Dome owner in dividend storm

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The Independent Online

Philip Anschutz, the owner of the Millennium Dome, has received $741m (£403m) from two controversial special dividends from a cinema chain that he controls.

The payouts have angered credit-rating agencies and are timed to take advantage of a special tax cut given to shareholders by President George Bush, whose election campaign Mr Anschutz backed with donations.

The billionaire, who lives in Denver, Colorado, holds a controlling shareholding in Regal Entertainment, which is based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although he only owns 58 per cent of the shares, he has "super-voting" rights that give him 78 per cent of the votes of the company.

Mr Anschutz led a rescue package for Regal Entertainment two years ago, creating the business from three formerly bankrupt cinema chains.

Only 14 months after floating the company, in July last year, he voted himself his first dividend, an impressive $373m. Now he is taking a second payout, a mere $368m. In total, Regal Entertainment is paying $1.6bn in dividends to shareholders in under a year.

The two paydays follow a tax cut pushed through by the Bush administration, which reduces the tax rate on dividends to just 15 per cent.

The dividends will transform the financial structure of Regal, increasing its net debt from $670m to $2.1bn. This has angered the rating agencies, which assess the solvency of companies borrowing on the public markets.

Moody's said it was "pretty mind-boggling" that the company would pay out so much in dividends so soon after emerging from Chapter 11, while Standard & Poor's has cut its rating outlook on Regal to "negative".

Mr Anschutz is no stranger to controversy. Qwest, the American telecoms company he founded, is being investi-gated by the US Securities & Exchange Commission over allegations of mis-statements in its regulatory filings.

A committed Christian, Mr Anschutz has recently started funding family-friendly movies, including a remake of Around the World in 80 Days. He has also bought the rights to the Narnia series written by CS Lewis; the children's books are being made into films by Disney.

Mr Anschutz bought the Millennium Dome from the Government in 2002. Work has yet to start on redeveloping it because of hold-ups in obtaining planning permission.

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