Hung out to dry?
Bank heads’ “immoral behaviour” riles staff
Banking secrecy has turned into a costly burden (Keystone)
Eric Delissy is one of thousands of bank staff and consultants whose names have been turned over to the United States Justice Department by Swiss banks suspected of tax offences across the Atlantic.
Disappointed in the Swiss government, the retired lawyer has decided to defend his own rights.
“I am infuriated and indignant over the immoral behaviour of the banks’ leaders, who are sacrificing employees, ex-employees and even retirees to save their own skin,” Delissy, one-time employee of the Geneva bank HSBC, told swissinfo.ch.
“The strategy of operating in the United States without conforming to American tax law was decided at the top and certainly not by people in the front line.”
Suspected of helping thousands of customers in the US dodge tax in recent years, five banks under investigation have decided to cooperate with the US Justice Department, which had demanded all documents concerning their operations in the United States, as well as names and information on all employees active in the American market.
The information handed over is said to involve 10,000 people, many of whom were not even active in that area.
“I have never worked in the United States and I never met American customers,” insisted Delissy, who left HSBC in 2003.
He feels betrayed and stigmatised unjustly. “I was not even informed directly that my name had been sent to the United States. In April, I read by chance in a newspaper that the bank had set up a phone number current employees could call to find out if they were on the list. So I asked for information there.”
A prisoner in Switzerland
Delissy has not even got an explanation of the possible consequences of the handing over of data to the American Justice Department.
As a precaution, like many other bank staff and consultants he now avoids going outside Switzerland and especially to the United States. But he does not want just to sit on his hands. In August, he initiated legal action against HSBC and the Swiss government which authorised the banks to give the data to the American investigators.
“The government accepted that the names of thousands of employees and former employees be handed over as if they had been found guilty of tax fraud, and with no guarantee from the American side that they would not be prosecuted. Surely the first duty of a government is to protect its own citizens? I believed that, but it seems I was wrong.”
In the space of a few days, Delissy received messages of support from many people who now find themselves in the same situation. Several hundred banking staff and consultants have joined the organisation Swiss Respect, set up a few months ago to defend workers in the financial industry and to have Swiss law respected in the face of international attacks.
“It is inadmissible for the government to sacrifice thousands of citizens who should benefit from the rule of Swiss law, data protection, rules on administrative assistance, the right to information and the right to take action against this kind of thing before the courts,” said Douglas Hornung, the group’s legal representative.
“All of these principles were violated together with national sovereignty, while in fact American law applies.”
The Geneva lawyer is also looking after the interests of 50 banking employees and ex-employees – one of whom is Delissy – in dealing with HSBC, Credit Suisse and Julius Bär.
“The banks knew that, in handing over the data, they would be violating the legislation. But in Switzerland, even in the case of criminal actions, they risk at the most having to pay SFr5 million ($5.4 million) each. By cooperating with the Americans, they can reduce the fine they are likely to have to pay by several hundred million francs.”
Hornung has gone to court to demand that his clients at least be able to obtain a copy of the documents handed over so that they can defend themselves.
“Up till now only a few people have decided to speak out and defend their interests, because a climate of fear now reigns among bank staff. Many are afraid of losing their jobs or ruining their future careers in a period which, as it is, doesn’t look too rosy for the banking sector”, he said.
Documents handed over
“The handing over of data has worried our staff,” admitted Médard Schoenmaeckers, HSBC spokesman. “In Europe we are not used to this way of proceeding of the Americans. So we are doing all we can to keep the staff informed. They can also see the documents handed over which concern them.”
He emphasised that the bank had not given a list of names to the United States. “For the Americans it is not important to have names but to understand how the banks operated with private customers over there. We have thus handed over internal information on activities in the United States, including reports of travel, meetings, emails and procedure manuals. In all these data, the names of customers are redacted out.”
Nevertheless, the names of staff are there. However, according to Schoenmaeckers, “at the moment there is no suggestion of any risks for staff if they travel to the United States in a personal capacity. If there were to be problems, management has said that the bank would cover all legal and other costs.”
Letter of apology
Delissy claimed the only people who could move freely in the United States are the heads of banks, “because they have concluded non-prosecution agreements with the American investigators”.
The Swiss federal prosecutors’ office recently declined to pursue the charges it brought against the government, but Delissy is vowing to fight on.
“My objective is at least to get a letter of apology from the bank – in which it admits that my name was sent in error to the United States – and a letter of confirmation from the American authorities. With those two letters in hand, I should be able to travel where I want to again.”