Taxpayers who still believe they can hide secret Swiss bank accounts from the IRS are “beyond foolish,” the top United States tax prosecutor said as a five-year crackdown expands to new offshore havens.
The enforcement drive has forced a “remarkable” change in the ability of the U.S. to find secret accounts in Switzerland, the world’s largest offshore financial center with about $2.2 trillion of assets, said Kathryn Keneally, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s tax division.
“If someone had an account in Switzerland, it is beyond foolish to think that that account is going to remain secret,” said Keneally, 55. “In the last five years, we’ve seen a remarkable change in our ability to get information concerning Swiss bank accounts. It’s extraordinary. Switzerland is no longer a good place to hide assets for tax reasons.”
Keneally, in her first interview since taking the job in April 2012, said a new U.S. amnesty program for Swiss banks to disclose how they aided tax evasion puts taxpayers and offshore enablers at risk of prosecution.
Since 2009, the U.S. has prosecuted 68 U.S. taxpayers, 3 Swiss banks, and 30 bankers, lawyers, and advisers. Another 38,000 Americans moved $5.5 billion to the U.S. and avoided prosecution by saying who helped them offshore.
“Swiss bank secrecy never should have been viewed as a mechanism to commit criminal acts,” Keneally said. “I don’t believe it is the intention of Switzerland for its bank secrecy laws to be used in that manner. We are making good progress toward eliminating that use of Switzerland’s laws.”
Fourteen firms, including Credit Suisse Group AG, the second-largest Swiss bank; HSBC Holdings Plc, the largest European bank; and Julius Baer Group Ltd., Switzerland’s third- largest wealth manager, are under criminal investigation. On Aug. 29, the U.S. announced a program for other Swiss banks to avoid charges. (Swiss Banks Agree to Plan to End Past US Tax Evasion Issues!)
Taxpayers who still believe they can hide secret Swiss bank accounts from the Internal Revenue Service are “beyond foolish,” the top U.S. tax prosecutor said as a five-year crackdown expands to new offshore havens. “We are ready, willing, able and probably eager to investigate and prosecute those banks,” she said.
With U.S. taxpayers fleeing Swiss banks, she said, the Justice Department is building cases involving other tax havens. They have taken action in cases involving the Caribbean, India, Israel, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, she said.
“We have investigations and activities that will be coming in other parts of the world that I can’t comment on right now,” she said.
A U.S. Senate report estimated in 2008 that secret offshore accounts used to evade U.S. taxes costs the Treasury at least $100 billion annually.
“The Swiss are hemorrhaging bank records on American taxpayers. The Swiss bank voluntary disclosure program is just another way of disclosing information on American taxpayers.”
The Justice Department and IRS are pursuing taxpayers and bankers who set up secret accounts after the UBS deferred-prosecution deal was announced in February 2009. The new program outlines escalating penalties after that time for banks that seek to avoid prosecution.
Keneally wouldn’t discuss the pace of the fourteen criminal investigations, including that of Credit Suisse. In July 2011, the bank said it was a target of a criminal probe over former cross-border private-banking services for U.S. customers.
Six days later, seven current and former Credit Suisse bankers were indicted on a charge of conspiring to help U.S. clients evade taxes through secret accounts. That case is led by prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia.
Like other U.S. attorney’s offices around the U.S., they are probing banks or individuals in the offshore crackdown with help from the Justice Department’s tax division.
Several indictments in offshore tax cases have relied on taxpayers who gave information about their bankers through the IRS voluntary disclosure program. The agency built a database tying together common details about banks, bankers, advisers, and how they set up secret offshore accounts.
The first gift of the voluntary disclosure program is that we have over 38,000 people who were not in compliance who are now in compliance,” Keneally said. “Apart from that, this program has been able to bring in just a wealth of information so that we can see patterns, we can identify banks, we can identify potential witnesses.” Prosecutors also are relying on whistle-blowers and cooperators, although Keneally wouldn’t discuss them.
A native New Yorker who returns from Washington to Manhattan on weekends, Keneally oversees 360 Lawyers, including 90 Prosecutors. The rest do civil enforcement or appellate work.
One taxpayer who tried to enter the voluntary disclosure program and failed was Mary Estelle Curran, a 79-year-old widow who pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Curran, a former UBS client, had more than $43 million in Swiss accounts, making her the largest individual case in the offshore crackdown.
She paid a $21.6 million penalty as well as back taxes, and she faced as long as 37 months in prison when she was sentenced in April by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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