French court hits Swiss bank UBS with record €3.7 billion fine in tax fraud case

A Paris court on Wednesday fined Swiss banking giant UBS 3.7 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in a tax fraud case, a record for France.

French court hits Swiss bank UBS with record €3.7 billion fine in tax fraud case
Photo: AFP

The bank was convicted of illegally helping French clients to hide billions of euros from French tax authorities.

The trial opened last autumn after seven years of investigations, launched when several former employees came forward with claims of unlawful conduct. 

The move came as authorities across Europe cracked down on tax evasion and dubious banking practices in the wake of the global financial crisis which erupted in 2007.

The pressure eventually forced Switzerland to effectively end its tradition of ironclad bank secrecy, by joining more than 90 countries which agreed to automatically share more client account information among each other.

In the UBS case, French authorities determined that more than €10 billion had been kept from the eyes of tax officials between 2004 and 2012.

The National Financial Prosecutor's office had urged a €3.7-billion ($4.2 billion) fine, the largest ever sought in France, saying the bank and its directors “were perfectly aware that they were breaking French law” by unlawfully soliciting clients and helping them evade French taxes.

They had also sought a €15 million fine for UBS's French subsidiary, and fines of up to €500,000 for six top executives, including Raoul Weil, the former third-in-command at UBS, and Patrick de Fayet, formerly the second-ranking executive for its French operations.

In addition, lawyers for the French state, which is a plaintiff in the case, asked for €1.6 billion in damages.

UBS, which was ordered to post €1.1 billion in bail, had denied the charges and said its operations complied with Swiss law.

It also said that it was “unaware” that some French clients had failed to declare assets in Switzerland, and that prosecutors have not produced any proof, such as client names or account numbers, to back up their fraud claims.

The case was closely watched by industry executives at a time when Paris and other European capitals are hoping to lure multinational banks from London as Brexit looms.

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Spain court to rule on extradition of Swiss whistleblower ‘within 15 days’

A Spanish court is due to decide within two weeks whether or not to extradite Herve Falciani, a former HSBC analyst who leaked documents alleging widespread tax evasion, to Switzerland, his lawyer said Tuesday.

Spain court to rule on extradition of Swiss whistleblower 'within 15 days'
Falciani outside Spain's congress in Madrid. Photo: AFP

Arrested in Madrid in April on his way to a conference on the need to protect whistleblowers and released on bail, Falciani has already been convicted of industrial espionage in Switzerland in absentia for the scandal  that became known as “Swiss Leaks.”   

A Swiss court handed him a five-year jail sentence in 2015 but the 46-year-old has avoided Switzerland since.   

Falciani took the stand at Madrid's National Court on Tuesday in a brief hearing after which his lawyer Juan Barallat said a decision would be taken “within around 15 days.”

The Franco-Italian national worked for the Swiss branch of HSBC and became known as the “the man who terrifies the rich” after leaking information in 2008 that alleged HSBC's Swiss private banking arm helped 79,000 clients evade billions of euros in taxes.

READ MORE. HSBC 'whistleblower' Falciani arrested in Spain on Swiss warrant

“Whistleblowers must be defended, because their information stops such cases from remaining without consequences,” he told reporters after the hearing.

Falciani became an IT worker for HSBC in 2000 and moved to the bank's offices in Geneva in 2006.

There, he obtained access to encrypted customer information.   

In 2008, he went to Lebanon with the information planning to sell the data, without success. Swiss authorities described it as “cashing in”.   

He then came back to Switzerland where he was under investigation and ended up leaving for France, where he passed on the pilfered information to tax authorities.

This led to the prosecution of tax evaders including Arlette Ricci, heir to France's Nina Ricci perfume empire, and the pursuit of Emilio Botin, the late chairman of the Spanish bank Santander.

Since then, he has become known as the “Snowden of tax evasion,” in reference to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who in 2013 revealed the scope of the US government's electronic surveillance programme.   

Falciani had already been arrested in Barcelona in July 2012 on an international warrant issued by Switzerland.   

He then spent several months in a Spanish prison.   

But in 2013, the National Court ended up refusing his extradition on the grounds that the charges he faced in Switzerland are not considered crimes under Spanish law.

READ ALSO: “I don’t believe in Swiss justice”: HSBC whistleblower Falciani