The Justice Department achieved a historic milestone in its ground-breaking Swiss Bank Program with its announcement today of the final Category 2 bank resolution. The Justice Department executed its 80th and final agreement with HSZH Verwaltungs AG, which agreed to pay a civil penalty of more than $49 million. All told, the 80 Category 2 Swiss banks which resolved their criminal tax exposure with the U.S. government will pay more than $1.36 billion in penalties. Perhaps even more importantly, every Category 2 bank in the Swiss Bank Program is required to cooperate in any future related criminal or civil proceedings, thereby ensuring that the Justice Department will have the complete assistance from each bank as the U.S. government pursues leads throughout the world.
By all accounts, the Swiss Bank Program appears to have been an incredible success for the Justice Department (and IRS) in its efforts to combat offshore tax evasion. Never before had the U.S. government offered an amnesty program to the entire banking industry in a particular country, and at the time the program was unveiled in 2013, it was not clear that the program would be a success or that Swiss banks would be interested. But given the overwhelming demonstration of interest from Swiss banks, the substantial monetary penalties collected, and the wealth of information shared with the U.S., the program can fairly be declared a significant win for the U.S. government. Given the success of the Swiss Bank Program, it will be interesting to see whether the Justice Department offers a similar program to banks in other countries or regions.
Today’s press release included the following quote from the Attorney General thanking the Swiss government for its efforts in making the Swiss Bank Program so successful:
“The Department of Justice is committed to aggressively pursuing tax evasion, and the Swiss Bank Program has been a central component of that effort,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “Through this initiative, we have uncovered those who help facilitate evasion schemes and those who hide funds in secret offshore accounts. We have improved our ability to return tax dollars to the United States. And we have pursued investigations into banks and individuals. I would like to thank the Swiss government for their cooperation in this effort, and I look forward to continuing our work together to root out fraud and corruption wherever it is found.”
Other Justice Department officials echoed the Attorney General’s sentiments, and noted that the Swiss Bank Program has provided the DOJ and IRS with a wealth of information that is being mined for leads that are being pursued civilly and criminally throughout the world:
“The department’s Swiss Bank Program has been a successful, innovative effort to get the financial institutions that facilitated fraud on the American tax system to come forward with information about their wrongdoing – and to ensure that they are held responsible for it,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery. “As we have seen over the last year, Swiss banks are paying an appropriate penalty for their misconduct, and the information and continuing cooperation we have required the banks to provide in order to participate in the program is allowing us to systematically attack offshore tax avoidance schemes.”
“The completion of the agreements under Category 2 of the Swiss Bank Program represents a substantial milestone in the department’s ongoing efforts to combat offshore tax evasion, and we remain committed to holding financial institutions, professionals and individual taxpayers accountable for their respective roles in concealing foreign accounts and assets, and evading U.S. tax obligations,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo of the Justice Department’s Tax Division. “Using the flood of information flowing from various sources, the department is investigating this criminal conduct, referring appropriate matters to the Internal Revenue Service for civil enforcement and pursuing leads in jurisdictions well beyond Switzerland. Individuals and entities engaged in offshore tax evasion are well advised to come forward now, because the window to get to us before we get to you is rapidly closing.”
Top officials from the Internal Revenue Service similarly commended today’s announcement, noting that more than 54,000 taxpayers have come forward to voluntarily disclose their previously-undisclosed offshore assets:
“Today’s resolution with HSZH Verwaltungs AG brings to a close this phase of DOJ’s Swiss Bank Program,” said acting Deputy Commissioner International David Horton of the IRS Large Business & International Division. “The comprehensive success of this program sends a powerful message to those who might think they can evade their tax obligations by going offshore. A whole sector of financial institutions, 80 banks in all, has been held accountable for aiding the use of secret accounts and circumventing U.S. law. In addition to the more than $1.3 billion in penalties from these resolutions, more than 54,000 taxpayers have come forward to the IRS to pay more than $8 billion in taxes, interest and penalties.”
“The bank agreement with HSZH announced today may bring an end to one phase of the Swiss Bank Program, but more importantly it brings us closer to our overall goal of compliance and accountability for financial institutions and U.S. taxpayers,” said Chief Richard Weber of IRS-Criminal Investigation. “The data received from each agreement on the accounts, schemes and linkages is extremely valuable in combating international tax evasion. I could not be more proud of the effort of our special agents who worked tirelessly to make this program a success in coordination with the Department of Justice.”
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.
Taxpayers who have still not “come clean” and declared their offshore assets may still take advantage of various IRS programs, such as the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program or the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures, but the price of admission has now increased if they had accounts at HSZH:
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 this non-prosecution agreement, noncompliant U.S. accountholders at HSZH must now pay that 50 percent penalty to the IRS if they wish to enter the IRS Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program.