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Home'Swissleaks' probe unmasks corrupt politicians in the Philippines

‘Swissleaks’ probe unmasks corrupt politicians in the Philippines

By The Guardian

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Credit Suisse, one of the world’s largest private banks, has revealed the hidden wealth of clients involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption, and other serious crimes as a result of a massive leak.

The leak contains information on accountunts linked to 30,000 Credit Suisse clients around the world, revealing the owners of more than 100 billion Swiss francs (£80 billion) held in one of Switzerland’s most well-known financial institutions.

The leak reveals widespread failures in Credit Suisse’s due diligence, despite repeated pledges over decades to weed out suspect clients and illicit funds. The Guardian is part of a group of media outlets that has been granted exclusive access to the data.

We can reveal how Credit Suisse repeatedly either opened or maintained bank accounts for a panoramic array of high-risk clients across the world.

What is the Suisse secrets leak?

Suisse Secrets is a global journalistic investigation into a data leak at Credit Suisse in Switzerland. It consists of over 18,000 bank accounts that were leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung by a whistleblower who called Swiss banking secrecy laws “immoral.” The data, which represents only a subset of the bank’s 1.5 million private banking clients, is linked to over 30,000 Credit Suisse clients.

The leak includes personal, shared, and corporate bank accounts totaling 7.5 million Swiss francs on average (CHF). Almost 200 accounts in the data are worth more than 100 million CHF, and several dozen are worth billions.

While some accounts in the data were open as far back as the 1940s, more than two-thirds were opened since 2000. Many of those were still open well into the last decade, and a portion remain open today.

The Guardian was one of more than 48 media partners worldwide, including journalists from Le Monde, NDR, the Miami Herald, and the New York Times. In a project coordinated by Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, they spent months investigating the bank using the data (OCCRP).

They discovered evidence that Credit Suisse accounts were used by clients involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption, and other serious crimes, implying widespread failures of the bank’s due diligence.

It is not illegal to have a Swiss account and the leak also contained data of legitimate clients who had done nothing wrong. In its response, Credit Suisse said it “strongly rejects the allegations and inferences about the bank’s purported business practices”.

They include a human trafficker in the Philippines, a Hong Kong stock exchange boss jailed for bribery, a billionaire who ordered the murder of his Lebanese pop star girlfriend and executives who looted Venezuela’s state oil company, as well as corrupt politicians from Egypt to Ukraine.

One Vatican-owned account in the data was used to spend €350m (£290m)* in an allegedly fraudulent investment in London property that is at the centre of an ongoing criminal trial of several defendants, including a cardinal.

The huge trove of banking data was leaked by an anonymous whistleblower to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “I believe that Swiss banking secrecy laws are immoral,” the whistleblower source said in a statement. “The pretext of protecting financial privacy is merely a fig leaf covering the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators of tax evaders.”

Credit Suisse said that Switzerland’s strict banking secrecy laws prevented it from commenting on claims relating to individual clients.

“Credit Suisse strongly rejects the allegations and inferences about the bank’s purported business practices,” the bank said in a statement, arguing that the matters uncovered by reporters are based on “selective information taken out of context, resulting in tendentious interpretations of the bank’s business conduct.”

The bank also said the allegations were largely historical, in some instances dating back to a time when “laws, practices and expectations of financial institutions were very different from where they are now”.

While some accounts in the data were open as far back as the 1940s, more than two-thirds were opened since 2000. Many of those were still open well into the last decade, and a portion remain open today.

The timing of the leak could hardly be worse for Credit Suisse, which has recently been beset by major scandals. Last month, it lost its chairman, António Horta-Osório, after he twice broke Covid-19 regulations.

That capped an unprecedented year of controversies in which the bank became embroiled in the collapse of the supply chain finance firm Greensill Capital and the US hedge fund Archegos Capital, and was fined £350m over its role in a loan scandal in Mozambique.

This month, Credit Suisse became the first major Swiss bank in the country’s history to face criminal charges – which it denies – relating to allegation it helped launder money from the cocaine trade on behalf of the Bulgarian mafia.

However, the repercussions of the leak could be much broader than one bank, threatening a crisis for Switzerland, which retains one of the world’s most secretive banking laws. Swiss financial institutions manage about 7.9tn CHF (£6.3tn) in assets, nearly half of which belongs to foreign clients.

The Suisse secrets project sheds a rare light on one of the world’s largest financial centres, which has grown used to operating in the shadows. It identifies the convicts and money launderers who were able to open bank accounts, or keep them open for years after their crimes emerged. And it reveals how Switzerland’s famed banking secrecy laws helped facilitate the looting of countries in the developing world.

Ferdinand and Imelda pillage the Philippines

Swiss banks have cultivated their trusted reputation since as far back as 1713, when the Great Council of Geneva prohibited bankers from revealing details about the fortunes being deposited by European aristocrats. Switzerland soon became a tax haven for many of the world’s elites and its bankers nurtured a “duty of absolute silence” about their clients affairs.

The custom was enshrined in statute in 1934 with the introduction of Switzerland’s banking secrecy law, which criminalised the disclosure of client banking information to foreign authorities. Within decades, wealthy clients from all over the world were flocking to Swiss banks. Sometimes, that meant clients with something to hide.

One of the most notorious cases in Credit Suisse’s history involved the corrupt Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda. The couple are estimated to have siphoned as much as $10bn from the Philippines during the three terms Ferdinand was president, which ended in 1986.

It has long been known that Credit Suisse was one of the first banks to help the Marcoses ravage their own country and in one infamous episode even helped them open Swiss accounts under the fake names “William Saunders” and “Jane Ryan”. In 1995, a Zurich court ordered Credit Suisse and another bank to return $500m of stolen funds to the Philippines.

The leaked data contains an account that belonged to Helen Rivilla, an attorney convicted in 1992 for helping launder money on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos. Despite this, she was able to open a Swiss account in 2000, as was her husband, Antonio, who faced similar charges that were subsequently dropped.

It is hard to know how Credit Suisse could have missed the money-laundering case linking the couple to the corrupt Philippine leader, which was reported by the Associated Press. The couple, who could not be reached for comment, were able to hold about 8m CHF (£3.6m) with the bank before their accounts were closed in 2006.

One former Credit Suisse employee at the time alleges there was a deeply ingrained culture in Swiss banking of looking the other way when it came to problematic clients. “The bank’s compliance departments [were] masters of plausible deniability,” they told a reporter from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, one of the coordinators of the Suisse secrets project. “Never write anything down that could expose an account that is non-compliant and never ask a question you do not want to know the answer to.”

The 2000s was also a decade in which foreign regulators and tax authorities became increasingly frustrated at their inability to penetrate the Swiss financial system. That changed in 2007, when the UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld voluntarily approached US authorities with information about how the bank was helping thousands of wealthy Americans evade tax with secret accounts.

We are transparent, there is nothing to hide in Switzerland.

Swiss Bankers Association

Birkenfeld was viewed as a traitor in Switzerland, where banking whistleblowers are often held in contempt. However, a wide-ranging US Senate investigation later uncovered the aggressive tactics used by UBS and Credit Suisse, the latter of which was found to have sent bankers to high-end events to recruit clients, courted a potential customer with free gold, and in one case even delivered sensitive bank statements hidden in the pages of a Sports Illustrated magazine.

The revelations sent shock waves through Switzerland’s financial sector and enraged the US, which pressured Switzerland into unilaterally disclosing which of its taxpayers had secret Swiss accounts from 2014. That same year, Switzerland reluctantly signed up to the international convention on the automatic exchange of banking Information.

By adopting the so-called common reporting standard (CRS) for sharing tax data, Switzerland in effect agreed that its banks would in the future exchange information about their clients with tax authorities in foreign countries. They started doing so in 2018.

Membership of the global exchange system is often cited by Switzerland’s banking industry as a turning point. “There is no longer Swiss bank client confidentiality for clients abroad,” the Swiss Bankers Association told the Guardian. “We are transparent, there is nothing to hide in Switzerland.”

Switzerland’s almost 90-year-old banking secrecy law, however, remains in force – and was recently broadened. The Tax Justice Network estimates that countries around the world collectively lose $21bn (£15.4bn) each year in tax revenues because of Switzerland. Many of those countries will be poorer nations that have not signed up to the CRS data exchange.

More than 90 countries, most of which are in the developing world, remain in the dark when their wealthy taxpayers hide their money in Swiss accounts.

This inequity in the system was cited by the whistleblower behind the leaked data, who said the CRS system “imposes a disproportionate financial and infrastructural burden on developing nations, perpetuating their exclusion from the system in the foreseeable future”.

“This situation enables corruption and starves developing countries of much-needed tax revenue. These countries are the ones that therefore suffer most from Switzerland’s reverse-Robin-Hood stunt,” they said.

The whistleblower acknowledged that the leak would contain accounts that were legitimate and declared by the client to their tax authority.

“I am aware that having an offshore Swiss bank account does not necessarily imply tax evasion or any other financial crime,” they said. “However, it is likely that a significant number of these accounts were opened with the sole purpose of hiding their holder’s wealth from fiscal institutions and/or avoiding the payment of taxes on capital gains.”

It was not possible for journalists in the Suisse secrets project to establish how many of the more than 18,000 accounts in the leak were declared to relevant tax authorities.

© Full Report At The Guardian.

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