former chief economist at McKinsey & Co., now a senior adviser to the Tax Justice Network and senior fellow at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment.
European banking giant Credit Suisse has pleaded guilty to helping American clients avoid paying taxes by concealing assets in illegal, undeclared bank accounts — becoming the largest bank to plead guilty to a criminal charge in 20 years. As part of the plea deal, Credit Suisse will pay about $2.6 billion in penalties and hire an independent monitor. But the bank will not be required to turn over the names of the Americans who used the bank to evade taxes. In addition, no senior Credit Suisse executives will face jail time, and the bank will be allowed to continue operating in the United States. According to The New York Times, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted last week to grant Credit Suisse a temporary exemption from a federal law that requires a bank to hand over its investment-adviser license in the event of a guilty plea. We speak to James Henry, former chief economist at McKinsey & Co., now a senior adviser to the Tax Justice Network and senior fellow at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment.
Photo Credit: flickr.com/dalenapier
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Just a little correction: Credit Suisse is the largest bank to plead guilty to a criminal charge. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.
AARON MATÉ: Well, yes, indeed, European banking giant Credit Suisse has pleaded guilty to a criminal charge for helping American clients avoid paying taxes by concealing assets in illegal, undeclared bank accounts. Credit Suisse becomes the largest bank to plead guilty to a criminal charge in 20 years. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the plea on Monday.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: In the course of our painstaking, years-long investigation, the department discovered that Credit Suisse and its subsidiaries engaged in an extensive and a wide-ranging conspiracy to help U.S. taxpayers evade taxes. The bank actively helped its account holders to deceive the IRS by concealing assets and income in illegal, undeclared bank accounts. These secret offshore accounts were held in the names of sham entities and foundations, and this conspiracy spanned decades.
AARON MATÉ: As part of the plea deal, Credit Suisse will pay about $2.6 billion in penalties and hire an independent monitor. But the bank will not be required to turn over the names of the Americans who used the bank to evade taxes.
AMY GOODMAN: Under the deal, no senior Credit Suisse executives will face jail time, and the bank will be allowed to continue operating in the United States. According to The New York Times, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted last week to grant Credit Suisse a temporary exemption from a federal law that requires a bank to hand over its investment-adviser license in the event of a guilty plea.
To talk more about the case, we’re joined by James Henry, former chief economist at McKinsey & Co., now a senior adviser to the Tax Justice Network and senior fellow at the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
JAMES HENRY: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you assess this settlement?
JAMES HENRY: Well, I think it’s a big missed opportunity. You know, this investigation has been going on for four years. You know, this is one of several Swiss banks that are under investigation. Fourteen were all lined up. And the reason the Swiss stock market, and in particular, Credit Suisse, is soaring this morning is because they’re—they are delighted with this deal. They’re yodeling through the Alps over the light touch that Eric Holder—you know, who has a tradition of this. In 2000, he was the assistant attorney general who signed off on the Marc Rich pardon. And in this case, you know, two—
AMY GOODMAN: And Marc Rich was?
JAMES HENRY: Was the, yeah, major—
AMY GOODMAN: When President—
JAMES HENRY: —Swiss-based trader who was violating U.S. regulations and tax evading all over the place at that point. So—
AMY GOODMAN: He was the man that President Clinton pardoned.
JAMES HENRY: President Clinton pardoned at that point, got enormous backlash for that. In this case, we have the second-largest Swiss bank, a bank with 45,000 employees and 1.26 trillion Swiss franc of client assets under management, you know, getting away with essentially a fine that amounts to three months of their net earnings. No senior executives, as you mentioned, are going to jail. [Brady] Dougan, the CEO, is expected to stay on, in fact, and he said in front of his shareholders this week that this will have a very slight impact on Credit Suisse’s performance. You know, I think we missed the opportunity to really send a message here, because the way they structured this plea bargain was to rule out any impact on Credit Suisse’s license to operate in the United States. It was the only impact that a criminal prosecution could have had. And I think, going forward, the banks in Switzerland will be looking for new ways, new inventive ways of serving Americans.
AARON MATÉ: In terms of withholding the names of the clients who hid their money, the argument from Credit Suisse was that, of course, the Swiss law prevents them from doing that. It protects their privacy. Does that stand here in the U.S.? And how big of a win for Credit Suisse was that, in that they got to keep the names of those they helped?
JAMES HENRY: Oh, it’s huge. I mean, this is worse than the UBS settlement in 2009, in which some names were given up. And so, you know, this is part of a negotiation. The Justice Department can say, "Look, you know, no deal. You want your license? You give us information on these Americans who are evading."
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go to a brief clip from the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations meeting in February. Senator Carl Levin questioned Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan about the U.S. citizens who had been evading taxes.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: So we’re interested in collecting taxes, as well, that are owed, that have been evaded. And we need the cooperation of the banks in order to do that. But if the banks won’t cooperate, citing Swiss secrecy laws, then we simply have got to use our own domestic laws to force cooperation from the banks. Now, you cite Swiss secrecy laws. And I gather that you—you said, I think, Mr. Dugan, that you don’t agree with those laws. Is that correct?
BRADY DOUGAN: Well, I think our position is very clear, which is we are ready to provide any information that we can legally provide. But I think that, as you point out, the issue that we have is we have two different legal jurisdictions, and therefore, you know, for us to break the law in one jurisdiction in order to provide that information is difficult for us to do. But I think the most important thing, from our point of view, we can’t necessarily influence these discussions between governments and how they—how they—how they proceed. We are ready to provide any information that we can provide legally.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan testifying before the Senate. James Henry, do the—does the administration have a reason for not wanting these names released, as well?
JAMES HENRY: Well, that’s hard to say. I’ve talked to people in the administration, you know, but the Obama—
AMY GOODMAN: Whether it’s the Obama administration—
JAMES HENRY: Yeah, or any.
AMY GOODMAN: —Bush administration, right.
JAMES HENRY: Well, this cuts across parties. This is really an issue on—I guess you could call it the bankster party, agrees, which is, basically, they have been very soft on punishing corporate crime, in general, with respect to banks. And Wall Street banks have been serial violators here. We’re talking about, in this case, a Swiss bank that, you know, has been doing this kind of activity for decades. Dougan has been at the bank for 25 years, and throughout that period they have been operating this kind of money laundering for wealthy tax evaders.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what they did. What was the crime that they committed that they’re paying for?
JAMES HENRY: They had—you know, for example, they had a department that’s set up so that wealthy Americans who came to Geneva Airport had a special office. And, you know, something like 10,000 clients of this bank went through that office and, you know, were able to bring in their transactions, check on their accounts in utter privacy. There’s no name on the door. But, you know, they would send bankers undercover to Art Basel, big Miami art convention, every year and meet clients. They sponsored a lot of these art shows.
AMY GOODMAN: So Swiss bankers would come in on tourist visas.
JAMES HENRY: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: And do—
JAMES HENRY: And they would be basically recruiting wealthy Americans to take their money secretly to Switzerland, put it there essentially tax-free, no reporting to the IRS. So, for wealthy Americans who were able to play that game, it was worth quite a bit. Of course, for the rest of us, the ordinary taxpayers who are, you know, withheld against and don’t have the option of going to Switzerland, you know, will never meet a Swiss banker in the United States. This is just another case of where we’re transferring tax burdens to the poor and the middle class, who don’t have any choice but to pay up. So, basic question about the rule of law here, about justice being essentially for sale.
You mentioned the Obama administration. Eric Holder used to be an attorney at Covington & Burling, after he left the Clinton administration. He was handling UBS as a client. The chief IRS legal counsel, Mr. Wilkins, used to be a registered representative for the Swiss Banking Association in Washington, when he was a partner at WilmerHale. You have the U.S. treasury secretary, was in charge of Citibank’s global private banking department when he was at Citibank in 2006. So this administration is literally—and, you know, one of the key golfing partners of the president of the United States, Robert Wolf, used to run UBS America. He was a big fundraiser for Obama in 2008. So this administration is permeated with people who are basically very sympathetic to Wall Street and to Swiss interests, as well. So—
AARON MATÉ: Well, you mentioned Attorney General Eric Holder, who’s been sort of the architect of a strategy that forcing banks into guilty pleas should be done in a way that doesn’t harm the economy. And he used his weekly message earlier this month to clarify the Department of Justice position on prosecuting financial fraud.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: There is no such thing as too big to jail. Some have used that phrase to describe the theory that certain financial institutions, even if they engage in criminal misconduct, should be considered immune from prosecution due to their sheer size and their influence on the economy. That view is mistaken, and it is a view that has been rejected by the Department of Justice. To be clear, no individual or company, no matter how large or how profitable, is above the law.
AARON MATÉ: Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee a year ago, Holder had in fact suggested that some banks are too big to jail. Do you agree with his denial now that that strategy is not in effect?
JAMES HENRY: There’s no evidence in the settlement that there’s anyone going to jail. At the senior levels of Credit Suisse, everyone is in place. The chairman of Credit Suisse today said that they were "white as snow" and that both he and Dougan would remain on. You know, so that’s just rhetoric. And I think the problem is, we have a lot of rhetoric, and major media are basically playing this up as a major settlement, a first criminal prosecution. The BBC yesterday said that this was the end of bank secrecy in Switzerland. This is just ludicrous. If you look below the covers, this is a big missed opportunity. It’s—you know, we’re not going to have this kind of opportunity again very soon.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it a crime for someone to secret away their finances in a Swiss bank?
JAMES HENRY: If you’re a U.S. citizen, you have to report your income to—worldwide income to the Treasury and the state tax authorities, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to those names that were released by UBS of wealthy Americans who were hiding their money away in Swiss bank accounts? And what should happen to people?
JAMES HENRY: Well, there have been a lot of settlements with those folks, private settlements that—you know, the IRS did go after quite a few of them. One of the whistleblowers in that case got—Bradley Birkenfeld got a large settlement as a reward for his activity. But one of the issues here is that, in Credit Suisse, we didn’t have whistleblowers, and this Justice Department has really failed to produce or to take advantage of Swiss whistleblowers who were available to them. And so we don’t have any names from whistleblowers like we had in the UBS case. And in this case, they are invoking Swiss secrecy.