HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) SA (HSBC Switzerland), a private bank headquartered in Geneva, has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the Department of Justice today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, announced Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the Department of Justice’s Tax Division, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Ariana Fajardo Orshan, and Chief Don Fort for Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Criminal Investigation.
HSBC Switzerland admitted to conspiring with U.S. taxpayers to evade taxes and, as part of the agreement, HSBC Switzerland will pay $192.35 million in penalties.
“HSBC Switzerland conspired with U.S. accountholders to conceal assets abroad and evade taxes that every American must pay,” said Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the Department of Justice’s Tax Division. “Banks, asset managers and other financial firms enable such crimes – and we will hold these institutions to account, right along with the taxpayers that use them to facilitate and disguise illegal activities.”
“Financial institutions that conspire with U.S. accountholders to hide income in undeclared bank accounts abroad, to avoid being held accountable for tax obligations and augment corporate profit, face substantial criminal and civil penalties for their illicit conduct,” said U. S. Attorney Fajardo Orshan for the Southern District of Florida.
“In this case, HSBC Switzerland will pay a total civil and criminal fine of more than $192 million, to include a civil forfeiture of $71.8 million, for proceeds illegally derived from their conduct. We remain committed to the investigation and prosecution of individuals who evade their taxes and the financial institutions that assist them in doing so.”
“Taxpayers and financial institutions each have the most basic responsibilities to pay taxes and report suspicious activity regarding financial transactions. When financial institutions devise a massive tax evasion scheme and actually facilitate the activity, they not only must be held accountable, they must take actions to ensure this behavior will not happen again,” said Don Fort, Chief, IRS Criminal Investigation.
“The integrity of our nation’s tax system depends on voluntary compliance and fair, consistent enforcement of the law. We owe it to all Americans to hold financial institutions accountable just as we would hold individual taxpayers accountable. Today’s DPA shows that engaging in this type of behavior has consequences.”
According to court documents, HSBC Switzerland admits that between 2000 and 2010 it conspired with its employees, third-party and wholly owned fiduciaries, and U.S. clients to: 1) defraud the United States with respect to taxes; 2) commit tax evasion; and 3) file false federal tax returns.
In 2002, the bank had approximately 720 undeclared U.S. client relationships, with an aggregate value of more than $800 million. When the bank’s undeclared assets under management reached their peak in 2007, HSBC Switzerland held approximately $1.26 billion in undeclared assets for U.S. clients.
According to the terms of the DPA, HSBC Switzerland will cooperate fully with the Tax Division and the IRS. The DPA also requires HSBC Switzerland to affirmatively disclose information it may later uncover regarding U.S.-related accounts, as well as to disclose information consistent with the department’s Swiss Bank Program relating to accounts closed between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2017. Under the DPA, prosecution against the bank for conspiracy will be deferred for an initial period of three years to allow HSBC Switzerland to demonstrate good conduct. The agreement provides no protection for any individuals.
The $192.35 million penalty against HSBC Switzerland has three parts. First, HSBC Switzerland has agreed to pay $60,600,000 in restitution to the IRS, which represents the unpaid taxes resulting from HSBC Switzerland’s participation in the conspiracy. Second, HSBC Switzerland agreed to forfeit $71,850,000 to the United States, which represents gross fees (not profits) that the bank earned on its undeclared accounts between 2000 and 2010. Finally, HSBC Switzerland agreed to pay a penalty of $59,900,000.
This penalty amount takes into consideration that HSBC Switzerland self-reported its conduct, conducted a thorough internal investigation, provided client identifying information to the Tax Division, and extensively cooperated in a series of investigations and prosecutions, as well as implemented remedial measures to protect against the use of its services for tax evasion in the future.
According to court documents filed as part of the DPA, the bank assisted U.S. clients in concealing their offshore assets and income from U.S. taxing authorities. To conceal its clients’ assets and income from the IRS, HSBC Switzerland employed a variety of methods, including relying on Swiss bank secrecy to prevent disclosure to U.S. authorities, using code-name and numbered accounts and hold-mail agreements, and maintaining accounts in the names of nominee entities established in tax haven jurisdictions, such as the British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein, and Panama, that concealed the client’s beneficial ownership of the accounts.
In an effort to attract new U.S. clients, and maintain existing relationships with U.S. clients, HSBC Switzerland bankers took trips to the United States. Between 2005 and 2007, at least four HSBC Switzerland bankers traveled to the United States to meet at least 25 different clients.
One banker also attended Design Miami, a major annual arts and design event in Miami, Florida, in an effort to recruit new U.S. clients to open undeclared accounts with HSBC Switzerland.
In early 2008, in response to a public U.S. criminal investigation into UBS AG, the largest bank in Switzerland, for tax and securities violations in connection with its maintaining undeclared accounts for U.S. clients, HSBC Switzerland began a series of policy changes to restrict its cross-border business with U.S. persons, but the bank did not immediately cease that business.
In fact, some HSBC Switzerland bankers assisted clients in closing their accounts in a manner that continued to conceal their offshore assets, such as withdrawing the contents of their accounts in cash.