Apple in the hot seat: Expect tough questioning at tax hearing

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Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), left, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) speak to reporters during a briefing on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), left, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) speak to reporters during a briefing on Capitol Hill.

Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook and other company officials will be in a legendary hot seat Tuesday as they try to defend the company’s tax practices — in front of Sen. Carl Levin.

The veteran Michigan Democrat chairs the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and is known for his aggressive and lengthy interrogation of witnesses he brings before the panel after his staff conducts detailed investigations.

The subcommittee’s latest probe found that Apple used a web of foreign subsidiaries to shelter billions of dollars in overseas income from U.S. taxes.

Given the huge popularity of Apple’s products and its standing as one of the world’s largest and most successful companies, the investigation’s findings, released Monday, are drawing huge attention to Cook’s appearance at the hearing.

C-SPAN is to broadcast the session, set to begin at 6:30 a.m. PDT, and the subcommittee has set up six tables with 12 seats apiece for the media.

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Here’s a few things to watch for:

1) Levin can be relentless as a questioner, meticulously moving through detailed questions in hearings that can last hours.

Cook and the other Apple executives are unaccustomed to congressional testimony. They’re definitely unaccustomed to Levin’s prosecutorial-style interrogation. How will they handle the pressure?

A tart reply to Levin can bring down his wrath and also end up as the leading sound bite from the hearing. That could end up hurting Apple’s reputation.

2) The panel’s top Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), joined Levin for a Monday news conference blasting Apple’s tax practices. McCain gives the investigation bipartisan backing.

But will any of the other panel’s Republicans join in the criticism? Most Republicans have argued that U.S. corporate tax rates are too high compared with other nations.

So will any of the panel’s GOP members come to the defense of a company that is not accused of anything illegal in using tax laws to shelter large amounts of its income from high U.S. tax rates?

3) Cook is expected to push Congress to overhaul the U.S. corporate tax code, which lawmakers already have been working on as part of a bipartisan reform effort. Will the company’s practices help make that case or hurt it?

Apple could end up as the poster child for corporate tax abuses or for the need to overhaul the tax code. How Cook and his fellow Apple executives handle the hearing will help determine that.

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