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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Justice Department Announces Swiss Bank Program Resolutions with Two More Banks

The Department of Justice announced today that SB Saanen Bank AG and Privatbank Bellerive AG have reached resolutions under the department’s Swiss Bank Program.

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.

SB Saanen Bank AG is headquartered in Saanen, Switzerland.  It was founded in 1874 and has branches in the neighboring villages of Gstaad, Gsteig and Lauenen, as well as a retail office in Schönried. 

Prior to Aug. 1, 2008, and thereafter, SB Saanen accepted accounts from U.S. taxpayers, some of whom had undeclared accounts and wished to take advantage of Swiss bank secrecy laws.  SB Saanen offered a variety of traditional Swiss banking services which could and did assist U.S. clients in concealing assets and income from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), including numbered or pseudonym accounts and holding mail at the bank.  These services helped U.S. clients to eliminate the presence of documents in the United States that associated the U.S. taxpayer’s name with the undeclared assets and income they held at SB Saanen in Switzerland.  In some instances, SB Saanen permitted accounts to be closed with large cash withdrawals, precious metals or transfers of funds to accounts held by non-U.S. persons.  SB Saanen had reason to believe that such an accountholder was taking that action to avoid detection by U.S. tax authorities. 

In December 2008, SB Saanen’s board of directors decided that it should continue to manage U.S. clients and open new accounts for U.S. clients on the condition that they had a “link to our region or one of our relationship managers.”  As a result, SB Saanen opened accounts for some U.S. taxpayers who transferred accounts from other Swiss institutions that were closing such accounts.  SB Saanen knew, or had reason to know, that two of those accounts were undeclared.  SB Saanen continued to service U.S. taxpayers even though it had reason to believe that some of them were evading U.S. taxes. 

An SB Saanen procedural manual, dated November 2009 and related to the directive, warned its employees to minimize U.S-related contacts with undeclared U.S. clients.  The manual required relationship managers to obtain an IRS Form W-9 for new U.S. clients and stated, with respect to existing U.S. clients, that “clients who do not want disclosure to the IRS (American tax authority) may not be contacted at all in the U.S.A. and/or other countries!  Contact is only permissible within [Switzerland].” 

In 2009, SB Saanen implemented a policy with respect to foreign travel by its relationship managers.  Pursuant to that policy, travel was permitted to the United States to meet with U.S. clients so long as it was approved in advance by SB Saanen’s chief executive officer and subject to restrictions.  For example, under the policy, SB Saanen declared that “No files may be taken abroad,” relationship managers must “complete a training course,” relationship managers “may not actively acquire” new customers, there was to be “no signing of business documents” or “accepting of orders” or providing “investment advice,” and bank employees were prohibited from “handing over cash, securities, or objects.”  In 2010 and 2011, SB Saanen’s then-head of private banking, who is no longer employed by the bank, traveled to the United States to entertain U.S. clients at the U.S. Open tennis championship in Flushing Meadows, New York. 

Since Aug. 1, 2008, SB Saanen maintained three U.S.-related accounts for individual U.S. taxpayers who opened the account in the name of a non-U.S. entity, such as offshore corporations or trusts.  Those three accounts comprised an aggregate value of approximately $5 million.  SB Saanen was not involved in creating these entities, but it was aware that some U.S. clients created and used such non-U.S. entities to hold Swiss bank accounts to avoid their disclosure to, or otherwise be concealed from, U.S. tax authorities. 

The undeclared U.S.-related accounts maintained at SB Saanen include one instance in 2011 where SB Saanen assisted a U.S. taxpayer-client in the transfer of securities from his undeclared account to that of a Jersey company with a non-U.S. person as its beneficial owner.  SB Saanen allowed the transfer of funds even though the Jersey corporation had not completed all required bank documents.  In January and March 2012, the U.S. accountholder closed his account and transferred an additional $4.3 million to an account at SB Saanen held in the name of his wife, who was not a U.S. citizen. 

Since Aug. 1, 2008, SB Saanen maintained 110 U.S.-related accounts with a maximum aggregate value of approximately $62 million.  SB Saanen will pay a penalty of $1.365 million.

Privatbank Bellerive AG was founded in 1988, and its sole office is in Zurich.  Bellerive was aware that U.S. taxpayers had a legal duty to report to the IRS and pay taxes on all of their income, including income earned in accounts that these U.S. taxpayers maintained at the bank.  Bellerive knew that it was likely that some of its U.S. customers who maintained accounts at the bank were not complying with their tax and reporting obligations under U.S. law.  In two instances, U.S. accountholders, with the assistance of their external asset managers, created Panamanian corporations and paid a fee to third parties to act as directors.  The companies’ directors were two trust companies based in Panama.  Those third parties, at the direction of the U.S. accountholder, opened a bank account at Bellerive in the name of the entity.  Bellerive made no effort to determine whether such an entity was valid for U.S. tax purposes.  In those circumstances involving a non-U.S. entity, Bellerive was aware that a U.S. person was the true beneficial owner of the account.

Prior to Nov. 1, 2000, Bellerive required individuals subject to federal income tax under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code and who were beneficial owners of accounts to sign a “Form 1,” titled “W-9 Custodian Waiver.”  The “Form 1” contained two statements from which the beneficial owner could choose one option.  The first of the two options stated: “I would like to avoid disclosure of my identity to the U.S. tax authorities under the new tax regulations.  To this end, I declare that I expressly agree that my account shall be frozen for all new investments in U.S. securities as from November 1, 2000.”  Bellerive knew or had reason to know that the four U.S. accountholders who signed this option were engaged in tax evasion.

An internal Bellerive memorandum dated Sept. 16, 2008, from the then-head of Legal Compliance and Risk, stated that “all Swiss banks have set up the following rules for dealing with U.S. clients:

  • Absolutely no contact as long as the client is on U.S. territory, even if the contact has been initiated by the client, including phone calls, e-mails, etc.;

  • The client may only take up contact with the bank, if he is not in the United States;

  • Assets may only be managed via a discretionary mandate, or not at all (cash on current account); and

  • No mail correspondence allowed, hold mail agreements however are permitted.”

Bellerive had hold-mail agreements with its 20 U.S.-related accountholders both before and after the date of the memorandum.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, Bellerive maintained 20 U.S.-related accounts, comprising a total of $68.9 million in assets under management.  Bellerive will pay a penalty of $57,000.

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.

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.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo of the Justice Department’s Tax Division thanked the IRS, and in particular, IRS-Criminal Investigation and the IRS Large Business and International Division for their substantial assistance.  Ciraolo also thanked Thomas J. Sawyer and Michael N. Wilcove, who served as counsel on these matters, as well as Senior Litigation Counsel Nanette L. Davis of the Tax Division.

Additional information about the Tax Division and its enforcement efforts may be found on the division’s website.

Updated July 23, 2015