Three More Swiss Banks Have Secured Non-Prosecution Agreements with the DOJ

Since our last update, three more Swiss banks have reached resolutions with the Justice Department under its Swiss Bank Program –Valiant Bank AG, Schroder & Co. Bank AG, and Hypothekarbank Lenzburg AG. To resolve their respective tax-related criminal offenses, Valiant Bank agreed to pay a penalty of $3.3 million, Schroder Bank agreed to pay a penalty of $10.3 million, and HBL agreed to pay a penalty of $560,000.

In press releases, the DOJ described the relevant conduct of each of the banks in relation to their U.S. accountholders as follows:

Valiant Bank (announced yesterday)

Valiant traces its origins to 1824 and is headquartered in Bern, the capital of Switzerland.  Today, Valiant is the successor of 40 banks.

Valiant offered hold mail services and numbered accounts to its U.S. clients, including some U.S. clients who had not provided Valiant with an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form W-9.  Valiant also accepted funds from 19 UBS accountholders who exited UBS.  Eleven of these 19 U.S. persons provided a signed Form W-9.  The remaining eight U.S. persons who did not were later forced to close their Valiant accounts.

For 26 accountholders who refused to sign a Form W-9, Valiant cashed out or converted into gold hundreds of thousands (and even millions) of dollars in account balances.  In late November 2011, one accountholder withdrew more than one million Swiss francs in various currencies and 114,000 Swiss francs in gold coins, gold bars and precious metal.  Another accountholder withdrew $2 million in cash and wired 400,000 Swiss francs to a U.S. bank.  In both instances, the accountholders refused to sign a Form W-9.  Other accountholders withdrew only amounts under $10,000 either by U.S. dollar cash withdrawals or by check or wire transfer to the United States, or transferred large sums to non-U.S. institutions.  For example, one accountholder transferred over 435,000 euros to France and $350,000 to Luxembourg.  Two other accountholders each transferred 75,000 Swiss francs to Dubai and closed their accounts with cash withdrawals of over 300,000 Swiss francs.

In 2009, an accountholder refused to sign a Form W-9 and requested that Valiant ignore the accountholder’s U.S. status.  The accountholder’s non-U.S. spouse later opened a separate account at Valiant, and the accountholder transferred more than $1 million into that account.  According to an “Agreement of Donation” between the accountholder and the accountholder’s non-U.S. spouse, the purpose of the transfer was “to make a donation” and “without any consideration.”  The agreement provided that the donation was “irrevocable.”  The non-U.S. spouse then transferred the funds to UBS and instructed Valiant to close the account.

Some U.S.-related accounts at Valiant were held in the name of non-U.S. entities with one or more U.S. beneficial owners.  In one case, a British Virgin Islands entity opened an account at Valiant through a third-party Swiss entity assigned to manage the account.  The entity holding the account designated four U.S. persons as beneficial owners, but signed a Valiant form declaring that the account was for the benefit of non-U.S. persons.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, Valiant had 330 U.S.-related accounts, out of a total of 600,000 accounts.  The maximum aggregate dollar value of the U.S.-related accounts was $147.4 million.  Valiant will pay a penalty of $3.304 million.

Schroder Bank (announced 9/3/2015)

Schroder Bank was founded in 1967 and received its Swiss banking license in 1970.  Since 1984, Schroder Bank has had a branch in Geneva.  The bank has two wholly owned subsidiaries, Schroder Trust AG (domiciled in Geneva) and Schroder Cayman Bank & Trust Company Ltd. (domiciled in George Town, Grand Cayman).  Schroder Cayman Bank & Trust Company Ltd. provides services to clients such as the creation and support of trusts, foundations and other corporate bodies.  Both subsidiaries also acted in some cases as an account signatory for entities holding an account with the bank.  Schroder Bank is in the process of closing the operations of Schroder Trust AG and Schroder Cayman Bank & Trust Company Ltd.

Schroder Bank opened accounts for trusts and companies owned by trusts, foundations and other corporate bodies established and incorporated under the laws of the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Panama, Liechtenstein and other non-U.S. jurisdictions, where the beneficiary or beneficial owner named on the Form A was a U.S. citizen or resident.  In addition, a small number of accounts were opened for U.S. limited liability companies (LLCs) with U.S. citizens or residents as members, as well as for U.S. LLCs with non-U.S. persons as members.  Schroder Bank communicated directly with the beneficial owners of some accounts of trusts, foundations or corporate bodies, and it arranged for the issuance of credit cards to the beneficial owners of some such accounts that appear in some cases to have been used for personal expenses.

Schroder Bank also processed cash withdrawals in amounts exceeding $100,000 or the Swiss franc equivalent.  For at least three U.S.-related accounts, a series of withdrawals that in aggregate exceeded $1 million were made.  In addition, at least 26 U.S.-related accountholders received cash or checks in amounts exceeding $100,000 on closure of their accounts, including in at least three cases cash or checks in excess of $1 million.

Between 2004 and 2008, four Schroder Bank employees traveled to the U.S. in connection with the bank’s business with respect to U.S.-related accounts.  In 2008, Swiss bank UBS AG publicly announced that it was the target of a criminal investigation by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the department, and that it would be exiting and no longer accepting certain U.S. clients.  In a later deferred prosecution agreement, UBS admitted that its cross-border banking business used Swiss privacy law to aid and assist U.S. clients in opening accounts and maintaining undeclared assets and income from the IRS.  Between Aug. 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, Schroder Bank opened eight U.S.-related accounts with funds received from UBS, which was then under investigation by the U.S. government.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, Schroder Bank had 243 U.S.-related accounts with approximately $506 million in assets under management.  Schroder Bank will pay a $10.354 million penalty.

Hypothekarbank Lenzburg AG (announced 8/27/2015)

HBL offered a variety of traditional Swiss banking services that it knew could assist, and that did assist, U.S. clients in the concealment of assets and income from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  For example, HBL, upon client request, did not send mail associated with some U.S.-related accounts to the United States.  In addition, HBL offered numbered accounts to its clients, a service by which access to information about an account, including the identity of the accountholder, was limited to only certain employees of HBL.  In a handful of instances, the accountholders of U.S.-related accounts who refused to provide a Form W-9 or who admitted that they were not tax compliant withdrew significant amounts of cash or physical assets when HBL forced these accounts to be closed.

In or about 2008, Swiss bank UBS AG publicly announced that it was the target of a criminal investigation by the IRS and the department, and that it would be exiting and no longer accepting certain U.S. clients.  In a later deferred prosecution agreement, UBS admitted that its cross-border banking business used Swiss privacy law to aid and assist U.S. clients in opening accounts and maintaining undeclared assets and income from the IRS.  HBL opened one account for a U.S. person who exited UBS.  For another long-standing holder of a U.S.-related account, HBL received a transfer of funds from an account held at UBS into a pre-existing account at HBL.

Another accountholder who resided in the United States for many years had two accounts, one of which was a numbered account.  In 2012, the accountholder’s relationship manager requested a Form W-9 for the numbered account and the accountholder refused to provide one.  As a result, the relationship manager directed the accountholder to close the numbered account.  Thereafter, the accountholder came to Lenzburg to close the numbered account.  The accountholder withdrew 240,000 Swiss francs and 12,000 euros and purchased precious metals in the amount of 318,000 Swiss francs.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, HBL had 96 U.S.-related accounts with an aggregate value of $69.8 million.  HBL’s average annual revenue attributable to U.S.-related accounts in the form of fees, commissions and earnings on client funds that were loaned out by HBL was $198,000, or a total of $1.2 million since Aug. 1, 2008.  HBL will pay a penalty of $560,000.

Under the Swiss Bank Program, eligible Swiss banks that had notified the DOJ by December 31, 2013 of an intent to participate in the Program were eligible to resolve any potential criminal liabilities in the U.S. by completing the following:

  • Make a complete disclosure of their cross-border activities;
  • Provide detailed information on an account-by-account basis for accounts in which U.S. taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest;
  • Cooperate in treaty requests for account information;
  • Provide detailed information as to other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed;
  • Agree to close accounts of accountholders who fail to come into compliance with U.S. reporting obligations; and
  • Pay appropriate penalties

Swiss banks meeting all of the above requirements are eligible for a non-prosecution agreement.

According to the terms of these non-prosecution agreements, each bank agrees to cooperate in any related criminal or civil proceedings, demonstrate its implementation of controls to stop misconduct involving undeclared U.S. accounts and pay penalties in return for the DOJ’s agreement not to prosecute these banks for tax-related criminal offenses.

The Justice Department released the following documents with each of these announcements:

  • The Valiant Bank non-prosecution agreement and statement of facts (available here).
  • The Schroder Bank non-prosecution agreement and statement of facts (available here).
  • The HBL non-prosecution agreement and statement of facts (available here).

OECD Releases Its Annual Tax Administration Report

On August 11, 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its annual report addressing global tax administration. The OECD’s stated mission is to “promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.” The OECD describes its annual report as follows:

Tax Administration 2015, produced under the auspices of the Forum on Tax Administration, is a unique and comprehensive survey of tax administration systems, practices and performance across 56 advanced and emerging economies (including all OECD, EU, and G20 members). Its starting point is the premise that revenue bodies can be better informed and work more effectively together given a broad understanding of the administrative context in which each operates. However, its information content is also likely to be of interest to many external parties (e.g. academics, external audit agencies, regional tax bodies, and international bodies providing technical assistance).

The series identifies some of the fundamental elements of national tax system administration and uses data, analyses and country examples to identify key trends, comparative levels of performance, recent and planned developments, and good practices.

This edition updates performance-related and descriptive material contained in prior editions with new data up to end-fiscal year 2013, and supplements this information on some new topics (e.g. aspects of compliance management and strategic priorities for increased use of on-line services). It also includes coverage of four additional countries (i.e. Costa Rica, Croatia, Morocco, and Thailand).

Of particular interest in this report is the OECD’s finding regarding voluntary disclosure programs for non-compliant taxpayers. With the increased focus on offshore tax evasion by many countries, and the implementation of policies regarding the exchange of tax information among nations (including FATCA in the U.S., which is effective now, and the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard, which is just over the horizon), it is expected that taxpayers in many countries will be making greater use of voluntary disclosure programs. In the U.S., for example, the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program for taxpayers with offshore bank accounts is the most successful voluntary disclosure program ever offered by the U.S. tax authority.

A press release announcing publication of Tax Administration 2015, and its key findings, is set forth below.

Tax administrations continue to face the challenges of improving their performance while reducing costs, decreasing compliance burdens for taxpayers tackling non-compliance. Improving taxpayer services, while making non-compliance harder, is helping revenue bodies increase their efficiency and allowing governments to finance important programmes that will further benefit their citizens.

Tax Administration 2015 is the sixth edition of the OECD’s comparative information series on tax administration. The report, which surveys 56 advanced and emerging economies (including all OECD, EU, and G20 countries), includes for the first time information: Costa Rica, Croatia, Morocco and Thailand. The series identifies fundamental elements of modern tax administration systems and uses data, analyses and examples to identify key performance trends, recent innovations, and examples of good practice.

Among the many findings and observations, the report in particular highlights:

— Significant organisational change – 40% of revenue bodies reported that they are currently managing the addition of new business activities, amalgamation with other government service providers, and consolidation of work and their office network, at a time when 60% saw reductions in staffing, with significant reductions in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

— Strong investment in digital services– driven by customer expectation and productivity demands revenue administrations have invested significantly in digital on-the-go services. Average IT expenditure as a percentage of the total budget remained constant at 9.5%. Notable exceptions were Austria, Finland, Singapore and Norway where approximately 25% of the total budget is spent on IT.

— Better connected e-services, and future opportunity– while 95% of all revenue bodies offer the opportunity to file returns electronically, and over two thirds achieve usage over 75%, more could be done to move other aspects of the end-to-end process, including assessment, amendment and payment into a more integrated digital service.

— Improving outstanding tax debt position – Total tax debt for OECD member countries rose marginally in 2011 to 2013, from around 22% to just over 24% of net annual revenue collections. This ratio is however significantly impacted by two abnormal “outliers” which when removed change the results for OECD countries to show a decrease from 12.7% in 2011 to 11.1% of annual net revenue collections in 2013.  Notably seven revenue bodies: Estonia, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have a collection to debt ratio of less than 5%. Improvements in collection performance can generally be attributed to:

-Strong management information systems;

-Well-developed analytics tools to guide use of extensive enforcement powers;

-Extensive use of tax withholding at source arrangements;

-Wide use of electronic payment methods; and

-Significant investment in information technology

— Improving management of large taxpayers – over 85% of revenue bodies have adopted the structured ‘co-operative compliance model’ recommended by the OECD, for managing their largest taxpayers. One-third use similar arrangements to manage the tax affairs of High Net Worth Individuals.

— Tax gap measurement on the increase – 43% of revenue bodies report they undertake or are researching estimates of the aggregate tax gap for some or all of the major taxes administered.

— Greater use of disclosure policies to improve tax compliance and bolster tax revenues — despite two-thirds of OECD member countries reporting that their tax law permits voluntary disclosures only 40% have a policy to encourage taxpayers to use these. Further only 11 member countries were able to report the results achieved from their voluntary disclosure programme. With the imminent implementation of automatic exchange of financial account information, it is expected that there will be greater interest in these programmes. See the recent report Update on Voluntary Disclosure Programmes: A Pathway to Tax Compliance.

— Electronic matching of VAT invoices continues to expand – with growing concerns about the VAT non-compliance, a relatively large number of revenue bodies, including many in Europe and Latin America, are successfully  using systems to process bulk VAT invoice data for compliance risk management and fraud detection.