Friday, May 22, 2015

Article Questioning Effectiveness of U.S. Swiss Bank Initiatives for Past Misdeeds (5/22/15)

The Economist has an article questioning the U.S.'s claimed success for the U.S. offshore account initiatives from UBS forward.  America the not so brave (The Economist 5/23/15), here.

An excerpt:
But the American government has been nowhere near as energetic and effective as it claims. It has been slow to chase tax evaders exposed by data leakers; it has failed to follow promising leads on some of the biggest fish; it has pulled punches with the biggest banks, for fear of destabilising markets; it botched the most prominent prosecution of a Swiss banker to date; and it has treated whistleblowers shoddily.
The article recounts relatively better success by France.

Another excerpt commenting no the Government's claimed success rate:
But that number is misleading because prosecutors only tend to bring cases when the odds of winning are high. Some of their victories have been questionable, such as the case of a 79-year-old who inherited her husband’s Swiss account. She faced six years in jail despite having come forward to confess to $670,000 of unpaid tax. Bemoaning prosecutors’ heavy-handedness, the judge gave her a few seconds of probation and urged her to seek a pardon. 
The biggest case of all—against Raoul Weil, UBS’s global head of private banking—was an embarrassing failure. Mr Weil was extradited to America in 2013 after being arrested in Italy. The main prosecution witness at his trial last November was Martin Liechti, UBS’s former private-banking head in the Americas, who testified that his erstwhile boss was aware as far back as 2002 that thousands of the bank’s accounts did not comply with American tax laws. Defence lawyers accused Mr Liechti, whom the government had promised not to prosecute if he helped in other cases, of lying to save his skin. The prosecution was widely criticised; the jury acquitted Mr Weil after barely an hour of deliberations.
The article also discusses claims of whistleblowers Brad Birkenfeld and Hervé Falciani that suggest that the U.S. is not actively following important leads.  The article then concludes:
Some wonder if America’s punch-pulling might have had something to do with the long tentacles of Swiss banks. They have certainly spent large sums raising their profile in Washington, DC. Credit Suisse, HSBC and UBS have spent $91m since 2002 on lobbying and political contributions in America, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics (see chart). 
Moreover, numerous officials and political figures have close past or present ties to the banks—including the president himself. Mr Obama has a well-publicised friendship with Robert Wolf, who ran UBS’s American operations until 2012. The IRS’s chief counsel, William Wilkins, is a former lobbyist for the Swiss Bankers Association. Eric Holder, the recently departed attorney-general, represented UBS when he worked in a private legal practice; for that reason, he avoided any involvement in the DoJ’s probe of the bank. (The revolving door spins the other way, too: prosecutors often move into private practice on leaving government, working with tax-challenged banks and companies.) 
Officials dismiss any suggestion that such links have affected the government’s response. The DoJ “makes its decisions based on law-enforcement considerations and nothing else,” says Kathryn Keneally, the former head of its tax division.
Another former official argues that America’s efforts to curb tax evasion have been effective, if you consider that the aim is not necessarily to maximise convictions but to scare those hiding money to come forward. The IRS’s voluntary-compliance programme is deemed a success, having brought in $7 billion in back-taxes and penalties from 50,000 individuals. But it is controversial because it allows for anonymous payment and no admission of guilt. 
America’s tax investigators continue to focus mainly on Switzerland, even as the returns on their efforts diminish. The 100-bank programme is bogged down, with only three banks having settled with the DoJ when most were expected to have done so by now. 
One obvious way to make the crackdown more effective would be to broaden it to tax havens that have so far been given an easy ride. Law firms in Panama, for instance, are giant incorporators of shell entities used by tax evaders, and the country has been slow to sign bilateral deals to exchange information on taxes. If federal prosecutors do eventually train their sights on such places, their experience with Switzerland has provided plenty of mistakes from which to learn.

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