While “Roger” and I were walking near Bahnhofstrasse Street, Zurich, Roger suddenly stopped and had us duck into a corner shop. Once inside the shop Roger appeared to be looking for a particular item displayed in the shop’s front window, although he was really scrutinizing the outside street.  He explained afterwards how it was necessary to check if we were being followed: “But first you must choose a side street or a main street where there are not many pedestrians or traffic, not a busy thoroughfare. You take mental pictures of everyone you think could be potential followers or surveillance cars as you continue along, before entering a store with windows which will permit you to survey the street“.

Roger had a knack for locating offshore financial information because of his former work as an intelligence officer.  He and I were in Zurich on our way to meet my local Swiss counsel.  We were following the money trail of a financial fraudster who pretended in his U.S. court case to have a negative net worth.  Roger had brought with him the details of the fraudster’s finances, which demonstrated that the fraudster had hidden tens of millions of dollars by money laundering through Switzerland.  Roger was about to share this information with me for the first time, at our meeting with the Swiss counsel.

In some cases, offshore financial information discovered during an asset search suggests that a foreign criminal law has been violated.  In Switzerland for example, one might conceivably violate criminal laws by lying about the beneficial ownership of a bank account, as mentioned in this legal memo from Swiss counsel:

 (To Read The Legal Memo, Click On The Image Above)

Swiss counsel has however, made the following important comments which relate to the information in the legal memo:

 “1)  Due in part to the current upheavals concerning the activities of major Swiss banks in the US, the law on financial regulation in Switzerland is somewhat uncertain. Though this is against Swiss legal tradition, the anti-money laundering rules in Switzerland follow what I believe is international practice in deliberately using a degree if vagueness about the exact standards to be applied so as to induce a “chilling effect”. This uncertainty is rendered more acute by the difficulty of assessing the interaction between the laws of various nations. 

Note also that the rules and regulations have created a web of disclosures and of duties to investigate. It will be a brave person who in search of fiscal relief will navigate through this web without fear of having to make any misleading or materially wrong declaration (thus doing more than mere non-disclosure).
One practical result of the current problems with the US is that banks and Financial Intermediaries in Switzerland (and elsewhere in Europe) have simply stopped dealing with US nationals or US residents (except possibly through US based “on shore subsidiaries” of foreign banks), to the extent of closing long standing business relationships even in the absence of any specific allegation of wrongdoing, fiscal or otherwise. Thus while the law may not have changed, the climate in which the law operates has.
2)  In step with this development, the required standard of care expected of a Financial Intermediary (including a bank) is much higher and increasing continuously. Today quite sophisticated profiling and automatic monitoring of all transactions is routine. The effect of this is the same as mentioned above, the law has not fundamentally changed but the loopholes have become very small in practice.  Mere “non disclosure” is only effective if nobody asks.  Note also that current practice requires on-ongoing checks, not merely checks at the opening of the account bur also during its operation.”          

(Edited February 1, 2010)

Copyright 2007-2010 Fred L. Abrams