Swiss Bank to Give Up Some, But Not All, Americans It Helped Evade U.S. Taxes

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The details of last week's settlement of the U.S. government's case against Swiss mega-bank UBS, which is accused of helping wealthy Americans hide their incomes from the IRS, were released on Wednesday. Under the agreement, UBS will disclose information regarding approximately 4,450 American taxpayers with current or former accounts at UBS. In exchange, the U.S. government will withdraw its legal action to compel UBS to disclose all of its 52,000 American customers. A related agreement with the Swiss government will provide a new treaty process to facilitate the release of the information.

This is both good news and bad news for law-abiding Americans who pay their taxes and who are tired of subsidizing those who don't. The good news is that the 4,450 Americans' accounts at one point in time totaled $18 billion in assets, approximately 90% of the estimated $20 billion in American-owned accounts at UBS. So, the IRS is perhaps going to be able to catch most of the tax-cheating, at least in dollar terms.

The IRS will use this information to investigate the offshore accounts of those 4,450 taxpayers, with hopes of collecting back taxes, interest, civil and possibly criminal penalties if those accounts have not been previously reported to the IRS.

Of course the bad news is that the 4,450 names expected to be released to the IRS make up less than 10% of the estimated 52,000 American-owned accounts. Without 100% disclosure, American taxpayers may in the future be tempted to play the "audit lottery," assuming they have only a 10% chance of getting caught.

Another piece of bad news is that the criteria used to select the UBS account holders to be disclosed to the IRS will not be released. But there is a strong indication that the size of the account has some importance. Taxpayers might avoid this danger in the future by spreading their offshore funds among several accounts and numerous banks so that they can "fly under the radar."

What also seems like bad news is that under the settlement, UBS will pay no civil penalties. It has already paid $780 million in criminal penalties for the actions of certain bank employees facilitating illegal tax evasion.

What's even more alarming is that the IRS will withdraw its "Notice of Default" that was issued to UBS for violating the agreement it entered into with the U.S. government. This agreement, which made UBS a "Qualified Intermediary" or "QI," is one that foreign banks enter into with the U.S. in order to get favorable treatment in return for complying with certain reporting standards. Given that UBS bankers came into the U.S. to solicit illegal business from Americans with the express purpose of helping them evade taxes, it's hard to believe UBS is not in default of such an agreement. If this egregious behavior can't get a bank kicked out of the QI program, what in the world can?

So the settlement certainly does not mean that the offshore tax evasion problem is resolved. If anything, it shows how badly we need legislation to deal with the problem, since there are apparently limits to how far the U.S. government will go, using existing laws, to crack down.

Fortunately, members of Congress seem to understand this. Senator Carl Levin, sponsor of the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, said in a statement that, "The UBS settlement is at most a modest advance in the effort to end bank secrecy abuses, tax haven bank misconduct, and the tax haven drain on the U.S. treasury. It will take a long time before we know whether this settlement will produce meaningful gains due to treaty procedures which are complex, depend upon the Swiss government to carry out, and open the door to potentially lengthy appeals."

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