Secret files show HSBC bank helped clients dodge tax, report

Secret bank files show that the private Swiss arm of British bank HSBC helped wealthy customers avoid taxes, says a new report by a network of investigative journalists.

The report says the private Swiss arm of HSBC helped clients avoid tax.
The report says the private Swiss arm of HSBC helped clients avoid tax. Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

The revelations are likely to stoke calls for a crackdown on sophisticated tax avoidance by the wealthy and by multinational companies, a key political issue in France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

The files are a version of a set obtained by Franco-Italian former HSBC employee turned whistleblower, Herve Falciani, who copied thousands of bank documents before fleeing from Switzerland to France, where they were obtained by tax authorities in 2009.

The documents were used by the French government to track down tax evaders and shared with other states in 2010, leading to a series of prosecutions for tax evasion.

The report released on Sunday is the result of files analysed by reporters in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and it shows that the British bank HSBC provided accounts to international criminals, corrupt businessmen, politicians and celebrities.

The investigation was done by the ICIJ, linked to the US-based Center for Public Integrity, who enlisted more than 140 journalists from 45 countries in cooperation with France's Le Monde, Britain's BBC and The Guardian, US programme 60 Minutes, German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and more than 45 other media organisations.

"HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channelled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws," ICIJ reported.

The report also includes the names of businesspeople and performers.

Notes in the files indicate HSBC workers were aware of clients' intentions to keep money hidden from national authorities.

Of one Danish account holder collecting cash bundles of kroner, an employee wrote:

"All contacts through one of her 3 daughters living in London. Account holder living in Denmark, i.e. critical as it is a criminal act having an account abroad non declared."

Le Monde newspaper cites the name of Jacques Dessange, founder of a major hairdressing chain in France. The paper says he held an account containing up to 1,6 million euros between 2006 and 2007 in the Swiss arm of HSBC, but that he has since regularised his situation with French tax authorities.

Among other names well-known in France is comedian Gad Elmaleh, who held an account in the Geneva branch between 2006 and 2007, containing around 80,000 euros, according to Le Monde. The paper says he too has since regularised his situation with the French tax authorities.

HSBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but told the ICIJ: "We acknowledge that the compliance culture and standards of due diligence in HSBC's Swiss private bank, as well as the industry in general, were significantly lower than they are today."

HSBC Private Bank, the Swiss subsidiary of the British banking group, is under formal investigation in a French probe into tax fraud.


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