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.

IRS Clarifies Requirements for Streamlined Filing Procedures

On October 9, 2014, the Internal Revenue Service published additional guidance clarifying the requirements for participation in the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures.  (See prior coverage of the new procedures announced in June 2014 here.)  Here are links to the new guidance published on the IRS website:

  • Updated general description of Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures here;
  • Updated instructions for taxpayers residing in the United States here;
  • Frequently asked questions for domestic taxpayers here;
  • Updated instructions for taxpayers residing outside the United States here;
  • Frequently asked questions for taxpayers residing outside the United States here.

The IRS also released frequently asked questions for the Delinquent International Information Return Submission Procedures (available here).  In a notable change, the IRS now states that these procedures are available to taxpayers even if they have unreported income:

The Delinquent International Information Return Submission Procedures clarify how taxpayers may file delinquent international information returns in cases where there was reasonable cause for the delinquency. Taxpayers who have unreported income or unpaid tax are not precluded from filing delinquent international information returns. Unlike the procedures described in OVDP FAQ 18, penalties may be imposed under the Delinquent International Information Return Submission Procedures if the Service does not accept the explanation of reasonable cause. The longstanding authorities regarding what constitutes reasonable cause continue to apply, and existing procedures concerning establishing reasonable cause, including requirements to provide a statement of facts made under the penalties of perjury, continue to apply. See, for example, Treas. Reg. § 1.6038-2(k)(3), Treas. Reg. § 1.6038A-4(b), and Treas. Reg. § 301.6679-1(a)(3).

We will analyze this guidance and provide further analysis in future posts.

FATCA Notebook: Former IRS Chief, Taxpayer Advocate Criticize FATCA; Switzerland Moves Toward Greater Transparency

This week brings a wealth of news in the FATCA arena, which we summarize in today’s post.

First, former acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller speaks out against FATCA and suggests that the benefits of the new information reporting regime imposed by FATCA may not outweigh its costs. An article published by TaxAnalysts on October 7 quotes Miller as follows:

“I can’t even say with conviction that I’m sure, looking strictly on a cost-benefit basis, that FATCA’s . . . benefits are going to outweigh the cost,” Miller told a lunch crowd at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association FATCA Policy Symposium in Washington. “It’s not clear to me that when you look solely at the burden placed on financial institutions and others, versus the amount of revenue that may come into the treasury, that this is going to be a revenue-positive event for the United States.”

Miller, former deputy commissioner of services and enforcement and a 25-year veteran of the IRS, acknowledged both problems and progress in the implementation of FATCA and said that he believes “offshore evasion is an area in which noncompliance will never be completely eradicated.”

“While I have high hopes that the implementation of FATCA will be successful and of great assistance in this regard, I fear that it’s not going to be a panacea,” Miller said. “I also believe that we have yet to see the full breadth of creativity in terms of the types of assets that will be used into the future to store wealth overseas.”

Second, joining Miller in criticizing FATCA is National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, who also spoke at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association FATCA Policy Symposium. According to an article published by TaxAnalysts on October 8, Olson made the following points in her remarks:

“This is a piece of legislation that is so big and so far-reaching, and [has] so many different moving pieces, and is rolling out in an incremental fashion . . . that you really won’t be able to know what its consequences are, intended or otherwise,’ Olson said. “I don’t think we’ll know that for years. And by that point we’ll actually be a little too late to go, “Oops, my bad, we shouldn’t have done this,’ and then try to unwind it.”

. . .

The raw numbers so far tell a confusing tale, Olson said. In 2011, 170,000 taxpayers filed Form 8938, “Statement of Specified Foreign Financial Assets”; 187,000 filed Form 8938 in 2012, she said. Forty-one percent of 2011 filers also filed a foreign bank account report, she added. However, in 2012 only 21 percent of Form 8938 filers had a foreign address, Olson noted.

“I really don’t know what people’s assumptions were when they enacted this requirement,” Olson said. “Did we expect to get 7 million? Did we expect to get 10 million? Did we expect to get 500,000? Is this a good result? Is this a bad result?” Just one-half of 1 percent of Form 8938 filers had a balance due account after getting notices, compared with 4 percent for the general taxpayer population, she noted.

Olson further noted in her remarks that a new cottage industry has sprouted as a result of FATCA: after foreign banks expressed reluctance to open accounts for some U.S. taxpayers overseas, some businesses began offering insurance to protect against incomplete FATCA disclosures. “So here we now have created a whole new industry for a risk we have manufactured ourselves,” Olson said.

Finally, Switzerland announced on October 8 that it would move toward automatic exchange of bank account information with other countries, including the EU and the United States. (See articles here and here.) If adopted, the earliest date for automatic exchange of data would be 2018 and the new reporting regime would require Switzerland to notify an account holder’s country of origin if a Swiss bank account is opened. Switzerland also announced that it would seek to negotiate a Model 1 Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the United States to implement FATCA, to replace the Swiss-U.S. Model 2 IGA that was reached in February 2013.  In a press release, the Swiss Federal Council made the following statements regarding its decision to implement greater transparency in its tax dealings: 

The cornerstones of the mandates definitively adopted by the Federal Council today are as follows:

– The introduction of the automatic exchange of information is to be negotiated with the EU.

– Regarding implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a Model 1 FATCA agreement should be with negotiated with the United States. With the new agreement, data would be exchanged automatically between the competent authorities on a reciprocal basis.

– Negotiations on the automatic exchange of information will be initiated with further selected countries. In an initial phase, consideration will be given to countries with which there are close economic and political ties and which, if appropriate, provide their taxpayers with sufficient scope for regularisation.

– The introduction of the automatic exchange of information with foreign countries will be conducted by means of agreements with partner countries. Moreover, implementing legislation will be required in national law. This is currently being prepared by the Federal Department of Finance and will be submitted to parliament together with the negotiated agreements. The existing legislative framework excludes the automatic exchange of information.

Switzerland welcomes the new international standard, to which it contributed actively. It allows for a level playing field in the competition between financial centres, as these regulations apply to all, and is an important instrument in international efforts to combat tax evasion. Domestic bank client confidentiality will not be affected by the implementation of the new global standard.

It is important for the Federal Council that the requirements which it adopted in June 2013 are contained in the new standard. There is to be only one global standard, the exchanged information should be used solely for the agreed purpose (principle of speciality), the information should be reciprocal, i.e. should flow in both directions, data protection must be ensured and the beneficial owners of trusts and other financial constructs should also be identified. Moreover, the Federal Council has stated that the issues of regularisation of the past and market access are to be addressed and solutions sought in negotiations on the automatic exchange of information with the EU and EU member states.

 

DOJ Offshore Enforcement Update: In Landmark Case, Credit Suisse Pleads Guilty, Agrees to Pay $2.6 Billion Penalty; Swiss Bank Program Continues to Move Forward

Yesterday, the Department of Justice announced that Credit Suisse AG pleaded guilty to having assisted U.S. taxpayers in evading the payment of U.S. taxes and agreed to pay a penalty of $2.6 billion. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole described this announcement as “an historic guilty plea” and “the largest monetary penalty of any criminal tax case ever.”

Attorney General Eric Holder described the conduct of Credit Suisse as follows:

The bank actively helped its account holders to deceive the IRS by concealing assets and income in illegal, undeclared bank accounts.   These secret offshore accounts were held in the names of sham entities and foundations.   This conspiracy spanned decades. In the case of at least one wholly-owned subsidiary, the practice of using sham entities to conceal funds began more than a century ago.   Credit Suisse not only knew about this illegal, cross-border banking activity; they willfully aided and abetted it.  Hundreds of Credit Suisse employees, including at the manager level, conspired to help tax cheats dodge U.S. taxes.

 In the course of these activities, Credit Suisse deceived the IRS, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice.   The bank went to elaborate lengths to shield itself, its employees, and the tax cheats it served from accountability for their criminal actions.   They subverted disclosure requirements, destroyed bank records, and concealed transactions involving undeclared accounts by limiting withdrawal amounts and using offshore credit and debit cards to repatriate funds.   They failed to take even the most basic steps to ensure compliance with tax laws.   And when the bank finally began to feel pressure to correct illegal practices and comply with the law – as a result of the Justice Department’s investigation, of which they were notified in 2010 – Credit Suisse failed to retain key documents, allowed evidence to be lost or destroyed, and conducted a shamefully inadequate internal inquiry.

The Statement of Facts can be found here; the plea agreement can be found here. Credit Suisse must now disclose all evidence and information about its U.S. accounts that is required by the Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements of Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks (“Swiss Bank Program”). This includes, among other things, information on how its cross-border business operated; how Credit Suisse attracted and serviced its account holders; and the total number of accounts held by U.S. persons with the maximum dollar value. Credit Suisse must also supply the number of U.S. persons affiliated with each account, identify whether each account was held by an individual or entity, disclose the name of any financial advisor, attorney or other representative associated with the account, and reveal detailed information about what funds were transferred into and out of the account. The DOJ may then make treaty requests to Switzerland for actual account records that would reveal the names of those U.S. account holders. Unlike the situation with UBS where UBS agreed to pay $780 million and turned over the names of approximately 4,000 U.S. account holders after being specifically authorized to do so by the Swiss government, Switzerland has not enacted legislation that would specifically permit Credit Suisse to turn over U.S. account holder names to the DOJ without violating Swiss banking secrecy laws.

Regarding the Swiss Bank Program, Kathryn Keneally, Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Tax Division, spoke at an American Bar Association Section of Taxation meeting last week and stated that Swiss banks that are participating in the program are making disclosures to the DOJ about accounts held by individual U.S. taxpayers. She urged anyone who has not yet come clean to make a disclosure through the U.S. Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative (OVDI) but noted that it may be too late for some people who have already been identified as a result of the information provided via the program. She also noted that some Swiss banks in the program are offering to pay part of the penalty on behalf of its account holders who apply and are accepted to the OVDI. She also mentioned that the DOJ has expanded its efforts beyond Switzerland, with activities in Israel, India, and in the Caribbean. See Allison Bennett, Nonprosecution Program for Swiss Banks Providing Significant Amount of Information (Bloomberg BNA 5/13/2014). [Our full breakdown of the Swiss Bank Program can be found here].

IRS RELEASES BITCOIN GUIDANCE; MAY HAVE A CHILLING EFFECT ON VIRTUAL CURRENCY

Last week, the IRS released IRS Notice 2014-21 (the “Notice”), its first guidance on the income tax treatment of virtual currency, including, bitcoin. A copy of the notice can be obtained at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-14-21.pdf.

There are three important points to note from the Notice:

1. A Potential Accounting Nightmare For Bitcoin Spenders. According to the Notice, bitcoin is treated as property, not currency, for income tax reporting purposes. This position has far-reaching implications for any taxpayer that invests in, and regularly spends, bitcoin. As property, gains recognized on the disposition of bitcoin investments is subject to tax, similar to the income tax treatment of sales of stock. However, unlike stock, bitcoin is disposed of in everyday, mundane transactions. For example, several coffee shops in the U.S. accept bitcoin as payment. Every time a U.S. taxpayer pays with bitcoin he/she has a taxable transaction that must be reported at the end of the year on the individual’s income tax return. The amount of gain or loss recognized on such a transaction will require taxpayers to keep very detailed records of all bitcoin that is purchased and subsequently disposed of. The Notice does not indicate that there is a de minimis exception to the rule.

2. If Bitcoin is in a Foreign Account, an Even Bigger Nightmare. Whether a bitcoin account is subject to the FBAR reporting rules is an issue that practitioners are struggling with. We do not attempt to tackle this issue in this post (but plan on addressing this at a later time). However, assuming, solely for these purposes, that a bitcoin account is subject to the FBAR reporting rules, paying for a cup of coffee using bitcoin can cause the account to become a non-compliant asset for purposes of the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“Program”). The Program, pursuant to FAQ 17, permits taxpayers who are tax compliant, but merely failed to file a FBAR, to avoid the strict penalty structure of the Program and simply file back-FBARs without penalty. If bitcoin was used to pay for goods or services, and the transaction was not reported on a taxpayer’s income tax return, then the bitcoin account is not tax compliant, and the taxpayer would not be able to rely on FAQ 17. If the taxpayer decides to clear up past noncompliance through the Program, the taxpayer’s bitcoin account may be subject to the 27.5% penalty.

3. Bitcoin Investors Rejoice. The Notice is not bad news for all taxpayers who invest in bitcoin. By treating bitcoin as property, gains on the sale of bitcoin that are held for longer than one year are eligible for the lower capital-gains rate. Note this rule does not apply to taxpayers who hold bitcoin as inventory or who buy and sell bitcoin as part of a trade or business.