UBS data transfer to U.S. possible – Swiss judge

By Reuters Staff
July 14, 2009

UBS attorneys By Lisa Jucca, European Wealth Management Correspondent

ZURICH, July 14 (Reuters) – Swiss bank UBSĀ  could transfer client data to the United States and end a damaging tax litigation without breaching Swiss bank secrecy laws, a top Swiss judge told Reuters on Tuesday.

U.S. authorities have asked UBS to disclose the identity of 52,000 Americans suspected of using secret Swiss accounts to dodge taxes. UBS has so far resisted saying a blanket request to disclose the names of the clients would breach Swiss law.

But Christoph Bandli, President of Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court which has the power to rule on data transfer, said U.S. tax officials can legitimately ask for unnamed client data as long as they set out a specific category of clients.

“Knowing the names of the clients is not obligatory. One can request administrative assistance also wthout having the clients’ name,” Bandli told Reuters.

“(But) you must define a specific category (of clients).”

Bank data transfer are regulated by the so-called U.S.-Swiss administrative assistance process.

Washington and Berne are in talks to find a way to pass on the data without breaching current Swiss law. A U.S. judge has agreed to delay a trial against UBS to Aug. 3 to allow the two governments to hammer out a settlement.

UBS and the Swiss Banking Association have said the request by U.S. tax authorites for the disclosure of the 52,000 client names is a dangerous “fishing expedition” not in line with existing international agreements.

“This is quite different from a “fishing expedition” and has nothing to do with it,” Bandli said, referring to a possible U.S. request for certain categories of unnamed UBS accounts.

Swiss bank secrecy is already weakening as the government accepted on March 13 to co-operate on tax evasion matters and not just on tax fraud.

In addition, UBS agreed in February to pass on around 250 client names to Washington to avoid criminal charges that would have put its existence at risk.

At the time, Washington had taken the administrative assistance route to access the client data, but lost patience as the process was slowed down by client appeals.

The concession, which tax experts say was a serious blow to the country’s bank secrecy, was made because the clients were said to have committed tax fraud, which the Swiss define as acts of forgery made with the intent of circumventing tax laws.

Bandli said the current agreement between Switzerland and the United States already allows for some bank data transfer in lesser offences, like tax evasion, as it covers cases of “tax fraud and the like”.

“This is not only about tax fraud,” Bandli said.

A spokesman for UBS could not be contacted immediately.

See also: UBS on right path to leave crisis behind – CEO memo

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