More than 50 banks which helped American clients dodge tax in Swiss bank accounts receive immunity from criminal prosecution in US
More than 50 banks which helped American clients dodge tax in Swiss bank accounts have received immunity from criminal prosecution in the US.
The firms, which include UK giant Standard Chartered, Germany’s biggest lender Deutsche Bank, and France’s BNP Paribas, have reached plea bargains with the US Department of Justice.
In return for this protection they have paid a total of almost £400m in fines to the American government as President Barack Obama escalates his crackdown on tax evasion. But last night one tax campaigner complained the firms had ‘got off lightly’.
Some 57 companies have rushed to sign up to the Department of Justice’s ‘Swiss Banks Programme’. Others to have struck non-prosecution deals with the DOJ include French giant Societe Generale and the blue-blooded Rothschild Bank. Firms were told to come forward by December 31 2013 if they had ‘reason to believe they had committed tax-related criminal offences in connection with undeclared US-related accounts’.
As part of the agreement, the banks have to hand over details of customers suspected of hiding money in secret Swiss accounts and offshore trusts and co-operate with criminal investigations into individuals – including employees.
They have also had to inform on rivals which transferred cash into these secret accounts, or that accepted funds when the accounts were closed.
A key benefit for firms is that they get to keep their banking licence in the US.
Losing it would be a crippling blow to emerging markets specialist Standard Chartered, which struck a non-prosecution agreement with the DOJ in November and paid a £4.2m fine.
The penalty – significantly less than the ‘golden handshake’ payment of up to £6.5m for new chief executive Bill Winters when he took over in June – relates to its Swiss private banking operation, which is being shut down.
The division opened secret bank accounts in offshore trusts for rich US citizens which were set up in the bank’s name. These trusts were established in tax havens including the Cayman Islands, Guernsey and Singapore.
Richard Murphy, a tax campaigner, said: ‘The companies are getting off lightly for the crimes they have committed against the US and society.’
Banks which were already under criminal investigation – including HSBC – are not eligible to receive immunity from prosecution. HSBC is being investigated by the DOJ as well as authorities in Switzerland, France, Belgium and Argentina after details of thousands of clients avoiding tax in their home countries were leaked.
A Standard Chartered spokesman said: ‘We are pleased to have reached a resolution as part of the DOJ’s Swiss Banks Programme.’