WASHINGTON — Sam and Charles Wyly have long cultivated an image as active philanthropists, funneling millions of dollars to arts groups, colleges, literacy programs and animal shelters.But government investigators have suspected for years that the

billionaires from Dallas had a less community-minded goal: avoiding taxes. Along the path they chose for structuring their business interests, they have engaged in a $550 million securities fraud, the Securities and Exchange Commission said in a civil complaint filed on Thursday.A substantial portion of the Wyly brothers’ money has been stowed for years in a complex web of offshore companies and trusts whose purpose is to minimize the tax bills, according to a 2006 Congressional investigation into tax havens.The trusts, which have sheltered assets worth at least $750 million at various times, have owned mountain ranches in Aspen, Colorado, a million-dollar painting of Benjamin Franklin, a $750,000 emerald necklace and antique furniture — all of which the Wylys were able to use on loan from the trusts.By Edward Wyatt, July 31, 2010 NYT

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