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Fresh US tax cheat charges hit banking sector

Switzerland is desperate to avoid another Wegelin disaster Keystone

A Swiss banker and a lawyer have been charged in the United States with helping tax cheats. This heaps further pressure on the beleaguered Swiss finance sector, coming a day after yet more secret data was leaked to Germany.

The New York attorney’s office issued the indictments against the duo on Tuesday – the latest in a string of legal charges against Swiss-based bankers and lawyers. In the meantime, the Swiss government is trying to negotiate a settlement with the US to put an end to investigations into several Swiss banks.

The indictment, filed with a Manhattan federal court, accused an executive at a Swiss private bank and a partner in a law firm of conspiracy to evade US taxes. Both of the accused are believed to be in Switzerland.

The US authorities have continued to aggressively pursue Swiss banks and individuals since forcing Swiss bank UBS to pay a $780 million (CHF720 million) fine in 2009 and the Swiss government to later hand over details of thousands of the bank’s customers.

Up to 13 banks remain in the sights of US prosecutors who scored a direct hit against Switzerland’s oldest bank, Wegelin, last year. Wegelin was forced to break up and effectively end its 271-year existence after being caught red handed poaching tax evading clients from UBS.

The latest US charges filed on Tuesday indicate that another Swiss private bank tripled its US clients between UBS’s prosecution in 2009 and Wegelin’s demise three years later.

Data leak

The Swiss financial sector was also stung by the revelation that yet another CD containing confidential banking data had been sold to Germany. The German state of Rhineland-Palatinate said on Tuesday that it had paid €4 million (CHF4.85 million) for the CD containing details of 40,000 bank clients.

The Swiss authorities are currently pursuing the extradition from Spain of Hervé Falciani, the former employee of HSBC Geneva who passed on secret data to France. Breaking bank secrecy laws is a criminal offence in Switzerland.

But the Swiss government is also currently working on a sustainable solution to the impasse with the US that it hopes will bring an end to criminal investigations of banks and individuals.

A government spokesman confirmed on Wednesday that negotiations with Washington were still ongoing but gave no indication of when a final deal could be struck.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR