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Whistleblower Brad Birkenfeld Rewarded Record $104M for Exposing How UBS Helped Rich Evade Taxes

StorySeptember 12, 2012
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The IRS has announced a record $104 million reward to a whistleblower who exposed the largest tax evasion scheme in U.S. history. Former UBS AG banker Brad Birkenfeld first reported in 2007 that he and his colleagues had encouraged rich Americans to store more than $20 billion in offshore Swiss bank accounts and cheat the IRS. But after coming forward, Birkenfeld was prosecuted and convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to prison. Following Birkenfeld’s release last month, on Tuesday the IRS vindicated his actions with the largest amount ever awarded under its whistleblower program. We’re joined by Stephen Kohn, an attorney for Birkenfeld and executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a major development in the case of a banking whistleblower. Former UBS AG banker Brad Birkenfeld first reported in 2007 that he and his colleagues had encouraged rich Americans to store more than $20 billion in offshore Swiss bank accounts and cheat the IRS. After he came forward, he was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to prison. Well, he was released from prison in August, and on Tuesday the IRS vindicated his actions with a $104 million award under the IRS whistleblower program.

AMY GOODMAN: UBS ultimately paid $780 million to resolve the investigation, admitted to criminal wrongdoing, and closed the unit where Birkenfeld worked. His disclosure also prompted at least 33,000 Americans to report offshore accounts to the IRS, generating more than $5 billion. The IRS is now investigating at least 11 other banks.

We’re going directly to Washington, D.C., to Stephen Kohn, co-counsel for UBS whistleblower Brad Birkenfeld, also executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center and the author of The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself. Birkenfeld himself is under home confinement after getting out of jail, not authorized by the Bureau of Prisons to do interviews, now seeking a presidential pardon.

Stephen Kohn, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about this unprecedented award to Brad Birkenfeld, who has just gotten out of jail.

STEPHEN KOHN: Well, it’s the largest whistleblower award in history, but it’s—Birkenfeld turned in the largest financial frauds. He turned in 19,000 felons and $20 billion in one unit. But we also know 33,000 people are turning themselves in and that the total amount of U.S. dollars in illegal offshore accounts is over $5 trillion. That’s the estimation from a Senate report. What the IRS did was try to change the dynamic. When the Justice Department prosecuted Bradley Birkenfeld in one of the most absurd and misguided efforts, they took an asset, a person who turned in the keys to the kingdom, the first whistleblower to expose exactly how illegal Swiss banking worked and illegal offshore banking was working across the world, and instead of using him, they persecuted him. The IRS is now turning that around.

The IRS—I think one of the reasons they had to give such a big award is because they need informants. They need other bankers to step forward. And what the Justice Department did had a devastating impact on their whistleblower program. So they’ve turned around, and they’ve given the largest whistleblower award ever. We worked on that for over three years, through the process, trying to make sure he won, because his victory is really a victory against offshore illegal banking, where millionaires and billionaires stash their wealth, where corrupt politicians put in their money, drug dealers. When you’re looking at this illegal offshore banking, it’s really a handmaiden to corruption. So it’s extremely important public policy, public interest, to go to war against these banks. So, this award to Mr. Birkenfeld, in our view, is one of the most important step forwards to try to induce other bankers to step forward and really tackle illegal offshore banking.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Stephen Kohn, offshore tax havens have recently come under increasing focus because of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s foreign accounts. Earlier this summer, he defended his foreign investments during an interview with Radio Iowa.

MITT ROMNEY: With regards to any foreign investments, I understand and you understand, of course, that my investments have been held by a blind trust, have been managed by a trustee. I don’t manage them, don’t even know where they are. Those—that trustee follows all U.S. laws. All the taxes are paid, as appropriate. All of them have been reported to the government. There’s nothing hidden there. There’s nothing. If, for instance, you own shares in, let’s say, Renault or in Fiat, you still have to pay taxes, you still have to disclose that in the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaking earlier this summer. Stephen Kohn, can you talk about the significance of this case and how it relates to what Mitt Romney said?

STEPHEN KOHN: Well, first, to clarify, we don’t have—this isn’t an anti-Romney campaign, and we don’t have any direct information about candidate Romney. But I want to talk about how the Swiss banking system works, illegal offshore banking works. There’s two ways it happens. First is, you have a direct account sitting in the bank. You’re trading stocks or gaining interest or whatever. And that was the $20 billion program. The second way is they do set up trusts, offshore trusts in which an American invests in the trust. So you give them a million dollars, and the trustee runs the investments. These are often usually illegal, because the trustee gives the American investor a one-step removal from the actual illegal activities and a method to deny involvement. It also gets very hard to track this money, because if you just put a million dollars into a trust that says has $200 million in assets, how do you follow that money, which may go to one or two or three offshore locations?

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

STEPHEN KOHN: Yeah, Birkenfeld turned all that in. But to say—I just want to emphasize, this is not an anti-Romney thing, but it does call for more investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kohn, we want to thank you for being with us. I want to encourage people to go to our website today at Juan González has written a piece in the New York Daily News, as he continues to follow this case. Stephen Kohn, co-counsel for UBS whistleblower Brad Birkenfeld, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center. And that does it for our broadcast.

We are on our Silenced Majority Tour, an election 2012 tour, continues this week. On Thursday, I’ll be at the Philadelphia Free Library; then go to Pittsburgh at McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon; on Friday at 5:00 p.m. in Cleveland, at 8:00 p.m. at Oberlin College; Kenyon College noon on Saturday. And we’ll be moving on from there.

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