Why French judges landed UBS with 1.1 billion-euro bail demand


The Paris Court of Appeal this week upheld a decision that Swiss bank UBS must post bail of 1.1 billion euros while a judicial investigation into its alleged role in massive, organised tax evasion continues. The colossal bail sum, the highest ever demanded in France, was ordered this summer by magistrates leading the probe into Switzerland’s largest bank which, if sent for trial, faces a far greater fine. Mediapart has gained access to the confidential magistrates’ judicial order in July, in which they detail their investigations and justify the bail. Dan Israel reports.

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Swiss banking giant UBS is the subject of a two-pronged investigation for alleged abetting of tax evasion in France which targets UBS AG, the parent company, and its French subsidiary UBS France.

In May 2013, UBS France was formally placed under investigation – one step short of charges being brought – for aiding the illicit recruitment of clients in France, and the following month UBS AG was placed under investigation for the illegal soliciting of clients in France. In July this year, UBS AG was placed under investigation for aggravated fiscal fraud.

Mediapart has had access to the judicial order prepared by investigating magistrates Guillaume Daïeff and Serge Tournaire in July in which they justify the 1.1 billion bail they fixed, and summarize the evidence acquired so far against UBS. The bail sum was calculated on the basis of the maximum fine UBS faces, and which, the magistrates argue, could reach as much as 4.88 billion euros.

The bank, which was originally given until September 30th to pay the bail, has announced that it will launch another appeal before France’s highest court and against what it called “an unprecedented and unjustified amount”. It considered that both “the legal basis for the bail sum and the methods for calculating it are profoundly erroneous”. UBS said it “continues to believe that this is a highly politicised affair” and announced it would take its case to the European Court of Human Rights to claim “the right to a fair trial”.

The bank officially denies all the suspected crimes it is under investigation for, arguing that its implication in tax fraud has not been proven. The bank is suspected of having organised tax evasion by thousands of its wealthy French clients over the period 2004-2012, and the investigating judges are focusing on two distinct issues.

One is the illicit recruitment of French clients over this period by special envoys from the bank’s Swiss base who have no legal right to operate on French territory. Under French law, only banking institutions registered in France are allowed to recruit clients, which include local subsidiary UBS France but not UBS AG.

The other, more serious issue of the investigation is how UBS, also during the period 2004-2012, was allegedly involved in a regular manner in tax-evading operations to help its clients illegally escape income, wealth and company tax payments by transferring deposits to accounts kept hidden outside of France.

During their investigation, the magistrates questioned 15 current and former employees and managers of the bank, based variously in France and Switzerland. They also questioned around 20 people some of who were clients of the bank and others who were targeted by it as potential customers.

The magistrates have established that several thousand French residents held tax evading accounts with UBS outside of France, as admitted by the bank itself since it has begun cooperating with a French clampdown on tax evasion. In their July judicial order, the magistrates indicate that UBS AG confirmed that about 1,000 of its French clients had already settled their situation with the French tax authorities, while 2,000 more were in the process of doing so.

The investigation has concluded that, between 2005 and 2012, the total value of all the accounts of French residents specifically recruited as clients by representatives of UBS based in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Singapore amounted to 1.5 billion euros.

Whenever money was sent into a UBS account outside of France, the bank’s French subsidiary was notified that the movement had been made successfully. After the French magistrates investigated the routes of the transfers, they discovered that between 2005 and 2008 there were 29 foreign accounts which UBS France was unable to identify and which represented a total of 176 million euros. The magistrates wrote in the judicial order in July  that there were “strong suspicions” that the sum was hidden for purposes of tax evasion and was collected by the Swiss bank’s practice of illegally recruiting clients.

The magistrates attempted to evaluate the value of the assets of French residents that were managed by the bank’s France International department in Switzerland. However, UBS AG refused to communicate the sums. It also refused to provide the number of account managers working for France International over the 2004-2012 period, and also refused to communicate the average value of the accounts which they handled.

The magistrates managed to identify through existing evidence a total of 94 account managers who worked with France International during the 2000s, and their presumption is that these managers would have handled the same average amount per account as their colleagues at UBS France, and which in 2010 totalled 130 million euros per account. Mediapart has learnt that the magistrates have questioned an account manager from the bank’s Swiss office who, in an interview given last year on condition of anonymity, told Mediapart they managed between 300 and 600 French clients per year, for assets of a total value of between 200 million euros and 600 million euros.

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