Fri, Feb 20, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Swiss raid HSBC unit in money laundering probe

AFP, GENEVA, Switzerland

Geneva canton prosecutor-general Olivier Jornot, second left, informs the media about investigations into HSBC Private Bank in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

Photo: EPA

Swiss authorities on Wednesday raided British banking giant HSBC’s Swiss unit as part of a money laundering probe into the bank that has been accused of helping clients to dodge millions of dollars in taxes.

The investigation comes just days after HSBC Switzerland became the center of a global scandal following the publication of secret documents claiming it assisted many of its wealthy clients in thwarting the taxman.

“A search is currently under way in the bank’s offices,” Geneva’s top prosecutors said in a statement.

The search and money laundering investigation was launched “following the recent revelations related to HSBC Private Bank (Switzerland),” they added.

The cache of files, made public in the so-called SwissLeaks case, claimed HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm helped clients in more than 200 countries evade taxes on accounts containing US$119 billion.

The files provided details on over 100,000 HSBC clients, including people targeted by US sanctions, suspected arms dealers and drug traffickers. A wide range of celebrities, politicians and business leaders were also named, although their inclusion does not necessarily imply wrongdoing.

The documents, originally stolen by former HSBC IT worker Herve Falciani in 2007, alleged that billions of dollars transited through the bank as clients from around the world tried to dodge taxes in their home countries or laundered dodgy proceeds through offshore shell corporations.

Falciani told Swiss television RTS late on Wednesday that he was ready to help the Swiss authorities in their investigation against HSBC in return for “safe passage.”

The Swiss have charged him with data theft.

He said he would cooperate with the Swiss in the same way he has with the Spanish authorities by sharing information through the “cloud.”

Following the raid, HSBC Switzerland said: “We have cooperated continuously with the Swiss authorities since first becoming aware of the data theft in 2008 and we continue to cooperate.”

According to Swiss law, a bank can be held responsible for “aggravated money laundering” if it does not take all the necessary measures to ensure such infractions do not take place within its institution.

Geneva canton prosecutor-general Olivier Jornot and another top prosecutor, Yves Bertossa, were heading the HSBC investigations.

They said the probe initially only targeted the bank itself, but warned that “depending on the evolution, the investigation might be broadened to include physical persons suspected of committing or participating in acts of money laundering.”

Anyone found guilty of such crimes could face up to five years behind bars as well as large fines.

The SwissLeaks documents were obtained by French newspaper Le Monde and shared via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with more than 45 media organizations worldwide.

As soon as the documents were made public on Feb. 9, calls arose for a Swiss probe against HSBC Switzerland, which is already facing prosecution in the US, France, Argentina, Spain and Belgium. Switzerland had so far only launched an investigation against Falciani.

Falciani himself said last week that the media reports on the documents’ contents were based on just a fraction of the files he handed over to French authorities.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” the 43-year-old Franco-Italian told France’s Le Parisien newspaper.

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