America’s Most-Wanted Swiss Bankers

At least 21 financial advisers in Switzerland are charged with aiding American tax dodgers are at large. Fearing arrest if they leave Switzerland they essentially are imprisoned within the borders of that country.

For decades, Switzerland has occupied an outsize role in the world of shady international finance. The country’s strict secrecy laws have made it the offshore banking destination of choice for U.S. tax evaders. The Swiss Bankers Association estimates that Swiss banks still hold at least $2 trillion that customers haven’t declared to tax authorities in their home countries. They say that you’re not a self-respecting Swiss bank if you don’t have some dodgy money floating around your system.

Since 2008 the U.S. Department of Justice and the IRS have been waging an uneasy war against Swiss banks that enable tax evasion. UBS Group and Credit Suisse Group have paid a combined $3.4 billion in U.S. fines, penalties and restitution. Wegelin, the country’s oldest bank, closed its doors entirely in 2013 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to evade taxes. In a break from long-standing policy, the government of Switzerland has pledged in recent years to share bank information with tax authorities around the world.

Despite these sweeping changes some of the biggest Swiss banks, are reluctant to take action against their employees. Credit Suisse—which in 2014 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to help Americans file false tax returns and agreed to pay the U.S. and New York state $2.6 billion—kept three indicted bankers on its payroll for almost three years after they were charged despite their failure to respond in court. Well that complacency ended last May when the New York State Department of Financial Services required the three bankers’ employment be terminated as part of a settlement.

At least 21 financial advisers in Switzerland under U.S. indictment remain at large, making them fugitives in the eyes of the American government. Their acts aren’t considered crimes under Swiss law so the country won’t extradite or prosecute them. Several still work in the Swiss financial industry, offering tax advice and other services. Some still have U.S. clients. And so far 50,000 Americans have voluntarily come forward disclosing their foreign accounts and reporting their foreign income to avoid criminal prosecution and reduced penalties.

Nowadays Zurich has come to resemble an oversize college dorm for indicted Swiss financial professionals. Most are wary of outsiders. Their lives go on, but they’re looking over their shoulders. Each fears that if they leave Switzerland they will be arrested and brought to the U.S. to face criminal prosecution.

So here are some of their stories:

Emanuel Agustoni

Emanuel Agustoni, a former Credit Suisse banker indicted in 2011, now runs a tiny investment advisory firm in Switzerland. U.S. prosecutors say Agustoni helped American clients set up secret accounts while he was working for Credit Suisse. They allege he later helped them move their money to other, smaller Swiss banks to avoid detection by the Department of Justice. The 54-year-old Agustoni complains that he’s a scapegoat, noting that few at the bank’s upper reaches have had legal trouble. Since the indictment it has been difficult for Agustoni to make a living. He has few clients and had to cut back on his lifestyle. However, while Credit Suisse is not commenting on this matter, the bank is paying Agustoni’s legal bills ($1.5 million so far).

Hans Thomann

Hans Thomann, a former UBS client adviser, was indicted in 2012. The U.S. alleges Thomann, age 65, conspired with UBS and Wegelin to hide bank accounts for wealthy Americans, transporting bundles of cash—as much as $140,000 at a time. Like Agustoni the indictment has ruined his life but unlike Agustoni, his former employer UBS won’t pay his legal bills and he cannot afford a lawyer on his own. Thomann also insists he’s a tiny part of a larger system.

Edgar Paltzer and Stefan Buck

Edgar Paltzer was once one of Switzerland’s best-known lawyers, receiving the top ranking in legal magazines for helping rich clients minimize taxes when transferring wealth to their heirs. What was not as well known was that Paltzer was helping U.S. citizens stash money in undeclared Swiss accounts, allegedly using a web of corporations in Panama and foundations in Liechtenstein to disguise their ownership and illegally dodge U.S. taxes.

In early 2009, UBS announced a $780 million deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S., and numerous Swiss banks began kicking out American customers holding undeclared funds, fearing the wrath of U.S. law enforcement. Well Paltzer saw this as a business opportunity. He encouraged these clients to move their accounts to Bank Frey, founded by one of his law partners. Paltzer’s alleged accomplice handling this stream of customers was a young banker named Stefan Buck.

In April 2013 a U.S. grand jury indicted both men. Born and raised in Switzerland, Paltzer also holds U.S. citizenship. That eliminated the fugitive option, because Switzerland would be more likely to extradite him. Paltzer, also accused of years of other misdeeds, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit tax fraud and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. He was released in New York after he signed a $2 million bond in August of that year. Paltzer, age 58, still has a law practice in Zurich but can barely make ends meet due to the aftermath of the indictment repelling many foreigners from seeking his services.

Buck, Paltzer’s former collaborator, has refused to go to the U.S. to face the charges. He fears that going to the U.S. without an agreed-upon bail could mean months behind bars awaiting a trial. His lawyers recently proposed a $500,000 bail package. But U.S. prosecutors rejected the overture, refusing to negotiate with Buck as long as he stays outside the country, calling him a fugitive.

Buck, age 34, claims to have documentation that would disprove U.S. allegations but if such documentation is now released to the U.S. authorities, he would now be in violation of the Swiss banking secrecy laws and then when returning to Switzerland be faced with a second case.

While each of these bankers may be avoiding prosecution by remaining in Switzerland, U.S. taxpayers who have not disclosed their foreign accounts and did not report their foreign income are not so lucky. With the information IRS has received, the IRS is cracking down on U.S. taxpayers threatening heavy penalties and criminal prosecution.

What Should You Do?

If you have never reported your foreign investments on your U.S. Tax Returns or even if you have already quietly disclosed, you should seriously consider participating in the IRS’s 2014 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (“OVDP”). Even for those who have lost money over the years, not being able to pay the entire fines from the OVDP is not an excuse — there are ways to negotiate payments.  Once the IRS contacts you, you cannot get into this program and would be subject to the maximum penalties (civil and criminal) under the tax law. Taxpayers who hire an experienced tax attorney in Offshore Account Voluntary Disclosures should result in avoiding any pitfalls and gaining the maximum benefits conferred by this program.

Protect yourself from excessive fines and possible jail time. Let’s meet on TaxConnections to qualify you for OVDP.

Subscribe to TaxConnections Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.