This week, UBS Group AG confirmed that it was under a new investigation over whether the Switzerland bank sold unregistered securities to US taxpayers in violation of US law. This article will discuss the new UBS probe and the threat it poses to US owners of undisclosed UBS accounts who never went through an offshore voluntary disclosure. This article is not intended to convey tax or legal advice.
Prior Investigations and 2009 Deferred-Prosecution Agreement
The 2015 bearer bond investigation of UBS is the latest in the series of DOJ investigations of UBS. Previously, in 2009, as a result a landmark DOJ victory that started the today’s rout of bank secrecy laws throughout the world, UBS paid a $780 million dollar fine and disclosed 250 previously undisclosed UBS accounts of US taxpayers to the DOJ (some of the owners of these undisclosed UBS accounts were later criminally prosecuted by the IRS). The bank promised that it would be compliant with US law under its deferred-prosecution agreement with the DOJ. The agreement expired in October, 2010. This was a critical agreement for the US owners of undisclosed UBS accounts, and we will come back to this subject below.
In addition to the deferred-prosecution agreement in 2009, UBS also settled an antitrust case in 2011 concerning the municipal-bond investments market, and resolved a 2012 DOJ investigation involving alleged rigging of the London interbank offered rate (Libor). UBS was granted an agreement to extend the term of its non-prosecution deal in the latter investigation until later this year. Additionally, in a probe not involving the DOJ, UBS paid US, UK and Swiss authorities nearly $800 million in November to settle allegations that they did not have satisfactory controls to prevent traders from attempting to rig Forex dealing.
The DOJ also has reportedly also opened a new investigation concerning certain currency-linked structured products sold by UBS. International tax attorneys who worked with undisclosed UBS accounts for their US clients in the past know how common it was for UBS to sell these products to their US clients.
The 2015 UBS Investigation
As noted above, the new investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. UBS stated in its fourth-quarter report, “In January 2015, we received inquiries from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which are investigating potential sales to U.S. persons of bearer bonds and other unregistered securities.” UBS added that it was cooperating with the authorities in the probes. According to various new sources, the bank is also being probed as to whether the alleged sales occurred while the bank was under DOJ supervision from its earlier 2009 tax evasion case.
Bearer bonds can be redeemed by anybody physically holding them. Because of the ease with which these instruments can be transferred, they are a potentially useful tool for enabling individuals to hide assets and evade taxes. While bearer bonds were not deposited on undisclosed UBS accounts, some US owners of undisclosed UBS accounts were owners of these unregulated instruments.
Undisclosed UBS Accounts and the 2015 UBS Investigation
According to various sources, if UBS is found to have breached the agreement by selling the unregistered bearer bonds to US persons in violation of US law during the time period in which the agreement was still in effect, it is possible that the DOJ will prosecute the bank under the original conspiracy charge, in addition to filing new charges and penalties.
The significance of this scenario lies in the fact that there may still be US taxpayers with undisclosed UBS accounts (whether owned directly, indirectly or constructively). Many of these taxpayers were trying to hide in the relative safety of the UBS 2009 Deferred-Prosecution Agreement, hoping that the worst was over for UBS.
Moreover, because UBS was classified as a Category 1 bank, it could not participate in the DOJ Program for Swiss Banks. This gave a wrong type of encouragement to some US owners of undisclosed UBS accounts not to come forward and go through a voluntary disclosure program.
In reality, however, due to the fact that UBS was the first bank that succumbed to the pressure from the US DOJ and disclosed previously undisclosed UBS accounts owned by US persons, the DOJ’s deal with UBS was relatively mild compared to the later penalties on other large Swiss Banks (such as Credit Suisse). Hence, there is a great incentive for the DOJ to re-open the investigation into UBS to force the bank to pay an amount equivalent to its other Swiss peers.
This means that, if the 2015 investigation is successful and the DOJ can get around the 2009 Deferred-Prosecution Agreement, the UBS may, in a new deal with DOJ, conduct a wholesale disclosure of the US owners of undisclosed UBS accounts – not only the current owners, but also the US owners who had undisclosed UBS accounts in the years 2008-2010.
What Should the US Owners of Undisclosed UBS Accounts Do?
Thus, the 2015 DOJ investigation of UBS could have disastrous consequences for US persons who owned undisclosed UBS accounts between the years 2008 and the present time. The premature disclosure of undisclosed UBS accounts may foreclose very important voluntary disclosure options for the US owners of these undisclosed UBS accounts. The subsequent investigations by the IRS may result in draconian civil penalties and even criminal prosecutions.
This is why US persons who owned undisclosed UBS accounts should contact an experienced international tax attorney to discuss their voluntary disclosure options as soon as possible.
Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Help with Your Undisclosed Foreign Accounts
If you are have not disclosed your foreign accounts (including undisclosed UBS accounts) to the IRS, you are advised to immediately contact the experienced international tax law firm of Sherayzen Law Office, Ltd. For many years now, we have been helping US taxpayers like you to bring their US tax affairs into full compliance, and we can help you.