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Swiss Disclosure Deal--'No Secrets Now'

It seemed inevitable that Switzerland, once known for its discretion, had to give in to the U.S. government. With the new Swiss enabling law, legal impediments to disclosures slip away. Supplying client names and account data will occur under a treaty, but now banks will be able to do it, period.

The Swiss government said that it would allow its banks to disclose information on American clients with hidden accounts, a watershed move intended to help resolve a long-running dispute with the United States over tax evasion.

The decision, which comes amid widening scrutiny in Europe of tax havens, is a turning point in what has been an escalating conflict between Switzerland and the United States.

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Switzerland’s finance minister, said the move would enable Swiss banks to accept an offer by the United States government to hand over broad client details and pay fines in exchange for a promise by United States authorities not to indict any banks.

Switzerland Weighs Deal in Tax Cases (May 28, 2013)
Disclosure of actual client names and account data, which American authorities have been aggressively seeking, would take place under a taxation treaty between the two countries that the American side has not yet ratified. Banks under criminal scrutiny that agree to cooperate with the decision could still face deferred-prosecution or nonprosecution agreements, a lesser punishment than indictment.

American clients whose names are handed over by Swiss banks but who have not voluntarily disclosed hidden accounts to the Internal Revenue Service would probably face criminal tax-evasion charges, lawyers said. Dozens of Americans have been indicted or charged in recent years for failing to disclose their accounts.

Until now, the Swiss government has been resisting cooperation because the secrecy of its banking system has long made the country an offshore money haven for wealthy foreigners.

The country is also under growing pressure from the European Union to assist in ferreting out citizens who have sheltered money using offshore private banking services. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but nations including France and Germany have tired of watching their citizens squirrel away cash with impunity right across their borders.

That’s a relief, since many employees have faced pressure from the U.S. to disclose, with opposing pressure under Swiss law to clam up. American authorities have indicted several dozen Swiss bankers, lawyers and financial advisers. In some cases these foreign nationals have never set foot in the U.S.

Will the legal change mean more disclosures of American names? Yes, but a bigger change will be the easing of tensions in Swiss banks. They can finally start working out deals with the U.S. Soon, they can hand over broad client details and pay fines in making deals with U.S. authorities.

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