On January 3, 2013, Wegelin & Co., the oldest Swiss private bank announced that it will close down following its guilty plea to criminal charges of conspiracy to help wealthy U.S. taxpayers evade taxes through secret financial accounts. The guilty plea and the closure of one of the most prestigious European banks that served its clients since the year 1741 constitute big victories for the U.S. authorities. It surely will inspire additional movement of non-compliant U.S. taxpayers into the 2012 OVDP (Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program) as well as ensure more widespread compliance with the FBAR, Form 8938 and other numerous international tax forms required by the IRS.
However, in addition to its significance to U.S. tax compliance, the Wegelin case also has other interesting features that may point to future trends in the IRS international tax enforcement. In this article, I will outline these trends and explore their potential implications for U.S. tax enforcement.
Jurisdiction to Prosecute Foreign Banks: Minimal Contact Will Suffice
In order to criminally charge a foreign bank, U.S. tax authorities need to establish some connection between the United States and the foreign bank. It appears that after the Wegelin case, proving U.S. exposure will not a be a significant problem for the IRS.
The main reason for Wegelin’s bold defiant behavior (Wegelin specifically advertised itself as a safe, tax-free alternative to U.S. taxpayers who were fleeing UBS after criminal prosecution charges were filed against UBS in 2008) was its deep belief that it cannot be criminally prosecuted in the United States because U.S. tax authorities have no jurisdiction over it. Unlike UBS, Wegelin had virtually no physical presence in the United States, no operating divisions and no branch offices in the United States.
However, Wegelin miscalculated. The IRS discovered that Wegelin did have presence in the United States because it “directly accessed” the U.S. banking system through a correspondent account that it held at UBS AG (“UBS”) in Stamford, Connecticut. The Justice Department successfully argued that this one correspondent account was sufficient to give the United States government the jurisdiction to criminally charge Wegelin.
Hence, one of the biggest consequences of the Wegelin case is that it will not be difficult for the U.S. tax authorities to establish jurisdiction to criminally charge foreign banks even with very insignificant presence in the United States.
Size Matters: Increased Risk for Smaller Banks
The other important lesson of the Wegelin case is that it appears that the IRS is more likely to aggressively pursue smaller banks than the bigger banks the demise of which can cause systemic instability in the world economy.
The collapse of Wegelin stands in stark contrast to the survival of its bigger Swiss rival, UBS. UBS offered pretty much the same services to U.S. taxpayers as Wegelin involving vastly larger number of U.S. persons and amounts of money (at the very least, 20 billion dollars versus Wegelin’s 1.2 billion dollars). The IRS did file criminal charges against UBS, but UBS entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and charges were dropped eighteen months later.
It could be that some of the aggressiveness of the U.S. government came precisely from Wegelin’s defiant stance. In order to reinforce its recent victory in the UBS case, the IRS had to adopt a more assertive stand. However, it did not necessarily have to end in Wegelin’s demise.
Some commentators argued that Wegelin was already a shadow of its former self at the time of its closure, because it aggressively sold-off all of its non-US related assets. Therefore, it may be argued that it is premature to draw general conclusions from the Wegelin’s case about the risks facing small foreign banks who find themselves indicted by the U.S. government. On the other hand, the very fact that Wegelin decided that it would be better for the bank to sell off its assets rather than fight the IRS and the fact that the U.S. government was not concerned about this decision do point to a conclusion that the Wegelin case may be demonstrative of the general vulnerability of smaller banks in such situations.
Unresolved Issues: Client Information and Sold-Off Practice
One of the most important issues, however, is still unresolved in the Wegelin case and makes it worthwhile to observe to its end. The issue is: will the bank disclose the names of its U.S. clients to the IRS?
Typically, disclosure of the names of U.S. taxpayers constitutes a key request by the IRS in such major investigations. Therefore, it does not seem likely that the IRS will simply leave this issue without at least attempting to obtain the names of non-compliant U.S. taxpayers as part of the final deal.
The other unresolved issue is whether a strategy similar to Wegelin’s sale of its non-US accounts to the Austrian Bank Raiffeisen just before the indictment is going to challenged by the IRS if the sale does involve U.S. clients and maybe even if it does not (especially where the bank is left without any assets). It is not known if we are going to get an answer at this time, but it is likely that this issue will show up again in a future case.
Contact Sherayzen Law Office for Help With Voluntary Disclosure of Foreign Financial Accounts
If you have undisclosed offshore accounts (whether in the hard-hit Switzerland or any other country) , you should contact Sherayzen Law Office as soon as possible to explore the voluntary disclosure options available in your case. Our experienced voluntary disclosure firm will thoroughly review your case, explore available options, propose a definite plan for moving forward, prepare all of the necessary legal documents and tax forms, and guide you though the entire case while rigorously representing your interests in your negotiations with the IRS.