Bloomberg With Nice Details on UBS Tax-Cheating Service

A cool story from Bloomberg pries some nice details from the tax-avoidance case that for the last few years has roiled UBS, a bank that hasn’t had this much bad press since it settled claims of laundering funds for the Nazis and stealing Holocaust victims’ deposits.

Reporter David Voreacos of the Tribe of the Twin Terminals delves into the case stemming from the testimony of two convicted tax cheats, California billionaire Igor Olenicoff and his private UBS banker, Bradley Birkenfeld, who was one of a flying squadron of UBS bankers whose job it was to hang around venues of the rich as a drug dealer might hang around schoolyards, picking up clients:

“You might go to car shows, wine tastings,” Birkenfeld said. “You might deal with real estate agents. You might deal with attorneys. It’s really: Where do the rich people hang out? Go and talk to them.”

As many as 60 UBS private bankers trolled for clients at UBS-sponsored art shows, yachting regattas, and golf and tennis tournaments, Birkenfeld said.

What is your opening line at one of these things? “Hi, you look rich; need a hand with all that ‘scarole? Maybe you want to not pay taxes on it?”

Birkenfeld gives new meaning to the expression “full service.”

He toted customer checks to deposit in European banks and bought diamonds for one client, smuggling them to the U.S. in a toothpaste tube, he said in pleading guilty to conspiracy in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in June 2008.

By serving as couriers, the UBS bankers enabled clients to sidestep a U.S. surveillance system that reviews large cash transfers. That program is intended to prevent fraud, money laundering and the movement of funds by terrorists.

And there was other cloak-and-dagger stuff:

The bank had extensive schemes to avoid getting caught by U.S. regulators, Birkenfeld told Senate investigators. UBS bankers carried encrypted laptop computers, and the Swiss bank trained its staff to dodge detection by U.S. authorities.

The bankers falsely said on customs forms that they were traveling for pleasure, not business, and told clients to destroy offshore records that could be tied to UBS, Birkenfeld said in his guilty plea.

Good quote here:

“Very few people would have imagined the level of complicity of the UBS bankers and executives,” says Josh Ungerman, a tax lawyer at Meadows, Collier, Reed, Cousins & Blau LLP in Dallas. “It’s almost unbelievable that a major worldwide bank that was as well respected would have employees engage in that type of behavior.”

I certainly didn’t.

Olenicoff took the bankers under his wing; they partied on his dime:

Staggl[another banker; now a fugitive] and Birkenfeld traveled for nine days in 2004 with Olenicoff and his friends to Mayan ruins in Honduras. Olenicoff says he flew the group on his Citation jet to Roatan Island off Honduras, where he sent ahead his Sterling yacht, which was built in Japan in 1986.

After that, they flew to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, he says.

“It was lots of activity and adventure,” Olenicoff says. “I considered them dear friends. Otherwise, I would never have invited them to share this experience with me.”

The friendship ended badly; now Olenicoff is suing the bank for allegedly lying to him about his tax liabilities:

“The guy was still a friend and he was helping me, and he was consoling me with my IRS issues,” Olenicoff says. “Talk about a two-faced liar. I considered these bankers friends, but all the time they were screwing me. That’s the way that group works. They talk right, they smell right, but they’re not right.”

The scope of the UBS case is enormous, as are the implications for the Swiss banking “industry,” if that’s the right word for it:

The bank turned over information on more than 250 customers — an unprecedented breach of Switzerland’s bulwark of secrecy. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service is suing UBS in federal court in Miami to get the names of 52,000 American account holders who may have broken U.S. tax laws.

Apparently, an indictment of the bank is still a possibility:

If the bank fails to convince a federal judge that it shouldn’t turn over the names to the IRS, the court can fine UBS for civil contempt. The Justice Department, under the deferred- prosecution agreement, could seek criminal indictment of the bank, says tax attorney Robert Fink of Kostelanetz & Fink LLP in New York.

An indictment of a bank can be lethal if customers doubt its stability.

“That could be the most dangerous thing of all for UBS,” says Fink, whose firm represents 200 UBS clients. “UBS is on the road to destruction in the U.S. They’re totally whipsawed. If they’re indicted, they will be convicted. Eventually, they will lose their banking license.”

This is a bank that has amassed $50 (that’s five-oh) billion in writedowns since 2007, mostly on U.S. mortgage debt.

What can we say but, go, IRS, go. Good story here.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.