Switzerland is in talks with the U.S. to resolve the issue of untaxed assets held by U.S. citizens in Swiss bank accounts, a government official said.
“We are in talks with the U.S. regarding fiscal problems in the past,” Mario Tuor, a spokesman for the State Secretariat for International Financial Matters in the Swiss capital, Bern, told Bloomberg News by telephone.
Tuor declined to comment on a Reuters report that said the current talks are about an agreement that would let several Swiss and European banks join a settlement and avoid potential U.S. prosecution for helping wealthy Americans evade taxes.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department have stepped up enforcement to combat offshore tax evasion. UBS AG, Switzerland’s largest bank by assets, was charged in February 2009 with helping U.S. citizens evade taxes. The bank avoided prosecution by paying $780 million, admitting that it fostered tax evasion, and agreeing to give the IRS data on more than 250 accounts. UBS later handed over data on an additional 4,450 accounts to resolve a lawsuit.
Under the new potential agreement, the Swiss banks would pay a fine, no longer handle undeclared offshore banking business for Americans, and turn over client names to authorities, Reuters said, citing unidentified officials briefed on the matter. The report said it couldn’t identify which banks were involved.
“The idea of a global settlement is a creative approach,” Scott Michel, a tax attorney with Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, said in an interview. “It would make sense for the U.S. to now be able to devote investigative resources to other parts of the world. It would make sense for the Swiss to obtain peace on this issue.”
Since 2007, when the investigations into offshore tax evasion began, the U.S. has charged at least two dozen UBS clients with tax crimes, along with four UBS bankers, three clients of HSBC Holdings Plc, and four other alleged offshore enablers.
In February, four Europe-based bankers at Credit Suisse Group AG were indicted in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, accused of conspiring to help U.S. clients evade taxes. The bankers haven’t appeared in court.
The U.S. filed a civil action in April against London-based HSBC, the largest European bank by assets, seeking information about U.S. citizens who may have banked in India to hide accounts from the IRS.
From March to October 2009, 15,000 taxpayers came forward under the IRS’s voluntary disclosure program. After October 2009, about 4,000 more joined. To avoid prosecution, the taxpayers had to disclose their offshore accounts, bankers and advisers, as well as describe how they moved their money.
IRS agents have mined that data to investigate banks, bankers, intermediaries and taxpayers, IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman said in a May 18 speech. Prosecutors have interviewed more than 200 taxpayers about the people who handled their accounts.
Lawyers for some of the people questioned said prosecutors and IRS investigators have asked about their dealings with Credit Suisse, HSBC, the Swiss bank Julius Baer Group and Swiss regional banks such as Basler Kantonalbank.
“The major issue for resolution would be what type of disclosure of account holders would be entailed,” Michel said. “I can imagine a framework that prompts a large number of account holders to initiate voluntary disclosures or potentially face closure of their accounts.”