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Offside Swiss account threatens to sideline German icon

Uli Hoeness could face up to ten years in jail if found guilty

(Keystone)

Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, once one of Germany's most admired football managers, has gone on trial for charges that he dodged taxes via Swiss bank accounts in a case that has shocked the German public.

Hoeness, who as a player won the World Cup with West Germany in 1974 and has been credited with turning Bayern Munich into one of the world's most respected clubs, told tax authorities about his secret account and undeclared income of his own accord in January 2013.

Bavarian prosecutors filed charges against Hoeness last year after his revelations.

He stunned a Munich regional court though on Monday by admitting he had evaded taxes of  €18.5 million euros ($22.5 million) using his Swiss account - more than five times the amount on a prosecutors' charge sheet.

Hoeness apologised and appealed for leniency at the start of his trial in a case that prompted other tax dodgers to turn themselves in.

State prosecutor Achim von Engel read the charge sheet in which he was accused of evading on €3.5 million in taxes - on undeclared income of €33.5 million between 2003 and 2009.

Hoeness could be sentenced to between five and 10 years in jail if convicted of evading more than €1 million in taxes.

"I'm glad that this is all out in the open now," 62-year-old Hoeness, who was wearing a dark suit and smiling nervously, told the court. "I deeply regret my wrongdoing. I'm doing everything I can to put this unhappy chapter behind me."

Avoid jail

Hoeness is hoping the voluntary disclosure will help him avoid jail.

He paid €10 million euros to the tax office in January 2013, and says he voluntarily alerted tax authorities then about his Swiss bank account and undeclared income. What is unclear is whether he informed the tax office about his offence early enough or comprehensively enough to avoid jail.

German legal experts say it appears unlikely he fulfilled those requirements.

About 100 journalists and spectators packed into the courtroom to witness the start of the four-day trial. Outside the courtroom Bayern Munich fans held up posters expressing their support for Hoeness and pleading for leniency.

Hoeness told the court he used his secret account for more than 50,000 speculative trades in financial markets such as foreign exchange and derivatives from 2001 to 2010. He said he lost €1 million between 2003 and 2009.

"It was always clear to me that the account was mainly for gambling," he said. "It was a real kick, pure adrenaline. I lost track of it all. Everything was a real mess in the end."

Hoeness said he was disappointed that the state prosecutors raided his house and arrested him before charging him with tax evasion after his voluntary disclosure in 2013. He said he had received death threats when the public learned of his case.

"The consequences of all this for me and my family have been a disaster," said Hoeness, and he had donated more than €5 million to charity in past years and paid more than €50 million in taxes in Germany, he added.

A verdict is expected by the end of the week.

Changed perception

The case led to thousands of people preemptively paying back taxes in the hope of avoiding prosecution and has helped change the German public's perception of tax evasion from being seen as a misdemeanour to representing a serious crime.

German legal experts say amnesty for tax evaders who turn themselves in is void if an investigation had already started or if a confession was incomplete.

The case has led to calls to change German laws that allow tax evaders to avoid prosecution if they turn themselves in before an investigation starts.

Thomas Eigenthaler, chairman of the DSTG union representing tax administration workers, expects the trial against Hoeness to result in another wave of German tax evaders turning themselves in, German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported on Sunday.

"We expect 60,000 to 120,000 people to turn themselves in over the coming years," Eigenthaler was quoted as saying.

swissinfo.ch and agencies

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