, I’ve nothing to do with them, zero.”
However, land registry documents in Orlando, Florida, reveal that Tice, on behalf of John B Sunley and Sons, personally signed over a valuable property next to a luxury golf course to Sunciera for just $10.
Registration documents with the city authorities also show that the property, which was sold in to Sunciera in 1999, was still known as the “Sunley Guest Quarters” seven years after the sale happened.
Before the property was sold to Sunciera, Tice had also filed papers in a New York court on behalf of John B Sunley and Sons Limited in which he refers to Sunley family companies as being the beneficial owners of two companies based in Curaçao and the Channel Islands. One of these firms, Valsana Investments NV, previously owned the property in Florida.
Responding to questions about the documents, Tice said: “As a successful international businessman, I have been a director in the last 30 years of some 150 plus companies, in 12 countries across four continents. I have consistently made money for shareholders and am proud in the UK to have built thousands of homes, creating tens of thousands of jobs, attracting hundreds of millions of investment into the UK. How many homes or jobs have openDemocracy created?”
‘Taking back control’
Tice has previously denied that his motivation for Brexit had anything to do with tax, telling openDemocracy “my support for Brexit is to bring back power and control to the UK to restore the UK as a sovereign nation”.
However, when challenged on this issue on Al Jazeera last month and asked if the Brexit Party would crack down on tax havens, Tice said: “We believe in high growth, low taxation. If you have low taxation in this country, you reduce the need for people to look at tax avoidance.”
Asked to clarify his comments, Tice said that he believed a reduction to 15% or lower of corporation tax would be “great for the UK economy” because it would mean that “many multinational companies would say it is not worth spending time and money to legally avoid tax by locating in tax havens.”
Responding to openDemocracy’s findings, SNP candidate for Glasgow Central Alison Thewliss said: “Just like the Tories, it seems the Brexit Party will prioritise self-interest and the rich over the most vulnerable in our society.”
“Voters are right to be angry when they see one set of rules being applied to ordinary taxpayers, and another for the ultra-rich elite. I’m sure they will also have questions to ask as to whether outside interests will influence Mr Tice’s position on important matters such as tax justice.”
openDemocracy research shows that between 2007 and 2018, Sunley Family Limited paid £12 million to shareholders in dividends. A substantial portion would have gone to Sunciera Holdings in Panama and Shuttlecock Holdings in the British Virgin Islands and Shuttlecock Holdings in the British Virgin Islands, out of reach of the British tax authorities.
Richard Tice currently holds a 5% stake in Sunley Family limited, and has always maintained that he pays all taxes due in the UK and does not benefit from offshore entities.