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106 Swiss Banks seek Non-Prosecution Agreements and Non-Target Letter with the DOJ (but twice that, did not…)

Posted by William Byrnes on January 31, 2014


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On January 25, Kathryn Keneally, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Tax Division, served as the keynote speaker for the American Bar Association Section of Taxation 2014 Midyear Meeting. to provide agency updates – including on the Switzerland banks non-prosecution agreement program that expired December 31.  

David Voreacos of Bloomberg News reported that Kathryn Keneally, in her keynote remarks, stated that 106 Swiss banks (of approximately 300 total) filed the requisite letter of intent to join the Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters (the “Program“) by the December 31, 2013 deadline.  Renown attorney Jack Townsend reported on his blog on December 31st a list of 47 Swiss banks that had publicly announced the intention to submit the letter of intent, as well as each bank’s category for entry: six announced seeking category 4 status, eight for category 3, thirty-three for category 2.  106 is a large jump from the mid-December report by the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (“SwissInfo”) that only a few had filed for non prosecution with the DOJ’s program (e.g. Migros Bank, Bank COOP, Valiant, Berner Kantonalbank and Vontobel). [1]

SwissInfo reported that Migros Bank selected Program Category 2 because “370 of its 825,000 clients, mostly Swiss citizens residing temporarily in the US or clients with dual nationality”, met the criteria of US taxpayer.  Valiant told SwissInfo that “an internal review showed it had never actively sought US clients or visited Americans to drum up business. The bank said less than 0.1% of its clients were American.”   The DOJ reported that in July 2013, Liechtensteinische Landesbank AG, a bank based in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, entered into a non-prosecution agreement and agreed to pay more than $23.8 million stemming from its offshore banking activities, and turned over more than 200 account files of U.S. taxpayers who held undeclared accounts at the bank.

William R. Davis and Lee A. Sheppard of Tax Analysts’ Worldwide Tax Daily reported that “one private practitioner estimated that some 350 banks holding 40,000 accounts have not come in.” (see “ABA Meeting: Keneally Reports Success With Swiss Bank Program”, Jan. 28, 2014, 2014 WTD 18-3.)

Two court orders entered in November 2013 in a New York federal court will further aid the offshore compliance investigations by authorizing the IRS to serve what are known as “John Doe” summonses on five banks to obtain information about possible tax fraud by individuals whose identities are unknown.  The John Doe summonses direct the five banks to produce records identifying U.S. taxpayers holding interests in undisclosed accounts at Zurcher Kantonalbank (ZKB) and its affiliates in Switzerland and at The Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Limited (Butterfield) and its affiliates in Switzerland, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Malta and the United Kingdom.  The summonses also direct the five banks to produce information identifying foreign banks that used ZKB’s and Butterfield’s correspondent accounts at the five banks to service U.S. clients.

Swiss banks Wegelin ceased operations because of the DOJ investigation and its consequent guilty plea.  Bank Frey followed suit because of the DOJ investigation and costs of future compliance with FATCA (its former head of private banking was indicted, and an > attorney in the same indictment pled guilty to conspiracy to commit tax fraud <).  Frey bank, in a November 28, 2013 statement, defended itself: “In October, the former Bank Frey & Co. AG decided to cease its banking activities and to terminate all of its client relationships. Beforehand, the Bank verified the tax compliance of all its US clients, and an external auditor confirmed so. In addition, the Bank examined all of its other clients to determine whether they had any link to the US. Again, an external auditor checked and confirmed these findings. As a result, it was determined that Bank Frey did not have any clients with potential US tax issues.”

What is the Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks?

The Tax Division of the Department of Justice > released a statement on December 12 < strongly encouraging Swiss banks wanting to seek non-prosecution agreements to resolve past cross-border criminal tax violations to submit letters of intent by a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline required by the Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters (the “Program“).  The Program was announced on Aug. 29, 2013, in a > joint statement < signed by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole and Ambassador Manuel Sager of Switzerland (> See the Swiss government’s explanation of the Program < ).  Switzerland’s Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) has issued a deadline of Monday, December 16, 2013 for a bank to inform it with its intention to apply for the DOJ’s Program.[2]

The DOJ statement described the framework of the Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements: every Swiss bank not currently under formal criminal investigation concerning offshore activities will be able to provide the cooperation necessary to resolve potential criminal matters with the DOJ.  Currently, the department is actively investigating the Swiss-based activities of 14 banks.  Those banks, referred to as Category 1 banks in the Program, are expressly excluded from the Program.  Category 1 Banks against which the DoJ has initiated a criminal investigation as of 29 August 2013 (date of program publication).

On November 5, 2013 the Tax Division of the DOJ had released > comments about the Program for Non-Prosecution Agreements or Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks < .

Swiss banks that have committed violations of U.S. tax laws and wished to cooperate and receive a non-prosecution agreement under the Program, known as Category 2 banks, had until Dec. 31, 2013 to submit a letter of intent to join the program, and the category sought. 

To be eligible for a non-prosecution agreement, Category 2 banks must meet several requirements, which include agreeing to pay penalties based on the amount held in undeclared U.S. accounts, fully disclosing their cross-border activities, and providing detailed information on an account-by-account basis for accounts in which U.S. taxpayers have a direct or indirect interest.  Providing detailed information regarding other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed is also a stipulation for eligibility. The Swiss Federal Department of Finance has released a > model order and guidance note < that will allow Swiss banks to cooperate with the DOJ and fulfill the requirements of the Program.

The DOJ’s November comments responded to such issues as: (a) Bank-specific issues and issues concerning individuals, (b) Choosing which category among 2, 3, or 4, (c) Qualifications of independent examiner (attorney or accountant), (d) Content of independent examiner report, (e) Information required under the Program – no aggregate account data, (f) Penalty calculation – permitted reductions, (g) Category 4 banks – retroactive application of FATCA Annex II, paragraph II.A.1, and (h) Civil penalties.

Regarding which category to file under, the DOJ replied: “Each eligible Swiss bank should carefully analyze whether it is a category 2, 3 or 4 bank. While it may appear more desirable for a bank to attempt to position itself as a category 3 or 4 bank to receive a non-target letter, no non-target letter will be issued to any bank as to which the Department has information of criminal culpability. If the Department learns of criminal conduct by the bank after a non-target letter has been issued, the bank is not protected from prosecution for that conduct. If the bank has hidden or misrepresented its activities to obtain a non-target letter, it is exposed to increased criminal liability.”

Category 2 Banks against which the DoJ has not initiated a criminal investigation but have reasons to believe that that they have violated US tax law in their dealings with clients are subject to fines of on a flat-rate basis.  Set scale of fine rates (%) applied to the untaxed US assets of the bank in question:

– Existing accounts on 01.08.2008: 20%
– New accounts opened between 01.08.2008 and 28.02.2009: 30%
– New accounts after 28.02.2009: 50%

Category 2 banks must delivery of information on cross-border business with US clients, name and function of the employees and third parties concerned, anonymised data on terminated client relationships including statistics as to where the accounts re-domiciled.

Category 3 banks have no reason to believe that they have violated US tax law in their dealings with clients and that can have this demonstrated by an independent third party. A category 3 bank must provide to the IRS the data on its total US assets under management and confirmation of an effective compliance programme in force.

Category 4 banks are a local business in accordance with the FATCA definition.

Regarding the requirement of the independence of the qualified attorney or accountant examiner, the DOJ stated that the examiner “is not an advocate, agent, or attorney for the bank, nor is he or she an advocate or agent for the government. He or she must provide a neutral, dispassionate analysis of the bank’s activities. Communications with the independent examiner should not be considered confidential or protected by any privilege or immunity.”  The attorney / accountant’s report must be substantive, detailed, and address the requirements set out in the DOJ’s non-prosecution Program.  The DOJ stated that “Banks are required to cooperate fully and “come clean” to obtain the protection that is offered under the Program.”

In the ‘bottom line’ words of the DOJ: “Each eligible Swiss bank should carefully weigh the benefits of coming forward, and the risks of not taking this opportunity to be fully forthcoming. A bank that has engaged in or facilitated U.S. tax-related or monetary transaction crimes has a unique opportunity to resolve its criminal liability under the Program. Those that have criminal exposure but fail to come forward or participate but are not fully forthcoming do so at considerable risk.”

[1] See Mathew Allen, US tax deal could prove deadly for small banks, SwissInfo, December 10, 2013, available at http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/politics/US_tax_deal_could_prove_deadly_for_small_banks.html?cid=37506872

[2] See Supermarket banks sign up to US tax probe, SwissInfo, December 11, 2013, available at http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/business/Supermarket_banks_sign_up_to_US_tax_probe.html?cid=37516028 (accessed December 12, 2013).

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2 Responses to “106 Swiss Banks seek Non-Prosecution Agreements and Non-Target Letter with the DOJ (but twice that, did not…)”

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