By Lynnley Browning
FAIRFIELD, Connecticut (Reuters) - U.S. authorities indicted three Credit Suisse AG private bankers, one a senior executive, on Thursday, toughening their stance against the bank for allegedly helping wealthy Americans to evade taxes.
Federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia, filed criminal charges against Markus Walder, the former head of North America Offshore Banking and a former senior Credit Suisse executive; Susanne D. Rüegg Meier, a former manager; and Andreas Bachmann, a former banker at a subsidiary of the bank. Also charged was Josef Dorig, the founder of a Swiss trust company that worked with the bank.
While the charges did not name the bank in question, a government person briefed on the matter identified it as Credit Suisse.
Asked about the indictment, Victoria Harmon, a spokeswoman for Credit Suisse, said in a statement that "Credit Suisse is committed to a fully compliant cross-border business. Subject to our Swiss legal obligations and throughout this process we will continue to cooperate with the U.S. authorities in an effort to resolve these matters."
The four individuals were charged with conspiring to defraud the United States, the Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service by helping wealthy Americans to evade taxes. Walder, a managing director, was accused of, among other things, lying to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2005 and 2007 and to the IRS about the bank's activities with U.S. customers and on U.S. soil.
TOUGHER U.S. LINE
The indictment signals an increasingly tough line by U.S. authorities against Credit Suisse, which has been under scrutiny for its tax evasion services for more than a year.
Last week U.S. authorities sent a target letter to Credit Suisse formally notifying it that it was under criminal investigation.
The charges were filed as a superseding indictment that adds to similar charges filed in February against four other Credit Suisse bankers. The original four are Marco Parenti Adami, Emanuel Agustoni, Michele Bergantino and Roger Schaerer.
With the new charges, Credit Suisse thus now has seven bankers who have been indicted. That is far more than Swiss bank UBS, which averted indictment in 2009 by agreeing to pay $780 million, admit to criminal wrongdoing; the bank later agreed to turn over 4,450 client names. Asked whether any of the seven bankers were still employed by Credit Suisse, Harmon, the Credit Suisse spokesman, declined to comment.
The defendants charged in the superseding indictment used a representative office in New York to provide unlicensed and unregistered banking services to U.S. clients, according to prosecutors. In addition, the charges said, Walder, Schaerer and others "allegedly made false statements and provided misleading information to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and to the IRS in order to conceal the international bank's U.S. cross-border banking business and the role of the New York representative office in that business."
Dorig, who ran a trust company called Dorig AG, is accused of being a "preferred provider" for Credit Suisse and helping American bank clients open sham entities in other offshore tax havens to conceal their Credit Suisse accounts.
The pressure on Credit Suisse comes amid a collapse of talks between Bern and Washington aimed at resolving the wide-ranging investigation of a number of Swiss and other foreign banks, including HSBC, Europe's largest bank; Julius Baer, a private bank based in Zurich; and Basler Kantonalbank, a Swiss cantonal bank.
Robert Katzberg, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in New York, said the superseding indictment "is clearly the U.S. government's response to the recent refusal of the Swiss to enter into a global settlement. Unfortunately for the Swiss, the U.S. is holding some really powerful cards."
The fresh indictment said that as of autumn 2008, the bank "maintained thousands of secret accounts for U.S. customers with as much as $3 billion." One client out of the 35 cited in the superseding indictment took $250,000 to Switzerland by concealing it in panty hose she wrapped around her body underneath her clothes.
(Editing by Howard Goller)