Swiss bank chair regrets taking on US clients

September 14, 2011 - 6:55 AM

GENEVA (AP) — The chairman of a Swiss regional bank caught up in a fresh tax evasion spat between the United States and Switzerland says he regrets taking on American clients after U.S. authorities forced rival UBS AG to hand over the names of suspected tax cheats.

Andreas C. Albrecht, chairman of the supervisory board of Basler Kantonalbank, told local daily Basler Zeitung in an interview published Wednesday that his bank opened accounts for thousands of UBS customers after the U.S. tax probe against the Zurich banking giant.

"It was mainly Swiss customers, but also a lot of foreigners, including of course Americans," Albrecht said, according to quotes confirmed by a bank spokesman.

"Looking back, I have to say it would have been wiser to close the door sooner for Americans, who only made up a marginal share of our business," he said, adding that the bank stopped accepting U.S.-based clients in March 2009.

The U.S. Justice Department last month fingered Basler Kantonalbank in an indictment against a Swiss banker accused of helping Americans move their money away from UBS.

Martin Lack, a former UBS banker turned independent asset manager, has been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States by helping U.S. customers "open and maintain secret bank accounts at a Swiss cantonal bank headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, with the assistance of a private banker at the bank," the Justice Department said. The bank itself hasn't been charged with any offense.

Albrecht told the paper his bank never broke Swiss laws, but had worked on the assumption that some of its clients' deposits hadn't been declared to tax authorities.

Earlier this month, U.S. authorities demanded details on the number of Americans suspected of using Swiss banks other than UBS to cheat on their taxes. Switzerland's second-biggest bank, Credit Suisse Group, said it has since handed over "statistical information on U.S. clients."

Basler Kantonalbank, too, has given U.S. authorities figures on the scale of its American clientele and their deposits, Albrecht said.

He told the paper that the deal struck between Washington and Bern over the UBS case should serve as a basis for resolving U.S. demands against other Swiss banks.

The Swiss government has said it doesn't want to use an emergency decree — as it did in the UBS case — to provide U.S. authorities information on suspected tax evaders. Instead, the government suggested to Swiss parliamentarians Tuesday that existing laws and agreements can be reinterpreted to allow "grouped requests" from foreign tax authorities.

This would allow U.S. officials to ask for information on entire categories of suspected tax cheats, without first having to provide their names to Swiss authorities.