Swiss banker admits to helping Americans cheat taxes

This content was published on July 20, 2017 - 11:48

A former Credit Suisse banker pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges of aiding Americans in hiding millions of dollars from US tax authorities.

Credit Suisse was fined in 2014 for helping US tax avoiders. KEYSTONE/Ennio Leanza

Susanne Rüegg-Meier, who worked in the Zurich office of Credit Suisse between 2002 and 2011, entered the guilty plea while on trial in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, for conspiring to defraud the United States, said the US Justice Department in a statement.External link

Prosecutors say that Rüegg-Meier, in her role at the head of the bank’s North American desk, oversaw the accounts of up to 1,500 clients whose assets she helped place in secret Swiss and offshore accounts.

For example, the Justice Department’s statement on the case says that when one US client was informed that the bank planned to close his account, Rüegg-Meier advised him to withdraw $1 million in cash, place it in a paper bag and take it down the street in Zurich to seek another bank that would deposit the money.

She also advised customers on other methods for withdrawing account funds to evade detection by tax authorities and took active steps to conceal the nature of and purpose of her business while meeting with clients in the United States, according to prosecutors.

Rüegg-Meier admitted in court that the loss to US tax coffers could be anywhere between $3.5 million and $9.5 million as a result of her actions. She faces up to five years in prison and is due to be sentenced on September 8.

Larger crackdown

The Swiss woman was first indicted in 2011External link, in the midst of a wide crackdown by the United States on offshore tax evasion practices. Her conviction, six years later, is the latest in a line of actions taken against Swiss banks and their employees.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, which revealed widespread malpractice in the banking industry, the administration of President Barack Obama took a hard line on tax dodgers, opening investigations against both Credit Suisse and UBS.

In 2009, Swiss bank UBS was fined $780 million for its role in tax avoidance. And in 2014, in a landmark case, Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to similar criminal charges, agreeing to pay a fine of $2.5 billion to US authorities.

Former US Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time that in a practice spanning decades, the bank helped account holders conceal assets and income in illegal and undeclared bank accounts – often held in the names of fake foundations.

No escape

It was also during this period that Swiss and US authorities agreed that banks could share information regarding specific employees involved in illegal practices.

In 2014, Credit Suisse said it had disclosed over 1,000 employee names to US authorities. Many individual bankers have since been prosecuted for their roles, while others have remained in Switzerland in an attempt to avoid extradition.

Some individual workers felt “betrayed” by a system in which they were simply doing their job. Several challenged the release of their personal data in Swiss courts.

More recently, the focus has shifted to European clients hiding assets in Swiss banks. In March 2017, Credit Suisse was again in the news following a coordinated raid into so-called “black” accounts spearheaded by the Netherlands.

Though it is not yet clear what implications this will have for the bank, Credit Suisse bosses were said to be “baffled” by the operation following years of attempts to reform and regularise the bank’s clients.

Last week, following a recent court ruling, Swiss and French authorities resumed the sharing of tax information, a move welcomed by French president Emmanuel Macron. 

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