January 21, 2019 / 3:41 PM / 3 months ago

Former Swiss banker convicted for giving secret tax data to Germany

ZURICH, Jan 21 (Reuters) - A former UBS banker accused of selling information about wealthy German tax evaders to German authorities was convicted of economic espionage by a Swiss court on Monday.

Rene S., as the ex-banker is known in legal proceedings, was sentenced to 40 months in prison on charges that included money laundering. He was acquitted of breaking Swiss banking secrecy laws. It was not immediately clear whether Switzerland would seek his extradition.

He did not attend the proceedings in Swiss Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona this month. He is believed to be living in Germany.

The case is part of a decade-old dispute between Germany and Switzerland over untaxed assets, a fight they hope will fade now that both countries have joined more than 100 others in agreeing to automatically exchange financial data about their residents’ international accounts.

Switzerland, whose banks have paid out billions to other countries to settle charges they helped foreigners hide wealth, has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers who leak banking data.

Prosecutors said that between 2005 and 2012, when he worked for UBS, Rene S. illegally collected data about Germans with accounts at the bank and sold the information for 1.15 million euros ($1.31 million) to tax authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Rene S.’s lawyer, Moritz Gall, confirmed Monday’s verdict and said he expects to appeal. Throughout the trial, Gall has maintained his client’s innocence.

Neither the defendant, who is a Swiss citizen, nor his family could be reached for comment.

Lawyers for UBS, which paid some $300 million in 2014 to settle claims it helped wealthy Germans dodge taxes, contended Rene S. waged “an attack on the Swiss financial centre”.

UBS declined to comment after Monday’s verdict.

A decade ago, Germans were believed to be hiding about 150 billion francs in secret accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

But thousands began declaring their assets after North Rhine-Westphalia, with the federal government’s blessing, started buying covertly collected data.

North Rhine-Westphalia has spent some 17.9 million euros since 2010 on data that helped it recover nearly 7 billion euros ($7.97 billion) in tax revenue.

In turn, Switzerland fought to protect its banking secrecy laws by prosecuting several people, including Rene S., in separate cases where it accused them of illegally handing over documents. [reut.rs/2VDzkHs ]

The dispute has included several twists, including the Swiss filing criminal charges in 2012 against three German tax collectors, accusing them of buying account information from informants.

And in 2017, Germany arrested a Swiss man they accused of spying on North Rhine-Westphalia's tax authority, forcing Switzerland's spy agency to defend its practices against friendly neighbouring countries. The accused Swiss spy got a suspended prison term. [reut.rs/2FfZgUt ] ($1 = 0.8804 euros) (Reporting by John Miller, editing by Larry King)

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