Two More Swiss Banks Reach Resolutions with U.S. Government

Today the Justice Department announced that Société Générale Private Banking (Suisse) SA (SGPB-Suisse) and Berner Kantonalbank AG (BEKB), have reached resolutions under the department’s Swiss Bank Program.  With today’s announcement, a total of eleven Swiss banks have reached resolutions with the U.S. government.  (See prior posts here, here, and here.)  More than 100 banks are believed to have enrolled in the program.

The DOJ press release is set forth, in pertinent part, below:

“As the agreements reached today confirm, Swiss banks that helped U.S. taxpayers to hide foreign accounts and evade their U.S. tax obligations are providing a detailed account of their cross-border banking activities. The banks are naming officers, employees and others who facilitated this conduct, and providing information that helps us track assets that accountholders moved to other banks and other countries,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo of the Department of Justice’s Tax Division.  “Using information gathered from the banks in this program, we have identified and are investigating individuals, both domestic and foreign, who helped U.S. taxpayers dodge their obligations.”

The Swiss Bank Program, which was announced on Aug. 29, 2013, provides a path for Swiss banks to resolve potential criminal liabilities in the United States.  Swiss banks eligible to enter the program were required to advise the department by Dec. 31, 2013, that they had reason to believe that they had committed tax-related criminal offenses in connection with undeclared U.S.-related accounts.  Banks already under criminal investigation related to their Swiss-banking activities and all individuals were expressly excluded from the program.

Under the program, banks are required to:

– 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 the non-prosecution agreements signed today, 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 department’s agreement not to prosecute these banks for tax-related criminal offenses.

SGPB-Suisse has had a presence in Switzerland since 1926, and had a U.S.-licensed representative office in Miami from the early 1990s until it closed on Aug. 26, 2013.  SGPB-Suisse opened and maintained accounts for accountholders who had U.S. tax reporting obligations, and was aware that U.S. taxpayers had a legal duty to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and pay taxes on all of their income, including income earned in SGPB-Suisse accounts.  SGPB-Suisse knew that it was likely that certain U.S. taxpayers who maintained accounts at the bank were not complying with their U.S. income tax obligations.

SGPB-Suisse’s U.S. cross-border banking business aided and assisted some U.S. clients in opening and maintaining undeclared accounts in Switzerland and concealing the assets and income the clients held in their accounts from the IRS.  SGBP-Suisse used a variety of means to assist U.S. clients in hiding their assets and income, including opening and maintaining accounts for U.S. taxpayers in the name of non-U.S. entities, including sham entities, thereby assisting such U.S. taxpayers in concealing their beneficial ownership of the accounts.  Such entities included Panama and British Virgin Island corporations, as well as Liechtenstein foundations.  In two instances, an SGPB-Suisse employee acted as a director of entities that had U.S. taxpayers as beneficial owners.  In another instance, upon the death of the beneficial owner of an entity, the heirs opened accounts held by sham entities at SGPB-Suisse to receive their shares of the assets from the entity account.

SGPB-Suisse further provided numbered accounts, allowing the accountholder to replace his or her identity with a code name or number on documents sent to the client, and held statements and other mail at its offices in Switzerland, rather than sending them to the U.S. taxpayers in the United States.  In addition to these services, SGPB-Suisse:

– Processed requests from U.S. taxpayers for cash or gold withdrawals so as not to trigger any transaction reporting requirements;

– Processed requests from U.S. taxpayers to transfer funds from U.S.-related accounts at SGPB-Suisse to accounts at subsidiaries in Lugano, Switzerland, and the Bahamas;

– Opened accounts for U.S. taxpayers who had left UBS when the department was investigating that bank;

– Processed requests from U.S. taxpayers to transfer assets from accounts being closed to other SGPB-Suisse accounts held by non-U.S. relatives and/or friends; and

– Followed instructions from U.S. beneficial owners to transfer assets to corprate and individual accounts at other banks in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Israel, Lebanon, Liechtenstein and Cyprus.

Throughout its participation in the Swiss Bank Program, SGPB-Suisse committed to full cooperation with the U.S. government.  For example, SGPB-Suisse described in detail the structure of its U.S. cross-border business, including providing a list of the names and functions of individuals who structured, operated or supervised the cross-border business at SGPB-Suisse; a summary of U.S.-related accounts by assets under management; written narrative summaries of 98 U.S.-related accounts; and the circumstances surrounding the closure of relevant accounts holding cash or gold.  SGPB-Suisse also provided information to make treaty requests to the Swiss competent authority for U.S. client account records.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, SGPB-Suisse held and managed approximately 375 U.S.-related accounts, which included both declared and undeclared accounts, with a peak of assets under management of approximately $660 million.  SGPB-Suisse will pay a penalty of $17.807 million.

BEKB was founded in 1834 as Kantonalbank von Bern, the first Swiss cantonal bank.  BEKB is based in the Canton of Bern and presently has 73 branches in Switzerland.  BEKB knew or had reason to know that it was likely that some U.S. taxpayers who maintained accounts at BEKB were not complying with their U.S. reporting obligations.  BEKB opened, serviced and profited from accounts for U.S. clients who were not complying with their income tax obligations.

BEKB provided services that facilitated some U.S. clients in opening and maintaining undeclared accounts in Switzerland and concealing the assets in those accounts and related income.  These services included opening and maintaining numbered accounts, allowing clients to use code names rather than full account numbers and providing hold mail services.  BEKB opened accounts for account holders who exited other Swiss banks and accepted deposits of funds from those banks.  BEKB also processed standing orders from U.S. persons to transfer amounts under $10,000 from their U.S.-related accounts.  In one instance, a relationship manager asked an accountholder, who was a dual Swiss-U.S. citizen living in the United States, about the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and voluntary disclosure.  When the accountholder failed to execute FATCA-related documents, BEKB took steps to close the account.  In connection with that closing, the accountholder withdrew $70,000 and approximately 500,000 Swiss francs in cash.

BEKB committed to full cooperation with the U.S. government throughout its participation in the Swiss Bank Program.  As part of its cooperation, BEKB provided a list of the names and functions of 16 individuals who structured, operated or supervised its cross-border business.  These individuals served as the chairman of the board of directors, members of the executive board, regional managers, heads of departments or heads of divisions.  BEKB additionally provided information concerning its relationship managers and external asset managers, and it described in detail the structure of its cross-border business with U.S. persons, including narrative descriptions of high-value U.S.-related accounts and U.S.-related accounts held by entities.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, BEKB held approximately 720 U.S.-related accounts, which included both undeclared and not undeclared accounts, with total assets of approximately $176.5 million.  BEKB will pay a penalty of $4.619 million.

In accordance with the terms of the Swiss Bank Program, each bank mitigated its penalty by encouraging U.S. accountholders to come into compliance with their U.S. tax and disclosure obligations.  While U.S. accountholders at these banks who have not yet declared their accounts to the IRS may still be eligible to participate in the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, the price of such disclosure has increased.

“These two resolutions with Société Générale Private Banking (Suisse) SA and Berner Kantonalbank AG represent the ongoing commitment by the IRS and the Department of Justice to ensure that U.S. taxpayers report foreign bank accounts and pay taxes on all income earned from those accounts,” said Deputy Commissioner Douglas O’Donnell of the IRS Large Business & International Division.  “We are encouraged by the Justice Department’s program success and look forward to additional information to further our investigations of those who have evaded detection and reporting as well as those who have aided them.”

Most U.S. taxpayers who enter the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program to resolve undeclared offshore accounts will pay a penalty equal to 27.5 percent of the high value of the accounts.  On Aug. 4, 2014, the IRS increased the penalty to 50 percent if, at the time the taxpayer initiated their disclosure, either a foreign financial institution at which the taxpayer had an account or a facilitator who helped the taxpayer establish or maintain an offshore arrangement had been publicly identified as being under investigation, the recipient of a John Doe summons or cooperating with a government investigation, including the execution of a deferred prosecution agreement or non-prosecution agreement.  With today’s announcement of these non-prosecution agreements, noncompliant U.S. accountholders at these banks must now pay that 50 percent penalty to the IRS if they wish to enter the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program.

“The bank agreements announced today continue to change the landscape in the offshore banking world,” said Chief Richard Weber of IRS-Criminal Investigation. “With each additional agreement, the world where criminals can hide their money is becoming smaller and smaller.  Those who circumvent offshore disclosure laws have little room to hide.”

The BEKB non-prosecution agreement can be found here. The SGPB-Suisse non-prosecution agreement can be found here.

Significant Setbacks to U.S. War on Offshore Tax Evasion with Two Not Guilty Verdicts for Offshore Bankers

As reported in this blog and elsewhere over the past few weeks, Raoul Weil was on trial in Florida for conspiring with U.S. taxpayers to hide their assets from the IRS through secret accounts held at UBS AG. Weil was the former third-ranked officer at UBS and head of its wealth management division. He claimed that he was never told about the tax shelters and that he believed that the accounts that he was aware of complied with U.S. laws.

The government put on a number of witnesses, primarily lower-level former UBS employees who had obtained immunity in exchange for testimony and were shown to be unreliable under cross-examination. On Monday morning, defense counsel announced that they were resting their case without calling any witnesses, and closing arguments immediately were heard. The jury deliberated for 90 minutes and returned a not guilty verdict. For more discussion of the case, see Nathan Hale, Ex-UBS Exec Found Not Guilty in Tax Evasion Trial (Law360, 11/03/2014), available here.

Commentators have subsequently suggested that the government erred by charging one single conspiracy involving Weil and all of UBS’s U.S. clients who held secret accounts. Another government error was not appropriately considering the Weil’s ability to re-direct blame to lower-level employees, who directly manage the relationship with the bank’s U.S. clients, and to the U.S. clients themselves, who filed false tax returns with the IRS. See Jack Townsend, Raoul Weil Found Not Guilty, (Federal Tax Crimes, 11/3/14), available here, and Ex-UBS Executive Weil Acquitted in Tax Probe (swissinfo.ch, 11/04/2014), available here.

The other offshore banker to beat federal charges within the past week is Shokrollah Baravarian who was found not guilty on Friday. Mr. Baravarian, a former senior vice president at Mizrahi Bank, was on trial in Los Angeles for conspiring to conceal undeclared bank accounts held by Iranian Jewish exile customers in the U.S. The witnesses marshaled by the government for this trial included several individuals who had been indicted for tax evasion for hiding assets in accounts at Mizrahi Bank but pleaded guilty only to conspiracy, which then allowed the government to charge Mr. Baravarian with conspiracy. The government’s case unraveled when those witnesses testified that there was no agreement with Mr. Baravarian to hide assets from the IRS. After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. For more reporting on the verdict, see Daniel Siegal, Banker Beats Israeli Account Tax Fraud Charges at Trial (Law360, 10/31/2014), available here.

While the government will likely continue to prosecute offshore banks and its bankers, it is unknown how these losses will affect the government’s overall strategy going forward. There are approximately 30 bankers and advisers who have been indicted by the Justice Department living in Switzerland, successfully avoiding extradition. And, approximately 100 Swiss banks had applied to the Justice Department’s amnesty program for Swiss banks, many of which recently pushed back on the obligations the Justice Department was requiring to obtain a non-prosecution agreement. Whether some of those banks drop out of the program in light of the government’s failure in these trials will soon be seen.

IRS and DOJ Crack Down on Cash Reporting Violations

Federal law requires that anyone engaged in a trade or business who receives more than $10,000 in U.S. currency is required to file a Form 8300 (available here) with the Internal Revenue Service.  Failure to do so can subject the individual or business receiving the cash to civil and/or criminal penalties.

A recent criminal prosecution in Texas illustrates the severe consequences for failing to properly report cash transactions using Form 8300.  An electronics business known as D-Tronics was prosecuted for failing to report its receipt of cash in excess of $1.3 million in multiple transactions.  The company pleaded guilty to willfully failing to file Forms 8300 and agreed to forfeit the amount of $1.3 million to the government.  On October 29, 2014, the company was sentenced to one year of probation, and ordered to forfeit the amount of $1.3 million.  The court further ordered that the company and its employees were required to complete training on Form 8300 requirements.  In a press release announcing the sentence (available here), the Justice Department stated that the forfeiture amount in this case “is among the highest against a trade or business for violating the Form 8300 filing requirement.”

On October 25, 2014, the New York Times published an article describing the Internal Revenue Service’s controversial, yet legal, practice of seizing bank accounts when the account holder is suspected of engaging in “structuring.”  “Structuring” refers to the practice of depositing (or withdrawing) funds from a bank account in amounts of less than $10,000, in order to avoid triggering the cash reporting requirement.  The article provided several examples of small business owners who had been subjected to this practice by the IRS yet were not accused, or convicted, of any criminal activity:

 For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

As the article points out, under federal law, the IRS is permitted to seize bank accounts utilizing the civil forfeiture laws even if the account holder is never charged with a crime:

The I.R.S. is one of several federal agencies that pursue such cases and then refer them to the Justice Department. The Justice Department does not track the total number of cases pursued, the amount of money seized or how many of the cases were related to other crimes, said Peter Carr, a spokesman.

But the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm that is seeking to reform civil forfeiture practices, analyzed structuring data from the I.R.S., which made 639 seizures in 2012, up from 114 in 2005. Only one in five was prosecuted as a criminal structuring case.

The practice has swept up dairy farmers in Maryland, an Army sergeant in Virginia saving for his children’s college education and Ms. Hinders, 67, who has borrowed money, strained her credit cards and taken out a second mortgage to keep her restaurant going.

Their money was seized under an increasingly controversial area of law known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agents to take property they suspect of being tied to crime even if no criminal charges are filed. Law enforcement agencies get to keep a share of whatever is forfeited.

Critics say this incentive has led to the creation of a law enforcement dragnet, with more than 100 multiagency task forces combing through bank reports, looking for accounts to seize. Under the Bank Secrecy Act, banks and other financial institutions must report cash deposits greater than $10,000. But since many criminals are aware of that requirement, banks also are supposed to report any suspicious transactions, including deposit patterns below $10,000. Last year, banks filed more than 700,000 suspicious activity reports. Owners who are caught up in structuring cases often cannot afford to fight. The median amount seized by the I.R.S. was $34,000, according to the Institute for Justice analysis, while legal costs can easily mount to $20,000 or more.

There is nothing illegal about depositing less than $10,000cash unless it is done specifically to evade the reporting requirement. But often a mere bank statement is enough for investigators to obtain a seizure warrant. In one Long Island case, the police submitted almost a year’s worth of daily deposits by a business, ranging from $5,550 to $9,910. The officer wrote in his warrant affidavit that based on his training and experience, the pattern “is consistent with structuring.” The government seized $447,000 from the business, a cash-intensive candy and cigarette distributor that has been run by one family for 27 years.

The article further points out that small businesses often have perfectly legitimate reasons for making deposits in amounts less than $10,000:

There are often legitimate business reasons for keeping deposits below $10,000, said Larry Salzman, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who is representing Ms. Hinders and the Long Island family pro bono. For example, he said, a grocery store owner in Fraser, Mich., had an insurance policy that covered only up to $10,000 cash. When he neared the limit, he would make a deposit.

Ms. Hinders said that she did not know about the reporting requirement and that for decades, she thought she had been doing everyone a favor.  “My mom had told me if you keep your deposits under $10,000, the bank avoids paperwork,” she said. “I didn’t actually think it had anything to do with the I.R.S.”

In response to questions from the New York Times, the IRS announced a major policy change to ensure that the government’s civil forfeiture powers are not abused.  In particular, the IRS said it would no longer seek seizure and forfeiture of accounts unless the funds in question were generated by illegal activity or there were exceptional circumstances justifying the exercise of forfeiture: 

After a thorough review of our structuring cases over the last year and in order to provide consistency throughout the country (between our field offices and the U.S. attorney offices) regarding our policies, I.R.S.-C.I. will no longer pursue the seizure and forfeiture of funds associated solely with “legal source” structuring cases unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying the seizure and forfeiture and the case has been approved at the director of field operations (D.F.O.) level.  While the act of structuring — whether the funds are from a legal or illegal source — is against the law, I.R.S.-C.I. special agents will use this act as an indicator that further illegal activity may be occurring.  This policy update will ensure that C.I. continues to focus our limited investigative resources on identifying and investigating violations within our jurisdiction that closely align with C.I.’s mission and key priorities.  The policy involving seizure and forfeiture in “illegal source” structuring cases will remain the same.

 

Wegelin & Co. Account Holder Sentenced to Prison Term

Kordash received cash distributions from his undeclared account at Wegelin and used the account for his antiques business in New York.  Kordash opened the account decades ago, when he was a Russian citizen living in Russia.  He came to the U.S. in 1984, and later became a U.S. citizen.
Wegelin & Co. was the oldest private bank in Switzerland.  In January 2013, the bank pleaded guilty to felony tax charges, thus becoming the first foreign bank to do so.  The bank admitted to conspiring to defraud the United States by helping U.S. account holders hide assets from the IRS in undeclared accounts.  A federal district court also authorized the IRS to issue a “John Doe” summons that allowed the United States to determine the identity of U.S. taxpayers who held accounts at Wegelin and other banks based in Switzerland to evade federal income taxes.

Swiss Banks Pushing Back on Scope of Agreement with U.S. under Amnesty Program

As reported yesterday by David Voreacos, Giles Broom, and Jeffrey Vogeli, 73 of the over 100 Swiss banks that enrolled in the Justice Department’s amnesty program for Swiss banks have written an 11-page letter requesting changes to the Justice Department’s proposed agreement that would serve to resolve any criminal liability relating to banking activity that facilitated offshore tax evasion. According to this report, the Justice Department is including terms in the agreement that were not included in the original program when it was announced in August 2013, with three new significant demands. First, the Justice Department is requiring all participating Swiss banks to “‘cooperate fully’ with ‘any other domestic or foreign law enforcement agency’ in any investigation.” Second, the Justice Department is requiring each participating Swiss bank to disclose information about any parent companies. Finally, the Justice Department is also requiring the Swiss banks to “share material with governments other than the U.S.” See Swiss Banks Ask U.S. to Amend Proposed Tax Amnesty Deals (Bloomberg Oct. 23, 2014); read the full article here.

The Swiss banks appear to be correct that these terms were not included in the program as announced in August 2013 and, further, go well beyond what was anticipated. The demand to cooperate “fully” in virtually any investigation conducted across the globe is extraordinarily broad, and there is likely no legal basis for the U.S. to demand that Swiss banks cooperate or provide information to any other foreign government.

The Justice Department is likely testing the limits of its carrot-and-stick approach – the formula for this program. Swiss banks that do not participate in the program are at risk of becoming the subject of a U.S. criminal investigation, which has already resulted in the closure of Switzerland’s oldest bank, Wegelin & Co., and the payment of a $2.6 billion fine by Credit Suisse Group AG, all within the last two years. While the penalties to be imposed by participating in the amnesty program are high, the risk of a result like that in Wegelin or Credit Suisse surely impacted the banks’ decisions to enroll in the program in the first place. Any bank choosing to opt out of the amnesty program at this point would risk a criminal investigation. Under these circumstances, it appears that the Swiss banks participating in the program have little bargaining power and are essentially at the mercy of the U.S. government.