ZURICH, June 19 Swiss upper house lawmakers kept
alive a draft law aimed at ending a long-running U.S. tax probe
into hidden offshore accounts at Swiss banks on Wednesday,
leaving the final say with the lower house, which has previously
Lawmakers are deeply divided on a bill aimed at allowing
banks to sidestep strict Swiss secrecy laws by disclosing their
U.S. dealings to prosecutors, helping them to strike deals that
are nevertheless expected to include fines that could cost the
industry as much as $10 billion.
The Swiss government has warned that the bill's failure is
likely to lead to criminal charges against Swiss banks by
impatient U.S. prosecutors.
With the draft law increasingly unlikely to be fast-tracked
before the end of parliament's summer session on Friday,
government officials and lawmakers scrambled to mitigate the
potential fallout for Swiss banks.
Upper house lawmakers issued a statement acknowledging the
situation's urgency and saying they were in favour of Swiss
banks making amends for wrongdoing, a move they said they hoped
would appease U.S. officials.
The protection of client information has helped to make
Switzerland the world's biggest offshore financial centre, with
$2 trillion in assets. But the haven has come under fire as
other countries have sought to plug budget deficits by clamping
down on tax evasion, with authorities probing Swiss banks in
Germany and France as well as the United States.
U.S. authorities have more than a dozen banks under formal
investigation, including Credit Suisse, Julius Baer
, the Swiss arm of Britain's HSBC, privately
held Pictet in Geneva and local government-backed Zuercher
Kantonalbank and Basler Kantonalbank.
An indictment felled Wegelin & Co this year. The bank paid a
$58 million fine and closed its doors for good after pleading
guilty to helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret
Lower house lawmakers are set to take up debate again later
If the bill dies in parliament, the Swiss government could
still take matters into its own hands and approve the data
transfer with an executive order, though circumventing a hostile
parliament is seen as a gamble.
Switzerland's biggest bank, UBS, was forced in
2009 to pay a fine of $780 million and deliver the names of more
than 4,000 clients to avoid indictment, giving the U.S.
authorities information that allowed them to pursue other banks.