Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

UBS: Sorry About All The Fraud

Posted in Economy, politics by allisonkilkenny on February 19, 2009

New York Times

2003-11-03-swiss-bank-account-200226In the hush-hush world of Swiss banking, the unthinkable is happening: secrets are spilling into the open.

UBS, the largest bank in Switzerland, agreed on Wednesday to divulge the names of well-heeled Americans whom the authorities suspect of using offshore accounts at the bank to evade taxes. The bank admitted conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and agreed to pay $780 million to settle a sweeping federal investigation into its activities.

It is unclear how many of its clients’ names UBS will divulge. Federal prosecutors have been examining about 19,000 accounts at the bank, but UBS ultimately may disclose the identities of only a few hundred customers.

But to some, turning over any names at all heralds the end of the secret Swiss bank account, whose traditions date to the Middle Ages.

“The Swiss are saying that this is the end of Swiss banking as they knew it,” said Jack Blum, an offshore tax specialist. “Nobody will trust the security of the Swiss bank account.”

As part of the settlement, UBS agreed to cooperate with a broad summons issued by the Justice Department to turn over the names. Under the terms of a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, the bank and its executives could be indicted if UBS didn’t identify the customers.

UBS has said it is closing the offshore accounts of its American clients. But under the deal with the United States authorities, the bank must provide periodic written evidence of that to prosecutors. UBS earned $200 million annually from the business.

Prosecutors suspect that from late 2002 to 2007, UBS helped American clients illegally hide $20 billion, letting them evade $300 million a year in taxes.

In a striking admission, UBS said that from 2000 through 2007, some of its private bankers and managers had “participated in a scheme to defraud the United States” and the I.R.S. by helping American clients set up and conceal offshore accounts. The scheme involved falsifying or not properly obtaining or filing certain tax forms required of both the bank and its clients.

UBS’s offshore private banking business once employed some 60 private bankers in Lugano, Zurich and Geneva. Prosecutors claimed UBS referred clients to lawyers and accountants who set up secret offshore entities to conceal assets from the I.R.S.

UBS urged some American clients to destroy records and to stash watches, jewelry and artwork that they had bought with money hidden offshore in safe deposit boxes in Switzerland. The bank also encouraged them to use Swiss credit cards so the I.R.S. could not track purchases. In a statement on Wednesday, Peter Kurer, the chairman of UBS, said that “UBS sincerely regrets the compliance failures in its U.S. cross-border business that have been identified by the various government investigations in Switzerland and the U.S., as well as our own internal review. We accept full responsibility for these improper activities.”

Marcel Rohner, the group chief executive of UBS, said in a statement that “it is apparent that as an organization we made mistakes and that our control systems were inadequate.”

In January a senior UBS executive, Raoul Weil, was declared a fugitive, two months after being indicted by a federal judge in connection with the investigation of the bank. Mr. Weil, a Swiss citizen, oversaw the cross-border private banking operations from 2002 to 2007.

UBS had fiercely resisted turning over the names, even after some executives were indicted and implicated in the offshore private banking business. Swiss law distinguishes broadly between tax avoidance, tax evasion and tax fraud. Unlike in the United States, tax evasion is not a criminal offense under Swiss law.

The move by UBS to settle the case, on the eve of a Senate subcommittee hearing next Tuesday on the matter, signals how close the bank came to being indicted for not cooperating with prosecutors. Indictment is a near-certain death knell for corporations.

Of the $780 million that UBS will pay, $380 million represents disgorgement of profits from its cross-border business. The remainder represents United States taxes that UBS failed to withhold on the accounts. The figures include interest, penalties and restitution for unpaid taxes

As part of the deal, UBS also entered into a consent order with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which it agreed to charges of having acted as an unregistered broker-dealer and investment adviser for Americans.

The settlement caps a painful run for UBS, which suffered more than $50 billion in losses in the collapse of the American mortgage market and received a $60 billion bailout from the Swiss government last October.

The bank will not have to pay additional fines and penalties, which could have brought the deal to more than $1 billion. People briefed on the issue said the banking crisis and the recession were factors in this decision by prosecutors.

U.S. Accuses Texas Financial Firm of $8 Billion Fraud

Posted in Economy, politics by allisonkilkenny on February 17, 2009

New York Times

Robert Allen Stanford, the chief of the Stanford Financial Group. (Joe Skipper, Reuters)

HOUSTON — Stopping what it called a “massive ongoing fraud,” the Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday accused Robert Allen Stanford, the chief of the Stanford Financial Group, of fraud in the sale of about $8 billion of high-yielding certificates of deposit held in the firm’s bank in Antigua. Also named in the suit were two other executives and some affiliates of the financial group.

In the complaint, filed in Federal District Court in Dallas, the S.E.C. accused Mr. Stanford and two associates — James M. Davis, a director and chief financial officer of Stanford Group and the Antigua-based bank affiliate, and Laura Pendergest-Holt, the chief investment officer of both organizations — with misrepresenting the safety and liquidity of the uninsured CDs.

The CDs were sold by Stanford International Bank through the firm’s registered broker-dealer and investment adviser, which are in Houston. Both the bank, which claims $8.5 billion in assets and 30,000 clients in 131 countries, and the brokerage unit, which operates about 30 offices in the United States, were named in the S.E.C. suit. Stanford Financial asserts that it advises about $50 billion in assets.

Shortly after 10 a.m. Central time, about 40 police officers and other law enforcement officials simultaneously entered Stanford Group’s two office buildings in Houston. Many of the law enforcement personnel carried large black briefcases. Stanford group’s headquarters are in two offices in Houston, one within a tower of the Houston Galleria shopping mall, and the other across the street.

A spokesman for Stanford Group declined to comment.

Law enforcement officials hung up two white signs stating thatthe offices of Stanford Financial Group was temporarily closed. “The company is still in operation but under the management of a receiver,” the signs read.

In its complaint, the S.E.C. said it could not account for the $8 billion in assets that were housed in the Antigua bank after issuing subpoenas for bank records and to various witnesses. Most witnesses, including Mr. Stanford, Mr. Davis, and the Antigua-based bank’s president, failed to appear to testify nor did they produce documents shedding light on the assets.

Ms. Pendergest-Holt said in testimony to the S.E.C. that she could not account for the assets, asserting that Mr. Stanford and Mr. Davis were the only ones with access to the bank’s assets.

In the complaint, the S.E.C. called “improbable, if not impossible” claims by the offshore bank that it paid “significantly” higher returns on its CDs because of the high quality of its investments.

The S.E.C. accused the bank and its affiliates of falsely stating in marketing materials that client funds were placed in liquid financial instruments, when in fact they were invested in private equity funds and real estate. On Nov. 28, Stanford International Bank quoted a rate of 5.375 percent on a $100,000 three-year CD, compared with rates of less than 3.2 percent at American banks. The bank recently has offered rates of more than 10 percent on five-year CDs, the filing stated.

In the complaint, the S.E.C. requested that the defendants’ assets be frozen and that a receiver be appointed to take control of business operations. It also requested that the assets of the bank and other offshore units be repatriated. And the agency asked that Mr. Stanford and the other named executives be required to surrender their passports.

The S.E.C. has come under fire in Congress and the media for ignoring repeated warnings over a period of years about the Bernard L. Madoff, who is accused of running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. While investigators have been looking at Mr. Stanford and his financial empire’s activities for many months, the scrutiny into the too-good-to-be-true returns on the CDs increased substantially after the Madoff case.

Oddly enough, even the Stanford operation was touched by Mr. Madoff. Despite the fact the Antigua-bank assured investors in a report in December 2008 that it had no “direct or indirect” exposure Mr. Madoff’s funds, the bank suffered an estimated $400,000 in losses, apparently through investments in so-called “feeder funds.”

Additionally, the S.E.C. accused Stanford Capital Management, another Houston-based investment advisory unit, of inflating the performance of its $1.2 billion-asset Stanford Allocation Strategy mutual fund in promoting it to prospective investors.

The complaint also accused the offshore banking unit and the Houston-based broker dealer of violating provisions of the Investment Company Act of 1940 in failing to register as an investment company.

Clifford Krauss reported from Houston, and Phillip L. Zweig and Julie Creswell from New York.

E-mail: creswell@nytimes.com