Imagine you're a rich American who’s just landed at Zurich’s airport. You’re carrying a lot of money — let's say you've got about $250,000 stuffed into pantyhose and wrapped around your body.
Obviously you want to offload that cash as soon as possible. But you came to ski, and you definitely don’t want to waste time visiting a downtown bank.
Not to worry, Credit Suisse has you covered. You simply head over to a mysterious elevator that whisks you to a bank branch inside the airport.
“Client 1 observed that the elevator had no buttons and was controlled remotely,” said a US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released Wednesday, citing court records and an unnamed customer. “A bank representative then escorted Client 1 to a nondescript meeting room, painted white.”
Best of all, you’re not only saving time, you’re dispensing with other inconveniences — like paying taxes to the IRS. And you’re in good company. Around 10,000 Americans used the elevator in recent years, hiding billions via the secret office, the report said.
The subcommittee’s report was the latest salvo in an ongoing struggle between the US and Switzerland that’s pretty much changed global finance forever. At stake are tens of billions of dollars in annual tax revenues.
On Wednesday, Senator Carl Levin grilled Credit Suisse bankers on their role in American tax evasions, whether on interest, foreign income or on assets absconded into the Switzerland.
Credit Suisse admits helping American tax cheats. But Levin wants the bankers to divulge the names of their American clients. The bankers said they gladly would, but couldn’t, out of fear of running afoul of Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws.
“Chairman, we have absolutely the same goal…,” said Romeo Cerutti, the bank’s general counsel.
“No, no, not the same goal,” said Levin interrupted.
When Levin and the IRS similarly pursued Swiss banking giant UBS years ago, its executives also balked. Then a whistleblower UBS employee divulged his shenanigans, like buying diamonds with an American clients’ money in Switzerland and bringing the gems to the US stuffed inside a toothpaste tube.
UBS then coughed up the names of 4,500 American customers/tax cheats to the U.S. government in 2009.
“Four or five years ago, Americans who had foreign bank accounts had no fear of getting caught,” Rebecca Wilkins, an expert at Citizens for Tax Justice, told VICE News. “The UBS investigation changed all of that.”
Swiss banking secrecy was reaching its limits. Credit Suisse bankers certainly kept the fate of UBS in mind.
The subcommittee report describes a James Bond-esque rendezvous, where an evidently paranoid Credit Suisse banker handed account statements to an American customer by hiding them in an issue of Sports Illustrated, while having breakfast in a Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
"These alarming instances of illicit banking practices belong in a spy novel — not at one of the world’s top banks," said Senator John McCain, who is on the subcommittee.