The Internal Revenue Service is seeking to force UBS Group AG to turn over records on an account in Singapore held by a U.S. citizen, potentially opening a new front against offshore tax evasion beyond Switzerland.
The IRS last month asked a federal judge in Miami to force UBS, the largest Swiss bank, to produce documents on Ching-Ye Hsiaw, who lives in China. The judge on Wednesday told UBS to show up in court on March 31 to explain why it has refused to supply the account records.
* * * *
Singapore will lift banking confidentiality when foreign authorities ask it to do so and when the law is used to shield criminal activities, according to a person with direct knowledge of the city-state’s bank-regulation framework who asked not to be named because of an ongoing court case. [JAT NOTE: See ¶ 7 in my comments below.]
* * * *
The U.S. has focused largely on Switzerland in recent years as it has fought offshore tax evasion. More than 80 Swiss banks, including UBS and Credit Suisse Group AG, have agreed to pay a total of $5 billion or so in penalties and fines. The question is where the IRS and the Justice Department will turn next as they sift through a trove of data gathered from Swiss banks and from more than 50,000 U.S. taxpayers who disclosed their accounts to avoid prosecution.
The Hsiaw case provides some clues. IRS agents served a summons on UBS in 2013 for records of his account in Singapore from 2001 to 2011. The bank said it couldn’t produce them because Singapore’s bank secrecy laws prevent disclosure without permission from Hsiaw, which he hasn’t provided, according to a court filing.
“Even if Singapore’s bank secrecy laws, as UBS contends, precludes disclosure of the summoned bank records relating or pertaining to Hsiaw’s Singapore account(s), international comity requires that the records be disclosed,” IRS revenue agent James Oertel said in the filing.
The case is United States v. UBS AG (SD FL. 16-mc-20653)..
Documents and JAT Comments Added 3/6/16 11:15am:
The key documents are:
- IRS Summons, here.
- US Petition to Enforce Summons, here.
- IRS Agent Declaration for Petition to Enforce Summons, here.
- Show Cause Order, here.
6. Summonses to entities located in the United States for records located abroad
A person or entity located in the United States may have control over documents located abroad that the IRS wants to review in connection with an investigation. For example, a foreign bank might have a United States branch and the IRS may seek documents located at the bank’s foreign headquarters. E.g., In re Grand Jury Proceedings (Bank of Nova Scotia), 691 F.2d 1384 (11th Cir. 1982). Similarly, the IRS may want to review documents of a foreign accounting firm that is controlled by an accounting firm located in the United States. Cf. In re Parmalat Sec. Litigation, 594 F. Supp. 2d 444 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (holding in a tort suit that Deloitte & Touche USA had not established that it was entitled to summary judgment based upon its claim that it did not control an Italian accounting firm which was a member of the same accounting group as Deloitte & Touche USA). See also United States v. Vetco Inc., 691 F.2d 1281 (9th Cir. 1981) (affirming order enforcing summonses issued to U.S. company and to its U.S. auditing firm for records maintained in Switzerland by the company’s Swiss subsidiary and the auditing firm’s Swiss affiliate).
12. Based on information that Switzerland disclosed to the IRS under the Convention between the United States of America and the Swiss Confederation for the Avoidance of Double Taxation With Respect to Taxes on Income and pursuant to a settlement of the John Doe summons that the IRS served on UBS in 2008, the IRS learned, inter alia, that Hsiaw maintained a bank account at UBS in Switzerland, referred to herein as the Swiss account. See In the Matter of the Tax Liabilities of John Does, Case No. 08-mc-21864 (S.D. Fla.); United States v. UBS AG, Case No. 09-cr-60033 (S.D. Fla.), at Doc. 20, ¶¶ 13-14, and Doc. 32.4. A brief statement of the prima facie criminal case: From the UBS disclosures, it was established that Hsiaw established a UBS account in 1994 with "hold mail" instructions. (Agent Decl ¶¶ 13 & 14.) On 9/15/00, in response to UBS's warning about new "Qualified Intermediary" rules that would require it to identify account holders having investments with U.S. source income (see e.g., 26 U.S.C. § 1441), Hsiaw signed a UBS form, stating, in pertinent part, that he "would like to avoid disclosure of [his] identity to the US Internal Revenue Service under the new tax regulations." (Agent Decl ¶ 15.) One of his account managers in the period was Chris Bagios who met with him in the U.S. and has pled guitly,. (Agent Decl. ¶¶ 16 and 17.) It would be expected that, in any criminal case, Bagios would be able to provide damning testimony (if a jury found it credible). In 2002,Hsiaw closed the UBS account, withdrawing $600,066 by check, the proceeds of which have not been traced, and the balance of $194,356 by transfer to a Singapore account (presumably UBS). (Agent Decl. ¶¶ 19-21). Of course, a criminal case would have a lot more facts than these, but these facts certainly raise a real risk of criminal prosecution. (In this regard, the U.S. could get a sealed indictment and arrest Hsiaw should he attempt to re-enter the U.S.; alternatively or in addition, the U.S. might get an international warrant for his arrest that, although China would not enforce, another country might if he traveled internationally, but he does not seem to be a prominent enough target that the U.S. would go to that effort.)
5. The petition does allege that there has been no criminal referral to DOJ as follows:
22. No Justice Department referral, as defined by 26 U.S.C. § 7602(d)(2), is in effect with respect to Hsiaw for the years under examination. See Oertel Decl., at ¶ 39.Of course, the IRS is prohibited by the cited statute from using the IRS summons if a DOJ referral is in effect. It seems to me that there might be a potential defense to this particular summons based on this provision. Certainly, I have reason to believe that the formal referrals mentioned in § 7602(d)(2), here. But the milieu of the press against UBS for the documents leading to the Hsiaw (and others) might mean that the documents indicating criminal culpability were originally shared with DOJ Tax originally and certainly by the time of the summons enforcement. If, indeed, the documents were obtained under the double tax treaty exchange of information provision, that means that they shoulkd have gone to the IRS and not to DOJ Tax (although I suspect that they did get to DOJ Tax directly or indirectly). Given DOJ's claim that it has independent authority to investigate tax crimes, how much use is this statutory prohibition if the IRS can give documents to IRS without a formal referral for criminal investigation or prosecution? I think there is a lot of nuance there, but can't develop it here and really can't develop it in great detail without a client willing to fund my efforts and a forum to blast out information from the IRS and DOJ (such as a pending case). Maybe UBS's lawyers, who, I presume, are very smart and well compensated will explore this issue. (On the other hand, if this type of argument would taint the enforcement of the summons, the Government could simply present the compulsion in the form of a grand jury subpoena rather than a summons.)
Even if Singapore's bank secrecy laws, as UBS contends, preclude disclosure of the summoned bank records relating or pertaining to Hsiaw's Singapore account(s), international comity requires that the records be disclosed. See Oertel Decl., at ¶ 34. The interest of the United States in combating tax evasion by U.S. taxpayers through the use of secret foreign bank accounts substantially outweighs the interest of Singapore in preserving the privacy of its bank customers. See Oertel Decl., at ¶ 34. As a consequence, judicial enforcement of the summons is required. See Oertel Decl., at ¶ 34.