ZURICH Swiss chief finance diplomat Michael Ambuehl was given a verbal pledge from the U.S. Department of Justice to respect Swiss law when asking for bank client data of potential tax dodgers, a newspaper reported on Sunday.
Switzerland is in negotiations with U.S. authorities to find a deal that would end tax probes into at least ten Swiss banks suspected of helping clients dodge taxes, including Credit Suisse (CSGN.VX) and Julius Baer (BAER.VX).
The Alpine country is trying to preserve what is left of its cherished banking secrecy that suffered a severe blow in 2009 when UBS UBSN.VX, the first Swiss bank that came under scrutiny in the U.S., was required to disclose client data.
"(Ambuehl) obtained a verbal pledge from his negotiating partners at the DOJ to respect Swiss law when asking for client data," Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag said, citing sources close to Ambuehl.
"The agreement has not been put in writing yet and could be withdrawn at any moment but sources say the U.S. government's negotiators have made it clear they want to find a pragmatic solution to the long-lasting conflict," the newspaper said.
Finance ministry spokesman Roland Meier refused to comment on the report which did not give any details on when the verbal agreement was made.
Swiss banking secrecy laws prevent banks from disclosing any information on the financial affairs of clients to third parties, unless there are sufficient grounds to suspect a crime has been committed.
Unlike in other countries, tax evasion, as opposed to tax fraud, is not considered a crime in Switzerland, but to get off the OECD's list of uncooperative tax havens, the country agreed to disclose client data also in well-founded cases of suspected tax evasion.
Swiss private bank Wegelin & Co, the only Swiss bank indicted in the U.S. so far, said on Thursday it would shut its doors permanently after pleading guilty to the charge of helping Americans dodge taxes through secret accounts.
The Wegelin settlement that involved a $74 million fine could smoothe the way to cheaper and faster settlements for other Swiss banks in the probe and give fresh impetus to talks between Swiss and U.S. officials.
(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Mike Nesbit)