Switzerland's oldest bank became the first foreign bank to plead guilty in the United States to tax charges when it admitted Thursday that it helped American clients hide more than $1.2 billion from the Internal Revenue Service.
Wegelin & Co., founded in 1741, entered the plea in federal court in Manhattan, agreeing to pay $20 million in restitution to the IRS, a $22 million fine and an additional $15.8 million, representing the gross fees earned by the bank on the undeclared accounts of U.S. taxpayers between 2002 and 2011. U.S. authorities said the money, combined with an April forfeiture of more than $16.2 million by the bank, meant the U.S. had recovered about $74 million.
The bank had been accused of helping at least 100 U.S. clients conceal large sums of money from the federal tax collection agency in overseas accounts.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the bank became a haven for U.S. taxpayers looking to cheat on taxes through secret off-shore accounts.
"The bank willfully and aggressively jumped in to fill a void that was left when other Swiss banks abandoned the practice due to pressure from U.S. law enforcement," Bharara said.
He called it a "watershed moment in our efforts to hold to account both the individuals and the banks — wherever they may be in the world — who are engaging in unlawful conduct that deprives the U.S. Treasury of billions of dollars of tax revenue."
Wegelin, headquartered in St. Gallen, Switzerland, said in a statement that it had cooperated with the probe "within the bounds allowed for by Swiss law" since learning that it was under U.S. investigation.
U.S. authorities said Wegelin had no branches outside Switzerland but accessed the U.S. banking system through a correspondent bank account that it held at UBS AG in Stamford, Conn.
Prosecutors said Wegelin in 2008 and 2009 opened and serviced dozens of new accounts for U.S. taxpayers as it tried to capture clients lost by UBS after word surfaced that that UBS was being investigated for helping U.S. taxpayers evade taxes and hide assets in Swiss bank accounts.
Wegelin employees told U.S. taxpayer-clients that their undeclared accounts would not be disclosed to U.S. authorities because the bank had a long tradition of secrecy, prosecutors said. They added that the employees persuaded U.S. taxpayer-clients to move money from UBS to Wegelin by claiming that, unlike UBS, Wegelin did not have offices outside of Switzerland and would be less vulnerable to U.S. law enforcement.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said, Wegelin took additional steps to hide the accounts, including by putting them in the names of sham corporations and foundations formed under the laws of jurisdictions that included Hong Kong and Panama and by using code names and numbers to minimize references to the actual names of U.S. taxpayers on Swiss bank documents. They said the bank also was careful not to send account statements to U.S. clients in the United States and corresponded with clients through private email accounts.
In February 2009, UBS entered a deferred prosecution agreement with U.S. authorities and agreed to pay $780 million in fines, penalties, interest and restitution.