Friday, January 8, 2010

UBS Tax Cheating Lesson: Whistleblower Pays

President Obama golfed with Robert Wolf, President of UBS Americas, a division of the giant Swiss Bank. The same UBS enticed over 50,000 Americans to establish illegal offshore accounts. Bradley Birkenfeld, a former UBS banker, turned whistle blower. WaPo reported on the impact of his cooperation:

UBS accepted a $780 million penalty and admitted to criminal wrongdoing for helping U.S. taxpayers hide accounts from the Internal Revenue Service.

And Birkenfeld's prize? A three year, four month prison term.

Birkenfeld himself had sought probation in light of his cooperation with the government, which itself had requested a prison term of 30 months.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge William Zloch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who imposed the 40-month sentence, rejected Birkenfeld's efforts to reduce and postpone the term.

Stephen Kohn, a lawyer for Birkenfeld, said the imprisonment would have a "chilling" effect on other bankers who might consider exposing tax fraud.

The "chilling effect" was compounded by a Swiss court decision. It said UBS should not have revealed any tax cheats, blaming the Swiss bank regulator for ordering any any names released.

No UBS executives have been charged in their admitted criminal wrongdoing. Not Phil Gramm, not Robert Wolf, nor any other executive. Apparently executives can buy their way out of investigations, something whistle blowers can't afford. Birkenfeld will pay with a chunk of his life.

Consider the pension "pay to play" investigations. The Carlyle Group and its joint energy venture, Riverstone Holdings, paid a combined $70 million to exit a New York state pension investigation. Some get to pay with money, others have to fork over pounds of flesh.