GENEVA (AFP) – Banking giant HSBC faced damaging claims Monday that its Swiss division helped wealthy customers dodge millions of dollars in taxes after a ‘SwissLeaks’ cache of secret files emerged online.
The documents, published over the weekend, claim the bank helped clients in more than 200 countries evade taxes on accounts containing $119 billion (104 billion euros).
The huge cache of files has sparked criminal probes in several countries and attempts to claw back cash after being stolen by an IT worker in 2007 and passed to French authorities.
The files were then obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – a network of investigative reporters – via French newspaper Le Monde.
The files were shared with the BBC and The Guardian newspaper in Britain, US programme 60 Minutes, German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and more than 45 other media organisations worldwide.
The documents showed that HSBC provided accounts to international criminals, businessmen, politicians and celebrities, according to the ICIJ.
The revelations are likely to stoke calls for a crackdown on sophisticated tax avoidance by the wealthy and by multinational companies, a key political issue in Britain and Europe. Tax avoidance is legal, but tax evasion is not.
“HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channelled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws,” ICIJ reported.
The files list a range of former and current politicians from Britain, Russia, India and a range of African countries, Saudi, Bahraini, Jordanian and Moroccan royalty, and the late Australian press magnate Kerry Packer.
The BBC’s Panorama television programme and The Guardian meanwhile reported that the files included evidence that HSBC colluded with some clients to hide accounts from tax authorities in their home countries.
HSBC’s Swiss banking arm insisted Monday it has since undergone a “radical transformation”.
“HSBC’s Swiss Private Bank began a radical transformation in 2008 to prevent its services from being used to evade taxes or launder money,” Franco Morra, the head of HSBC’s Swiss unit, told AFP in an email.
“New senior management have comprehensively overhauled the business, including closing the accounts of clients who did not meet our high standards and ensuring we have strong compliance controls in place,” he said.
Morra said: “We have no appetite for business with clients or potential clients who do not meet our financial crime compliance standards.
“These disclosures about historical business practices are a reminder that the old business model of Swiss private banking is no longer acceptable,” he added.
Notes in the files indicate HSBC workers were aware of clients’ intentions to keep money hidden from national authorities.
Of one Danish account holder collecting cash bundles of kroner, an employee wrote: “All contacts through one of her 3 daughters living in London. Account holder living in Denmark, i.e. critical as it is a criminal act having an account abroad non declared.”
In another memo, an HSBC manager discusses how a London-based financier codenamed “Painter” and his partner could avoid Italian tax.
Names in the files include people sanctioned by the United States, including Turkish businessman Selim Alguadis and Gennady Timchenko, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin targeted by sanctions over Ukraine.
Alguadis told the ICIJ it was prudent to keep savings off-shore, while a spokesman for Timchenko said he was fully compliant with tax matters.
Former Egyptian trade minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid, who fled Cairo during the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak, is listed as having power of attorney over an account worth $31 million, according to the files.
Other individuals named include the late Frantz Merceron, an associate of former Haitian president Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Makhlouf did not respond to a request for comment from the ICIJ.
Also named were designer Diane von Furstenberg, who told the ICIJ the accounts were inherited from her parents, and model Elle Macpherson, whose lawyers told the ICIJ she was fully in compliance with UK tax law.
Motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi, listed as having $23.9 million in two accounts, said he had regularised his tax situation with Italian authorities.
Formula One businessman Flavio Briatore is connected to 38 bank accounts that held as much as $73 million between 2006-2007, according to the ICIJ. His lawyer told the ICIJ Briatore’s accounts were legal and complied with tax laws.
The files were obtained by former HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower Herve Falciani, who copied thousands of bank documents before fleeing from Switzerland to France, where they were obtained by tax authorities in 2009.