Swiss newspapers have welcomed the acquittal of ex-UBS banker Raoul Weil, accused of helping rich US clients evade tax, saying it was the correct decision from a legal point of view. They add, however, that no one comes out of the episode smelling of roses.
“The other face of the US legal system” was the headline of the editorial in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) on Wednesday, following the “surprising” – in its view – decision by a Florida jury to declare Weil not guilty of running a tax evasion racket at the Swiss bank.
“At least from a Swiss point of view the quick and clear verdict hadn’t necessarily been expected. Until now the experience of Swiss banks and bankers when dealing with the US legal system had been dominated by the criminal prosecution services such as the Department of Justice (DoJ),” it wrote.
According to the NZZ, the climate of dialogue was said to be “aggressive” and US agents pigeonholed all Swiss bankers as “criminals”.
“But the trial in Florida has now shown another – fairer – face of US justice.” Weil’s lawyers had tried to negotiate with the DoJ for six years, the paper said, but the authorities were so focused on “burying” Swiss banking secrecy that they said no. Weil, pleading innocent, saw trial by jury as his only way out.
“The judge, who was fair, repeatedly reminded the jurors that Weil could only be convicted if his guilt could be demonstrated beyond doubt. The prosecution was unable to do this.”
Le Temps in Geneva was also impressed by Weil’s “exemplary courage” in deciding to put his fate in the hands of a jury.
“If, as the facts suggest, zealous advisers took unnecessary risks and played cat-and-mouse with US tax officials, Weil’s lawyers skilfully stayed away from morals and stuck to the scheming of the primary culprits, the clients”.
Weil himself “can return to Switzerland with his head held high”, the paper reckoned.
The glass was slightly less full for the Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich. “Legally rehabilitated – nothing more” was its headline.
The acquittal was “legally correct” given the lack of conclusive evidence, but “whether Weil can return to Switzerland as a man of honour is another question. What he knew and when remains a secret. Whether, as the responsible member of the executive board, he did enough to implement the bank’s directive – sticking to the law – is still open”.
But what is not disputed, according to the Tages-Anzeiger, is that elements of the bank did conspire to defraud the Internal Revenue Service. “The organisation let this happen – either because it didn’t have a tight enough grip on things or because management deliberately or unconsciously looked away. The Weil verdict doesn’t answer the question of who was responsible for this.”
The paper went on to criticise top managers who justify their high wages with having to bear a lot of responsibility, but then who, when a scandal erupts, shift the responsibility for misbehaviour onto people under them.
“Typical examples of bosses who cling to their positions are Urs Rohner and Brady Dougan at Credit Suisse – despite the bank violating US law and Swiss regulatory requirements under their leadership.”
For tabloid Blick, the villains are the Swiss legal system and Martin Liechti, ex-UBS head of wealth management Americas who was arrested in Florida in 2008 and testified against Weil as the prosecution’s key witness.
“Swiss justice protects UBS traitor” was its headline. “[Liechti] blackened Weil’s name in order to save his own skin. But the jury didn’t believe the ‘criminal and liar’, as Weil’s lawyer portrayed him.”
While Weil is returning to Switzerland a “hero”, according to Blick, Liechti risks prosecution for breaking banking secrecy and illegal dealings with a foreign country.
“But the Swiss justice system is asleep. The authorities are passing Liechti’s dossier around like a hot potato. No one wants to take responsibility for it.”
Indeed, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office says no case is pending, adding that it works with facts – hearsay from trials is not enough to start legal proceedings.
What’s more, the prosecutor’s office said the cantons are responsible for violations of banking secrecy. Not so, according to the Zurich public prosecutor: “responsibility lies with the government”.
“So long as the legal authorities continue to play ping pong, Liechti has nothing to fear,” Blick concluded.