Liechtenstein, an Alpine country of 36,000 people, has told American clients of the principality’s oldest bank that U.S. authorities have requested their account data as they widen a tax-evasion probe.
Accounts at Liechtensteinische Landesbank AG that contained at least $500,000 at any time since the beginning of 2004 are covered by the information request, according to a May 30 letter sent to a client by the principality’s tax authority. Liechtenstein facilitated the so-called group request from the U.S. by amending a tax law in March.
Liechtenstein’s second-biggest bank, also known as LLB, is one of 11 financial firms, including Credit Suisse Group AG and Julius Baer Group Ltd., being investigated as part of a U.S. probe of offshore tax evasion. The stakes for Swiss banks were raised after the Department of Justice indicted Wegelin & Co. on Feb. 2 for allegedly helping customers hide money from the Internal Revenue Service.
“The motivation for the law is the Landesbank issue, which has accelerated the process,” said Mario Frick, a partner at Liechtenstein law firm Seeger, Frick & Partner. “For a certain period of time, it will be possible to make group requests to clean up the past and the issue of legacy assets.”
Landesbank, which had 48.1 billion Swiss francs ($50 billion) of assets under management at the end of 2011, confirmed it has received a group request via the Liechtenstein authorities, Cyrill Sele, a spokesman for the bank in Vaduz, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“The ruling to extend the period of applicability back to the tax year 2001 in the administrative assistance law with the U.S. is limited to 12 months from the date it comes into force,” said Sele. It “is closely linked to the ongoing U.S. offshore voluntary disclosure program.”
Those affected by the U.S. request for information have the right to appeal, according to the letter.
In the Liechtenstein group request, U.S. authorities are also targeting lawyers, accountants, financial advisers, asset managers and those responsible for professional “asset protection,” who “conspired with a U.S. taxpayer to commit U.S. crimes or provided assistance,” according to the letter.
“It’s a sign that the U.S. is not just focused on Switzerland, but on all offshore jurisdictions with Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong very much on the radar screen,” said Milan Patel, a partner at Zurich-based law firm Anaford AG. “This request appears to be much more expansive than the agreement with Switzerland and aims to get information on third parties.”
Swiss banks are seeking a settlement with the U.S. as Liechtenstein’s larger Alpine neighbor, the world’s biggest center for offshore wealth, tries to shed its image as a haven for undeclared assets. That may involve negotiating separate deferred prosecution agreements with U.S. authorities.
UBS AG, the biggest Swiss bank, avoided prosecution in 2009 by paying $780 million, admitting it fostered tax evasion and giving the IRS data on more than 250 accounts. It later turned over data on another 4,450 accounts. Before the UBS deferred-prosecution deal, U.S. prosecutors said the bank managed $20 billion in undeclared assets for American clients.
Landesbank declined to comment on whether the handover of account data under the group request would allow the bank to enter a deferred prosecution agreement.
Christof Buri, a spokesman for larger Liechtenstein rival LGT Group, which had 86.9 billion francs of assets under management at the end of last year, said the bank only has tax-compliant U.S. clients. The bank, owned by Liechtenstein’s princely family, declined to comment further.
Liechtenstein started to unwind secrecy after data stolen from LGT was used by Germany to prosecute tax evaders in 2008. Former Deutsche Post AG Chief Executive Officer Klaus Zumwinkel was convicted of tax evasion and received a two-year suspended prison sentence plus a penalty of 1 million euros ($1.25 million).
Under pressure from the U.S., Germany and France, Liechtenstein said in March 2009 that it would conform with tax standards set out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to avoid being blacklisted as a tax haven.
Markus Amman, a spokesman for the Liechtenstein government, and Katja Gey, who helped negotiate a tax deal for the principality with the U.K., didn’t answer calls to their mobile phones.
“It’s only a question of time, say three to five years, when this type of group request will become standard for future business,” said lawyer Frick. “Liechtenstein is a small country that has had a reputation for not cooperating in the field of tax and that’s something that has to change. We have to find new areas of business.”