Presently, people around the world are looking at each other and wondering why it is one country or state has reduced “lockdown” restrictions while others have not; and some are using the example of other countries to lobby for change.
The same thing happens in the business of compliance, with mistakes being made when people determine to hide behind the misconduct in the numbers as relationship managers posit “Bank V is doing it, so we should do it, too.” A recent example is industrialized tax evasion that took hold in Switzerland, with many, including Bank Hapoalim, joining in and paying a hefty price for its tax evasion scheme. U.S. authorities have been robustly pursuing banks in Switzerland that marketed secret accounts and tax evasion to U.S. citizens.
There are plenty of lessons here for compliance professionals, not the least of which is the need to avoid becoming involved in secrecy. My line here is: “I work for firms that will robustly defend your privacy, but my firm will not accommodate your secrecy.” Think about it in the context of your own funds and assets, your own lifestyle. Can you imagine telling airport security the content of your suitcase is a secret? For sure it is private, hence it is closed, but if you want to take it on the plane, it cannot be a secret.
We now know secret money is all too often “bad” money; therefore, in the interest of shareholders, colleagues, hardworking legitimate customers, and the communities where we undertake business, secrecy must be rejected.
When your firm or bank cultivates a reputation as a business selling secrecy, it is inevitable certain types of customers will come calling. There is no escaping the obvious: Switzerland sells bank secrecy, and 10 years ago if Bank Hapoalim had determined not to market secret, tax-evading accounts to U.S. citizens it may not have remained in business. Thus, the management of the bank joined the club with the other banks looking for safety in numbers. For a while it enjoyed profits, bonuses, and promotions—all of which, unfortunately, were built upon weak foundations. And it only took one banker to become frustrated, disenfranchised, overlooked for promotion, angry, and hungry for vengeance to take the bank down.
Enter Bradley Birkenfeld, a.k.a. Lucifer’s Banker, a former relationship banker with a major Swiss bank. As a U.S. citizen, he encountered some difficulties with what he was doing, marketing “zero, zero, zero” [zero income tax, zero capital gains tax, and zero inheritance tax] accounts to wealthy U.S. citizens. He cut a deal with the Department of Justice (DOJ), revealing all the secrets and in doing so admitting to his own transgressions.
The secret was out: There was no longer any way to hide behind the numbers. The DOJ and the Internal Revenue Service have collected billions from account holders and imposed billions in penalties against multiple banks operating in Switzerland. The fact is, it is not a secret when other people know about it. The more people involved in keeping something secret, the likelier it is the secret will be revealed.
Thus, when in addition to the tax evasion scheme it came to light that Bank Hapoalim conspired with sports marketing executives to launder at least $20.7 million in “secret bribes” to soccer officials with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the authorities soon followed. The bank has paid combined penalties of $904 million and now joins another club of banks caught in the act and paying a heavy price for selling and protecting secrecy.
Our role is to stand firm and reject secrecy, and cases such as this help to strengthen our position.
When colleagues or customers seek to rebut your requests for information and transparency, just remember the analogy of a secret suitcase trying to get past airport security. The suitcase isn’t allowed on the plane, and the secret money hidden in the case should not be welcomed by your company.