Friday, August 21, 2009

A timely warning to lawyers

We recently blogged about lawyers and their part in the tax evasion scandal that has engulfed Swiss banking giant UBS and the Swiss Federal Bank. Bang on cue, the US Department of Justice has charged Matthias Rickenbach, and Swiss lawyer, with conspiring to defraud the United States. Hansruedi Schumacher, described as an executive director at the Zurich-based Neue Zuercher Bank - a private wealth management bank' (Double-speak for tax evasion services) - has been indicted alongside Rickenbach.

Cool. Of course, both are innocent until proven guilty, but these charges should set shock waves in motion throughout the financial and legal professions. Let's not kid ourselves about this: the tax evasion industry is not restricted to Switzerland, and the culture of profiting from tax evasion is deeply embedded in many law firms.

We are not suggesting that all lawyers are crooks. But a significant minority undoubtedly are. And there is no evidence that this self-regulating profession has either the balls or the capability to get its house in order. This must change. Public opinion has shifted firmly against the tax evasion industry. Legal associations should take note and issue clear codes of conduct relating to how their members should advise on tax planning matters (rule of thumb: tax planning fine; tax evasion and avoidance absolutely unacceptable in all circumstances; likewise use of tax havens).

Here is the text of the press release issued by the DoJ:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
THURSDAY, AUGUST 20, 2009 (202) 514-2007
WWW.USDOJ.GOV TDD (202) 514-1888
SWISS BANKING EXECUTIVE AND SWISS LAWYER CHARGED WITH CONSPIRING TO DEFRAUD THE UNITED STATES

Defendants Aided Wealthy Americans Conceal Assets in Secret Swiss Bank Accounts

WASHINGTON - Hansruedi Schumacher and Matthias Rickenbach, both of Switzerland, were indicted today for conspiring to defraud the United States, the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced. According to the indictment, Schumacher worked as an executive manager at Neue Zuercher Bank (NZB), a Swiss private bank located in Zurich, Switzerland. Rickenbach worked as a Swiss attorney who provided legal advice and services to U.S. clients. Both are alleged to have aided wealthy Americans conceal assets and income in Switzerland from United States authorities.

According to the indictment, Schumacher and Rickenbach helped wealthy American clients conceal their assets by establishing sham and nominee offshore entities to hide their U.S. clients' assets and income while allowing these clients to still control the assets and make investment decisions.

The indictment further alleges that Schumacher and Rickenbach regularly traveled to the United States to conduct banking and investment activities with their U.S. clients and that when they traveled they concealed their business activities in the United States by falsely representing to American authorities that they were traveling to the U.S. for personal reasons. While in the United States, the defendants would sometimes bring cash for their clients..

According to court documents, Schumacher and Rickenbach aided their wealthy American clients repatriate money back to the United States using several deceptive means. Schumacher and Rickenbach helped their clients obtain offshore credit cards and created sham loan documents. Additionally, Schumacher and Rickenbach falsified bank documents to generate the appearance that assets of their U.S. clients belonged to Swiss citizens, and they falsified documents to disguise their United States clients' repatriation of offshore funds as inheritances from foreign citizens.

According to court documents, Schumacher and Rickenbach discouraged their U.S. clients from voluntarily coming into compliance in the United States. Instead, the defendants encouraged their clients to transfer their assets from UBS, a large Swiss bank, to NZB, a smaller bank in Switzerland. The defendants told their clients that their assets and identification would be safer at NZB because they had no presence in the United States and was therefore less likely to be pressured by the American authorities to disclose the identities of their United States clients.


"The Justice Department will continue to investigate leads provided by U.S. taxpayers who have come forward to disclose foreign bank accounts and will prosecute those foreign bankers and banks who illegally helped U.S. clients evade taxes," said John A. DiCicco, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Tax Division. "We encourage foreign banks to come forward and disclose their conduct immediately, before we learn about their criminal conduct from U.S. taxpayers."

"Today's Indictment is the latest prosecution in this District against foreign bankers and professionals who enabled and assisted wealthy Americans conceal their assets offshore," said Jeffrey H. Sloman, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "As more Americans voluntarily come into compliance and face their financial obligations, more leads are being developed and new investigations are initiated. American taxpayers who sought to avoid taxes by hiding their assets in Swiss accounts are on notice that this investigation continues."

"This is another step in our ongoing effort to pursue hidden offshore assets -- no matter where they are located," said IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman. "We're in the early stages of our work to crack down on offshore tax evasion. Through our efforts, we are gaining access to more and more information on institutions and individuals involved in offshore tax evasion, and you can expect us to use all of our enforcement tools to stop this abuse. For people with hidden offshore assets, they have an opportunity to get right with the government. Time is quickly running out, and people should take advantage of our voluntary disclosure process before special provisions expire September 23."

Acting Assistant Attorney General DiCicco and Acting U.S. Attorney Sloman commended the investigative efforts of the IRS agents involved in this case. The prosecution is being handled by Senior Litigation Counsel Kevin M. Downing and Trial Attorney Michael P. Ben'Ary of the Tax Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Neiman. U.S. citizens who have an interest in, or signature or other authority over, a financial account in a foreign country with assets in excess of $10,000 are required to disclose the existence of such account on Schedule B, Part III of their individual income tax return. Additionally, American citizens must file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, or F-Bar, with the U.S. Treasury, disclosing any financial account in a foreign country with assets in excess of $10,000 for which they have a financial interest in or signature authority, or other authority over.

More information about the Justice Department's Tax Division and its enforcement efforts is available at http://www.usdoj.gov/tax/.

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