A global investigation based on leaked banking documents has opened a crack of sunlight into the exclusive and highly-secretive world of Swiss banking and the manner in which the world's criminal elite hide their vast wealth, launder their profits, and avoid tax payments from governments around the globe.
Published by a consortium of international media outlets on Sunday, the trove of leaked banking documents—considered to be the largest of its kind in history—reveals how a Swiss division of the U.K.-based HSBC bank colluded with clients from around the globe to shield billions of dollars in assets as a way to maintain secrecy and avoid taxes in the clients' home countries.
As the Guardian reports:
The HSBC files, which cover the period 2005-2007, amount to the biggest banking leak in history, shedding light on some 30,000 accounts holding almost $120bn (£78bn) of assets.
The revelations will amplify calls for crackdowns on offshore tax havens and stoke political arguments in the US, Britain and elsewhere in Europe where exchequers are seen to be fighting a losing battle against fleet-footed and wealthy individuals in the globalised world.
The files themselves were first obtained by a former IT expert turned whistleblower, named Hervé Falciani, who worked for HSBC. Falciani fled from the U.K. to France where he gave over the files to French regulators who then shared them with authorities in other countries for the purpose of investigations into the bank's activities. Only recently, however, were the files made available to an international collaboration of news outlets, including the Guardian, the French daily Le Monde, BBC Panorama and the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. After reviewing their contents, the outlets are making their own examination of the documents public for the first time.
As Agence France-Presse notes, the revelations contained in the files "are likely to stoke calls for a crackdown on sophisticated tax avoidance by the wealthy and by multinational companies."
According to the Guardian, the key documents reveal how the division of HSBC:
• Routinely allowed clients to withdraw bricks of cash, often in foreign currencies of little use in Switzerland.
• Aggressively marketed schemes likely to enable wealthy clients to avoid European taxes.
• Colluded with some clients to conceal undeclared “black” accounts from their domestic tax authorities.
• Provided accounts to international criminals, corrupt businessmen and other high-risk individuals.
The Guardian also produced this narrative video to explain the story:
For its part, the ICIJ created an online, searchable archive of the documents, broken down by country and the individuals involved in the tax avoidance schemes.
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The BBC reports:
Offshore accounts are not illegal, but many people use them to hide cash from the tax authorities. And while tax avoidance is perfectly legal, deliberately hiding money to evade tax is not.
The revelations have sparked formal investigations in several countries, with the bank facing criminal investigations in the US, France, Belgium and Argentina.
India's finance minister Arun Jaitley has said that all names on the list will be investigated, although he cautioned that some accounts might be legitimate. A current inquiry looking into more than 600 people who hold accounts overseas, will now be widened to look into the the current list of names.
The French authorities concluded in 2013 that 99.8% of their citizens on the list were probably evading tax.
Falciani, the whistleblower, remains in France under protection and was featured on Sunday evening's 60 Minutes news program on CBS.
According to 60 Minutes, the fallout over the leaked data "is shaking the Swiss banking world to its core. It contains names, nationalities, account information, deposit amounts - but most remarkable are these detailed notes revealing the private dealings between HSBC and its clients."
Quoted during the segment, former tax investigator at the US Senate Jack Blum said, "For the average American taxpayer it’s beyond shocking. But, perhaps, not that surprising. Swiss banks have been caught protecting tax dodgers before, but never has this much detail been revealed."
In addition, Blum continued, "Under US law, any bank that does that, that assists a US person in evading US tax is guilty of a felony. And it doesn’t matter where the bank is located or where the bankers are located."
According to a separate Guardian report on the leaks, the United States government will likely "come under intense pressure this week to explain what action it took after receiving" access to the documents.
"The disclosure amounts to one of the biggest banking leaks in history shedding light on some 30,000 accounts holding almost $120bn (£78bn) of assets," the newspaper reports. "Of those, around 2,900 clients were connected to the US, providing the IRS with a trail of evidence of potential American taxpayers who may have been hiding assets in Geneva."
Following a Senate investigation into the matter which resulted in a hefty report published 2013 and fines against HSBC—but crucially no criminal charges or prosecutions of top bank officials—the outcome so far has appeared to continue the pattern that while petty thieves in the U.S. can end up in jail for their crimes, bankers and their clients who swindle millions (or billions) from taxpayers will never face such treatment.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said at the time, "HSBC paid a fine, but no individual went to trial, no individual was banned from banking and there was no hearing to consider shutting down HSBC’s actives in the US... How many billions of dollars do you have to launder for drug lords and how many sanctions do you have to violate before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution like this?"
In response to Sunday's reporting from the various news outlets, including the 60 Minutes report, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) indicated new hearings should now be scheduled and declared, "I will be very interested to hear the government’s full explanation of its actions – or lack thereof – upon learning of these allegations in 2010."