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‘Stay tuned’ for more Swiss bank deals over tax evasion: U.S. official

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More Swiss banks that helped wealthy Americans evade taxes will soon strike agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice to avoid prosecution, an official overseeing the U.S. government program told Reuters.

“I would stay tuned,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline Ciraolo of the Justice Department’s Tax Division said in an interview late on Tuesday, adding that a number of non-prosecution agreements will be signed in the “very near future.”

Last week, Swiss bank BSI SA became the first bank to reach a resolution under a voluntary disclosure program for tax-related offenses run by the Justice Department. BSI agreed to pay a $211 million penalty after admitting it had for decades assisted thousands of U.S. clients in opening accounts in Switzerland and hiding assets from tax authorities.

As a result of leads from banks involved in the voluntary disclosure program, Ciraolo said, the Justice Department is going after individual account holders as well as bankers and other professionals who helped conceal offshore accounts.

The pursuit of the banks is part of a years-long campaign to root out tax dodgers and cheats in financial havens like Switzerland, the world’s largest center for offshore wealth.

The program, launched in 2013, allows Swiss banks to avoid criminal charges by coming clean about their cross-border business in secret U.S.-related accounts.

About 100 banks signed up before the December 2013 deadline, although some have since withdrawn. Ciraolo said the government was not publicly updating the number of banks in the program but that all those participating may cut deals in 2015.

“We’re hopeful that agreements will be reached with the other banks by the end of this calendar year,” she said.

The Justice Department is still probing about a dozen Swiss banks, which are not eligible for the voluntary disclosure program because they were already under criminal investigation. They include Julius Baer, Zuercher Kantonalbank and HSBC’s Swiss private bank.

Ciraolo declined to comment on those investigations.

Ciraolo said BSI’s $211 million agreement “will be one of the larger cases resolved” in the program.

The penalty is based on the value of the U.S. related accounts under management, Ciraolo said, with the penalty rate varying depending on when the bank opened the accounts. Higher rates apply to accounts opened after August 2008, when the U.S. government publicly said it was pursuing offshore banks for potential tax evasion.

BSI held and managed approximately 3,500 U.S. client accounts, including declared and undeclared accounts, with peak assets under management since August 2008 of $2.78 billion, according to the agreement. Ciraolo declined to say what percentage were undeclared.

UBS, the Justice Department’s first target, paid $780 million and admitted wrongdoing in a 2009 agreement. Last year, Credit Swiss pleaded guilty to helping Americans avoid paying taxes and agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion.

(Reporting By Karen Freifeld, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Andrew Hay)

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