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Swiss scandal: HSBC hid millions for drug traffickers, arms dealers and global celebs
SECRET documents published online alleging banking giant HSBC helped wealthy customers dodge millions of dollars in taxes caused global shock waves Monday and spotlighted the financial dealings of the world’s ultra-rich.
The cache of files made public in the so-called SwissLeaks case included the names of celebrities, alleged arms dealers and politicians — though inclusion on the list is not proof of any wrongdoing.
The documents published at the weekend claim the London-based bank’s Swiss division helped clients in more than 200 countries evade taxes on accounts containing $A151 billion (104 billion euros).
The huge cache of files from Europe’s biggest bank was stolen by an IT worker in 2007 and passed to French authorities, but had not been previously made public.
Source: Getty Images
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) obtained the files via French newspaper Le Monde and shared them with more than 45 other media organisations worldwide.
The documents showed that HSBC opened Swiss accounts for international criminals, businessmen, politicians and celebrities, according to the ICIJ.
The revelations renewed calls for a crackdown on sophisticated tax avoidance by the wealthy and multinational companies. Tax avoidance is legal, but tax evasion is not.
“HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channelled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws,” ICIJ reported.
A range of current and former politicians from Russia, India and various African countries, as well as Saudi, Bahraini, Jordanian and Moroccan royalty, and the late Australian press magnate Kerry Packer were named in the files.
Following the bombshell disclosure, there were calls for a Swiss probe against the bank, which is already facing prosecution in France and Belgium.
Global fallout on Monday included a Belgian judge said to be considering international arrest warrants for directors of HSBC’s Swiss division, while in Britain a political row was triggered, with the main parties blaming each other for not taking action.
Shares in HSBC, whose reputation has been tarnished in recent years by a string of high-profile controversies, were down 1.64 per cent to 610.60 pence at the close of trading in London.
So far Switzerland has only launched an investigation against HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower Herve Falciani, who stole the files at the heart of the scandal.
In an interview on Monday, the ex-HSBC employee called for more protections for whistleblowers.
“If you want to counterbalance impunity, you have to provide the means to do so,” Falciani told Swiss public broadcaster RTS.
“I hope they will have enough energy left after investigating me for the past six years to investigate the bank.” The files were used by the French government to track down tax evaders and shared with other states in 2010, leading to a series of prosecutions.
British tax authorities said Monday they had brought in more than £135 million (181 million euros, $A263 million) on the basis of the files.
HSBC’s Swiss banking arm insisted it has since undergone a “radical transformation”.
“HSBC’s Swiss Private Bank began a radical transformation in 2008 to prevent its services from being used to evade taxes or launder money,” Franco Morra, the head of HSBC’s Swiss unit, told AFP in an email.
He said the bank had closed the accounts of clients “who did not meet our high standards” and had “strong compliance controls in place,” adding that the disclosures were “a reminder that the old business model of Swiss private banking is no longer acceptable.” The Swiss Banking Association said the country’s banks had worked hard in recent years to clean up shop.
Notes in the leaked files indicate HSBC workers were aware of clients’ intentions to keep money hidden from national authorities.
Of one Danish account holder collecting cash bundles of kroner, an employee wrote: “All contacts through one of her three daughters living in London. Account holder living in Denmark, i.e. critical as it is a criminal act having an account abroad non declared.” The files provide details on over 100,000 HSBC clients, including people targeted by US sanctions, such as Turkish businessman Selim Alguadis and Gennady Timchenko, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Alguadis told the ICIJ it was prudent to keep savings offshore, while a spokesman for Timchenko said he was fully compliant with tax matters.
Other individuals named on the list include Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, designer Diane von Furstenberg, who told the ICIJ the accounts were inherited from her parents, and model Elle Macpherson, whose lawyers told the ICIJ she was fully in compliance with UK tax law.
Motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi, listed as having $A30.7 million in two accounts, said he had regularised his tax situation with Italian authorities.
Chinese Up in Arms Over $1.2 Billion Lost in Alleged Scam
by Giles Broom, Alfred Liu
June 15, 2015 — 1:00 AM CEST
Updated on June 15, 2015 — 8:55 AM CEST(Bloomberg) –- Some Chinese investors are now taking to the streets in Beijing and Hong Kong as they protest and alleged currency scam. Victims say nearly 30,000 were robbed of more than $1B.
Street protests in Beijing and Hong Kong. Chinese investors flying 5,000 miles to show up on doorsteps in Geneva and demand their money back. It’s the fallout so far from an alleged scam that its victims say robbed 29,000 Chinese investors of $1.2 billion.They were promised returns of as much as 10 percent a month from currency trading by API Premiere Swiss Trust AG and associated companies, according to interviews with six victims and documents they shared over the past three months. The money disappeared from their accounts in January, the investors said.“We wanted to know the truth,” said Chen Biya, 43, an advertising agency owner in Beijing who flew to Geneva in late March with two dozen fellow investors to try to recover their missing millions. They sought redress at API’s locked former offices, the public prosecutor and in meetings with lawyers, then went to Bern and Zurich to appeal to the Chinese embassy and Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, known as Finma, he said. “But nobody has been able to tell us the entire story.”
Unprecedented billions of yuan flowing from China and into investments around the world are creating opportunities for fraudsters, as well as legitimate money managers trying to get their hands on the cash. The cross-border nature of the flows is posing challenges for regulators and crime fighters alike.
“Frankly, the law enforcement authorities tend to be focused only within their own jurisdictions and move deadly slowly on investigations,” said Steve Vickers of Hong Kong-based risk consultancy Steve Vickers & Associates, who said the large amounts of capital seeking offshore havens, some by circumventing China’s currency controls, make Chinese more vulnerable to cross-border crime.
Geneva’s public prosecutor confirmed it’s investigating API and an associated company, Alpen Asset Management Trust Sarl — both described as “heavily indebted” by Finma, which initiated bankruptcy proceedings against them last month. In January, Finma issued a public warning that API and Alpen were wrongly claiming to be licensed and supervised by the Swiss regulator. It came about 10 days after the investors said they discovered their accounts had been emptied.
Representatives of API and Alpen couldn’t be contacted, except for the former API director listed in the Swiss public register, Aleksander Kaja, who declined to comment. Offices formerly used by API in Geneva were vacated months ago, while a Hong Kong office was also abandoned, with a writ for unpaid rent left stuck to the doors.
“Both companies used their Swiss image to attract new clients, although they were mainly managed from abroad,” said Vinzenz Mathys, a spokesman for Bern-based Finma. “This, along with the losses endured by depositors, has a negative impact on the Swiss financial market’s good reputation.”
Chinese investors said they thought the company’s claim it was regulated in Switzerland made it secure.
API Investors Protest
API Premiere Swiss Trust AG investors hold signs during a protest outside the the government’s petition office in Beijing, China.
Han Mingyun via Bloomberg
“Switzerland is famous for its financial-services industry,” said Han Mingyun, a 65-year-old widow in Wuhan who said she was lured by the promise of a Swiss investment and saw $45,000 in savings disappear. “They are supposed to be the best and safe.”
Asked last week about the alleged scam and API’s use of Switzerland to draw investors from China, Finma’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Branson said: “Where there is a financial center, people will always try to take advantage.”
In Beijing, scores of investors have held four protests, the latest last week outside the Embassy of Switzerland, urging the Swiss government to work with China on the investigation.
On May 20, they protested outside the government petition office in Dongcheng district, urging that Chinese police set up a unit to investigate. The Beijing Public Security Bureau and Ministry of Public Security didn’t respond to faxed requests for comment. Two telephone calls to the petition office went unanswered.
“We want the police to strengthen their investigation,” said Han, the widow, who took part in the latest Beijing protest. “People around the country are still suffering from the scam.”
The investors said they are aware of complaints from places including Shanghai, Zhejiang, Chengdu, Chongqing, Jiangsu, Hubei and Shenzhen and they believe their ranks number 29,000 people who lost the equivalent of $1.2 billion. They were directed to deposit money in bank accounts in Hong Kong or China, where API representatives told them they would send the money to Switzerland, they said.
Some of the individual investments totaled more than 1 million yuan ($161,000), according to a report by China Central Television. China’s capital controls limit the amount that can be taken out of the country to $50,000 a person per year.
After the money in their online API accounts disappeared, investors said they received a message from the company saying it had been hacked, urging patience and time for API to restore balances and compensate customers. After that, they were unable to contact company representatives, they said.
Investors in Hong Kong staged a protest outside a police station in Kowloon demanding stepped-up efforts, according to photos on a website created by API’s investors to share information, which didn’t post the date.
A lawsuit against a company called API Premiere Ltd. filed in Hong Kong’s High Court by investor Sun Zhiming said a representative of API approached him on an instant-messaging service. Sun then invested HK$147 million ($19 million) for gold and foreign-currency trading, which disappeared, the suit said. API Premiere’s director listed in the Hong Kong Companies Registry is Ong Chew Hoon of Singapore.
“People around the country are still suffering from the scam”
Visits to listed Singapore and Hong Kong residences for Ong didn’t locate him, with one address proving to be false. A mobile phone number for Ong provided by investors isn’t in service. Police spokesmen in Singapore and Hong Kong wouldn’t comment on whether Ong is the subject of an investigation.
Hong Kong police are investigating 136 complaints of suspected fraud from investors who said they invested a total of HK$415 million with API, according to a police spokeswoman who didn’t give her name due to policy.
Over the past two years, API’s representatives pitched investments in Hong Kong and China, hosted an investor event in Singapore — offering free flights and five-star accommodation – - and gave incentives for people to draw in their friends, according to the investors.
API’s website cites a history in Switzerland stretching back 59 years, services including algorithmic trading and wealth management, and offices in Geneva, Zurich and Hong Kong, with Shanghai “coming soon.” Its explanation of foreign-exchange trading was taken from Wikipedia. Its promotional video shows luxury yachts on Lake Geneva, traders at computer screens and a Chinese man identifying himself as the vice president of greater China for API climbing into the passenger seat of a Ferrari so that the “boss,” whose face isn’t visible, can show him around.
Turning up unannounced in Switzerland in March, the Chinese investor group “made a desperate whistle-stop tour of the public prosecutor, the financial regulator and the Chinese embassy in search of a remedy,” said Franco Foglia, a lawyer in Geneva who was also among those who met with the investors in their search for help.
“I was convinced they are the victims of a fraud, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be to find justice for a scam they barely understand in a country whose language and culture they don’t understand,” said Foglia. “Whoever these fraudsters are, they obviously misused Switzerland’s strong reputation in Asia to lure people to invest their money.”
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