WASHINGTON — Banking giant UBS has agreed to pay $780 million and turn over once-secret Swiss banking records to settle allegations it conspired to defraud the U.S. government of taxes owed by thousands of American clients.
As part of the deal struck in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., UBS has made the unprecedented step of agreeing to immediately turn over to the U.S. government account information for U.S. customers of the bank's cross-border business.
In doing so, federal authorities have struck a big crack in Switzerland's vaunted bank secrecy laws.
UBS will pay $780 million in fines, penalties, interest and restitution for conspiring to create sham accounts to hide the assets of U.S. clients from the U.S. government.
The financial hit on UBS is more than double the penalty imposed by federal authorities just last month on a different international bank, Lloyds TSB Bank PLC, for helping its clients skirt U.S. sanctions against Sudan, Iran and Libya.
"We accept full responsibility for these improper activities," Peter Kurer, chairman of Swiss-based UBS AG, said in a statement. He added that the bank was determined to abide by the terms of the deal with U.S. criminal and securities officials.
"Client confidentiality, to which UBS remains committed, was never designed to protect fraudulent acts or the identity of those clients, who, with the active assistance of bank personnel, misused the confidentiality protections," he said Wednesday.
About 17,000 American clients concealed their UBS accounts from the IRS, hiding total assets of roughly $20 billion, U.S. officials said.
According to U.S. officials, when an acquisition in 2000 of a U.S. company brought UBS a host of new, American clients, the bank set about to evade new reporting requirements for those clients. To do so, UBS executives helped U.S. taxpayers open new accounts in the names of sham entities.
Prosecutors contend that UBS executives used encrypted software and other counter-surveillance techniques to prevent anyone from detecting that they were actively marketing such Swiss bank secrecy — and tax evasion — to American taxpayers.
The clients, in turn, filed false tax returns that omitted the income they earned in their Swiss accounts, according to the court papers.
Federal officials said they had pulled aside a veil of secrecy that hid a corrupt international banking practice.
"This was not a mere compliance oversight, but rather a knowing crime motivated by greed and disrespect for the law," said Alexander Acosta, U.S. attorney for southern Florida.
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman warned U.S. taxpayers hiding money overseas that it was time to come clean with Uncle Sam.
"People who have hidden unreported income offshore need to get right with their government. They should come forward and take advantage of our voluntary disclosure process," Shulman said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has estimated that abusive tax shelters and hidden offshore accounts cost the U.S. government nearly $100 billion a year in lost tax revenue.
Prosecutors are still hunting for UBS executive Raoul Weil, who was indicted in November 2008 on charges he conspired to defraud the government when he was managing the bank's cross-border business.
After the UBS settlement was announced Wednesday, Weil's lawyer Aaron Marcu said the charges should have been dropped against his client as part of the deal.
"Mr. Weil is an innocent victim of a political dispute between the United States and Switzerland over Swiss bank secrecy," Marcu said.
In June 2008 former UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld pleaded guilty to a similar charge.
If UBS fails to turn over the clients' information, or stops cooperating with authorities, federal prosecutors could refile charges against the bank.
Under the deal, UBS also will completely stop engaging in the type of cross-border banking business that got them into trouble.