The US and Swiss governments and banking giant UBS AG indicated on Sunday that they were seeking a settlement and asked a federal judge to delay high-stakes hearings on the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) effort to identify thousands of suspected US tax evaders.
The one-page motion, filed in Miami less than 24 hours before the hearings were to begin yesterday, said postponement is needed “to allow the two governments to continue their discussions seeking a resolution of this matter.”
Unless a deal is reached beforehand, the filing asks that the hearing be rescheduled for Aug. 3.
US District Judge Alan Gold did not immediately rule on the request, but judges routinely allow parties in civil cases extra time to settle out of court.
In a statement, the US Justice Department said any agreement would have to require that UBS provide “information on a significant number of individuals with UBS accounts.”
“If an alternative resolution is not reached, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously pursue enforcement of the summons through the court,” the statement said.
In Zurich, UBS welcomed the announcement that the US and Swiss governments had agreed to negotiations on resolving the litigation.
“This agreement has resulted in a joint motion by the US government and UBS, with the support of the Swiss government, for a stay of the litigation in Miami for a duration of 15 days in order to achieve a settlement,” UBS said in a statement.
The case seeking the identities of some 52,000 wealthy US clients suspected of hiding US$15 billion at UBS has already sent shock waves through the international banking system.
Bankers fear a ruling against UBS would disrupt cross-border commerce, force people to withdraw huge sums of money from financial entities with offshore offices and play havoc with international tax treaties.
Experts say some other foreign banks are asking US clients to close out accounts for fear they may be targeted next.
“The precedent this case may set is of immediate relevance to all financial institutions with global operations,” the Institute of International Bankers and other financial organizations said in a recent court filing.
The UBS case has persuaded hundreds of taxpayers with offshore accounts to come clean with the IRS under a voluntary disclosure program. The program allows most people to pay a fine and back taxes without facing criminal prosecution, said tax attorney Robert McKenzie with the Arnstein & Lehr firm.
“The IRS would like to continue the specter of fear that this UBS case has created,” McKenzie said. “This strategy is working. The level of calls I’m receiving is picking up, not going down.”
UBS, which previously admitted wrongdoing in a more limited US tax case, is resisting turning over the names that have been protected by centuries-old Swiss bank secrecy laws.
“Honoring the IRS summons would require UBS to violate Swiss criminal law, and we simply cannot comply,” said Oswald Gruebel, UBS chief executive officer, in a letter to bank offices worldwide. “This matter should be resolved between governments according to established frameworks.”
The Swiss government escalated the dispute last week by threatening to block release of the UBS account names if Gold rules for the IRS.
One of Europe’s biggest banks, UBS has about 34,000 permanent and contract employees at 381 locations in the US, the company said.