Swiss Bank Reaches Resolution under Justice Department's Swiss Bank Program
The Department of Justice announced today that Privatbank Von Graffenried AG has reached a resolution 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 agreement signed today, Von Graffenried 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 Von Graffenried for tax-related criminal offenses. Von Graffenried also has provided certain account information related to U.S. taxpayers that will enable the government to make requests under the 1996 Convention between the United States of America and the Swiss Confederation for the Avoidance of Double Taxation with Respect to Taxes on Income for, among other things, the identities of U.S. accountholders.
Von Graffenried is a private bank founded in 1992 and based in Bern, Switzerland. Starting in at least July 1998, Von Graffenried, through certain practices, assisted U.S. taxpayer-clients in evading their U.S. tax obligations, filing false federal tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and otherwise hiding assets maintained overseas from the IRS.
Von Graffenried opened and maintained undeclared accounts for U.S. taxpayers when it knew or should have known that, by doing so, it was helping these U.S. taxpayers violate their legal duties. Von Graffenried offered a variety of traditional Swiss banking services that it knew could assist, and that did assist, U.S. clients in the concealment of assets and income from the IRS. For example, Von Graffenried would hold all mail correspondence, including periodic statements and written communications for client review, thereby keeping documents reflecting the existence of the accounts outside the United States. Von Graffenried also offered numbered account services, replacing the accountholder’s identity with a number on bank statements and other documentation that was sent to the client.
In late 2008 and early 2009, Von Graffenried accepted accounts from two European nationals residing in the United States who had been forced to leave UBS and Credit Suisse, respectively. At the time it accepted the accounts, Von Graffenried knew that UBS was the target of an investigation by the Department of Justice. It also knew that both individuals had been forced to leave their respective banks because the banks were closing their accounts, and that both individuals had U.S. tax obligations and did not want the accounts disclosed to U.S. authorities. Senior management at Von Graffenried approved the opening of these accounts.
When Von Graffenried compliance personnel sought to obtain an IRS Form 8802, Application for U.S. Residency Certification, from one of the accountholders, that accountholder replied that completing the form would be problematic for him and that he believed the relationship manager knew why. The beneficial owner of the second account was referred by an external fiduciary, who handled the account at Credit Suisse. The fiduciary told a Von Graffenried relationship manager that Credit Suisse was attempting to exit its U.S. offshore clients to other banks if the clients would not sign an IRS Form W-9. The relationship manager agreed to take on the account, which was held by a Liechtenstein “stiftung,” or foundation, with the beneficial owner as the primary beneficiary and U.S. citizens as other beneficiaries.
Between July 1998 and July 2000, Von Graffenried accepted approximately two dozen accounts from a specific external asset manager. Von Graffenried was aware that the external asset manager seemed to be targeting U.S. clientele. Sixteen of the accounts were beneficially owned by individuals with U.S. tax and reporting obligations, and most of those accounts were held by U.S. citizens residing in the United States. At the time, Von Graffenried did not have a policy in place that required U.S. clients to show tax compliance. Consequently, Von Graffenried accepted these accounts without obtaining IRS Forms W-9 or assurances that the accounts were in fact tax compliant. By early 2009, Von Graffenried determined that some of the external asset manager’s accountholders likely were attempting to evade U.S. tax requirements. In 2010, Von Graffenried began to close the existing U.S.-related accounts that originated with the external asset manager. Von Graffenried did not complete the exit process for these accounts until late 2012.
Since Aug. 1, 2008, Von Graffenried held a total of 58 U.S.-related accounts with approximately $459 million in assets. Von Graffenried will pay a penalty of $287,000.
In accordance with the terms of the Swiss Bank Program, Von Graffenried 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 Von Graffenried 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 this non-prosecution agreement, noncompliant U.S. accountholders at Von Graffenried 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, Kathleen E. Lyon, who served as counsel on this matter, as well as Senior Counsel for International Tax Matters and Coordinator of the Swiss Bank Program Thomas J. Sawyer and 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.