ZURICH Oct 23 Seeing one of their select number
hauled in handcuffs before a foreign court may prompt Swiss
bankers to call their lawyers before they ring travel agents to
book a winter break.
Arrested on a weekend trip to Bologna, former UBS man Raoul
Weil now sits in an Italian jail fighting extradition to the
United States - one of hundreds of Swiss bank executives caught
up in accusations of helping Americans dodge their taxes.
"Maybe we'll all be taking our vacations in Ticino and
Graubuenden," one senior private banker told Reuters, making
light of concerns among his peers about travelling abroad by
talking up the charms of Switzerland's picturesque mountains.
"There is definitely concern. Definitely," he said,
speaking on condition that he and his bank not be identified.
It is unclear why Weil, 54, chose to cross the border, five
years after he was publicly indicted by U.S. prosecutors.
Switzerland does not extradite its own citizens in cases of tax
fraud. But Italy, which acted on an Interpol warrant, has given
the United States six weeks to seek Weil's transfer for trial.
Weil, who checked in to a Bologna hotel with his wife on
Friday, has denied the charges.
It is unclear how many Swiss risk arrest. Some may be the
subject of U.S. indictments not made public. The U.S. Justice
Department did not answer a request for the figures. Martin
Naville, chief executive of the Swiss-American Chamber of
Commerce in Zurich, thinks the number may be in the low dozens.
Yet, he says, hundreds more have curbed their itineraries,
avoiding setting foot on U.S. territory if not others, for fear
of being caught up in the Justice Department's dragnet.
"I would say there are 1,000 people who are currently not
travelling to the United States because they are afraid," said
Naville, whose forum maintains close ties to both Swiss and
American business leaders and senior bankers.
UBS paid $780 million in 2009 to settle its part
in the U.S. case but that did not get individual employees off
the hook. Weil, then head of UBS's private bank, one of those
famously discreet Swiss institutions for the world's rich, was
charged in 2008 with conspiring to help 17,000 Americans hide
assets in Swiss bank accounts from U.S. tax authorities.
Naville said Swiss bank staff who had had few dealings with
U.S. clients probably had little to fear. "But," he added, "If
you have somebody who had 200 of those clients, had been very
aggressive in pushing and peddling specific structures in
overseas dominions and everything, that person is at risk."
For those in doubt, suggested Valentin Landmann, a Zurich
attorney who has represented Swiss clients in the United States,
the worst thing to do is to think the Americans will just forget
about them. His advice to any banker in fear of travelling was
to check their status directly with U.S. authorities.
Having acted for Swiss lawyer Edgar Paltzer, who pleaded
guilty in August in New York to conspiracy to commit tax fraud,
Landmann said bankers should consider coming clean to the U.S.
authorities following a Swiss government-brokered deal in
Under it, Swiss banks have given U.S authorities the names
of thousands of their staff involved in serving U.S. clients,
but have not identified the senior managers.
Likening that deal to trying to fob off a hungry dog with
cheap sausage while protecting the prime meat, Landmann said:
"The vicious dog eats the baloney - then comes after the ham."
U.S. federal prosecutors in Florida said in 2008 that others
at the Swiss bank - "at the highest levels of management" - were
"unindicted co-conspirators not named as defendants" on a charge
sheet which identified only Weil by name.
For many of those in Switzerland now uncertain of where they
stand following his arrest, the Chamber of Commerce's Naville
said seeking out a settlement with U.S. courts may be the best
course: "If you're 75 and retired and can be happy not to travel
outside Switzerland any more, then don't do anything," he said.
"If you're 45 and would still like to do business, then you
have to solve it."