The German justice authorities say a mole spied for the Swiss intelligence service inside a German tax office, which was trying to catch tax dodgers.
On Thursday, Swiss and German media published new details surrounding the case of an alleged Swiss spy arrested last week for industrial espionage in Frankfurt.
Swiss public television, SRF, which had access to extracts of the German arrest warrant, claimed the Swiss suspect, a former policeman and employee of the UBS bank, had listened to German financial authorities for the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS).
The man is suspected of searching for data on tax evaders and, together with an intelligence firm, placing a mole who allegedly spied inside North Rhine-Westphalia’s finance ministry.
Investigators suspect that the mole – not yet identified – gave the Swiss spy the names of tax investigators, and that the FIS ran the operation. The service is said to have paid €90,000 (CHF97,600) for planting the mole.
Over the past decade, the government of North-Rhine Westphalia has bought at least 11 CDs with data about Germans with bank accounts in Switzerland. They have paid millions of euros to try to recover money hidden by suspected German tax dodgers.
The contacts between the mole and the Swiss spy service allegedly took place via a pre-paid mobile phone that the Swiss agency had provided.
According to the arrest documents, the information provided by the Swiss agent enabled the Swiss authorities to identify and prosecute officials involved in purchasing so-called tax CDs.
From the Swiss side
The Swiss government said on Thursday that the Federal Office of Police had asked the FIS in 2011 to help with an investigation related to stolen data CDs in Germany – the "normal way to proceed in a criminal investigation when police cooperation and international judicial assistance are not possible", the government spokesman said.
He said that the Swiss cabinet was informed in 2011 by then Defence Minister Ueli Maurer, who is now finance minister, of the FIS activities, which ended in 2014.
"Today, the situation is very different. The Swiss -German relationship is very good and has evolved over the last years in financial and tax affairs," the spokesman is quoted as saying by several media.
Switzerland and European Union member countries have agreed on an automatic exchange of tax information due to come into force next year.
For several years, the Swiss Attorney General’s Office has been investigating Germans accused of industrial espionage and violating Swiss banking secrecy laws.
Separate legal proceedings are pending in Switzerland against three Germans and the suspected Swiss spy for involvement in the purchase of banking data.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans expressed alarm over the latest revelations.
“The scandal reaches new proportions when spies sign up informers in the finance administration in order to spy on successful [North Rhine-Westphalian] tax investigators and play into the hands of people who make billions in profit at the expense of society,” he told German public television.
His comments come ten days ahead of elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.
Germany has asked Switzerland for clarifications over the alleged spying.
Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter spoke to his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, by phone on Wednesday evening at the request of the German authorities, the Swiss foreign ministry said.
A foreign ministry spokesman said both sides agreed on a de-escalation.
A day earlier Germany summoned the Swiss ambassador to Berlin to discuss the spying case.
The Swiss defence minister, Guy Parmelin, refused to answer reporters’ questions on the affair at the annual press conference of the Federal Intelligence Service in Bern on Tuesday.
“We do not want to comment on an ongoing investigation,” he said.
Parmelin neither confirmed nor denied that the suspect had a mandate from the Swiss intelligence service, adding that Swiss banks regularly became targets of espionage. He said the secret service was acting within the law.
FIS director Markus Seiler defended domestic efforts to uphold Swiss laws.
“When someone in Switzerland uses illegal methods in Switzerland to steal state or business secrets, that is espionage, and it’s our job to fight that,” he told reporters at the press conference. “The FIS is active at home and abroad.”
swissinfo.ch with agencies, sb/urs/ilj