BERLIN (Reuters) - Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, once one of Germany’s most admired soccer managers, goes on trial on Monday charged with tax evasion in a case that has shocked the nation and changed attitudes towards paying taxes.
Hoeness, 62, who helped turn Bayern Munich into one of the world’s most respected soccer clubs and won the 2013 Champions League title, has said he voluntarily alerted tax authorities in January 2013 about his Swiss bank account and undeclared income.
He has since paid the back taxes and fines he owed and has said he hoped he could avoid prosecution.
But Hoeness, who also owns a Bavarian sausage factory, was charged in July with tax evasion after a long investigation. If convicted by the Munich state court, he faces a possible jail sentence.
Prosecutors have charged Hoeness, according to media reports, with evading 3.5 million euros in taxes on 30 million euros of income that was earned in his Swiss bank account through market trading between 2003 and 2009.
The case prompted thousands of other people to preemptively pay back taxes in the hope of avoiding prosecution and has helped change the German public’s view of tax evasion from being seen as a misdemeanour to a serious crime.
“Tax ethics have completely changed in Germany,” said Reiner Holznagel, president of the taxpayer association. “Tax evasion is now socially repugnant. The days are gone when some talked openly about cheating on taxes in between golf rounds.”
Hoeness, once loved or loathed for his outspoken opinions on sport and politics, said last year the Swiss account was a personal account created for stock market trading.
German legal experts say amnesty for tax evaders who turn themselves in is void if an investigation had already started or if a confession was incomplete.
The Munich-based Focus magazine said prosecutors will argue his confession was invalid and an investigation was underway when Hoeness turned himself in.
“Hoeness has already been handed the toughest punishment there is - social contempt,” said Holznagel. “There isn’t a court in Germany that can punish tax evaders with a higher penalty than that.”
More than 55,000 tax evaders have turned themselves in over the last four years, many in the last year, and paid a total of about 3.5 billion euros in back taxes, Holznagel said.
Hoeness, a former West German international player, had been a friend of Chancellor Angela Merkel and a popular TV talk show guest. He spoke out for higher taxes and railed against tax evasion in a 2005 Bild newspaper interview.
The case has led to calls to change German laws that allow tax evaders to avoid prosecution if they turn themselves in before an investigation starts.
“The Hoeness case and other cases are changing attitudes in Germany,” said Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “Everyone in Germany knows who Hoeness is. Tax evasion isn’t a misdemeanour any more. And people hiding money abroad are afraid of going to jail now.”
Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Karolos Grohmann and Janet Lawrence