Banking Giant HSBC Sheltered Murky Cash Linked to Dictators and Arms Dealers
by By Gerard Ryle, Will Fitzgibbon, Mar Cabra, Rigoberto Carvajal, Marina Walker Guevara, Martha M. Hamilton and Tom Stites, ICIJ
Team of journalists from 45 countries unearths secret bank accounts maintained for criminals, traffickers, tax dodgers, politicians and celebrities
Secret documents reveal that global banking giant HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channeled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws.
The leaked files, based on the inner workings of HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm, relate to accounts holding more than $100 billion. They provide a rare glimpse inside the super-secret Swiss banking system — one the public has never seen before.
The documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists via the French newspaper Le Monde, show the bank’s dealings with clients engaged in a spectrum of illegal behavior, especially in hiding hundreds of millions of dollars from tax authorities. They also show private records of famed soccer and tennis players, cyclists, rock stars, Hollywood actors, royalty, politicians, corporate executives and old-wealth families.
These disclosures shine a light on the intersection of international crime and legitimate business, and they dramatically expand what’s known about potentially illegal or unethical behavior in recent years at HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks.
The leaked account records show some clients making trips to Geneva to withdraw large wads of cash, sometimes in used notes. The files also document huge sums of money controlled by dealers in diamonds who are known to have operated in war zones and sold gemstones to finance insurgencies that caused untold deaths.
HSBC, which is headquartered in London and has offices in 74 nations and territories on six continents, at first insisted that ICIJ destroy the data.
Late last month, after being informed of the full extent of the reporting team’s findings, HSBC gave a final response that was more conciliatory, telling 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.”
The written statement said the bank had “taken significant steps over the past several years to implement reforms and exit clients who did not meet strict new HSBC standards, including those where we had concerns in relation to tax compliance.”
The bank added that it had refocused this part of its business. “As a result of this repositioning, HSBC’s Swiss private bank has reduced its client base by almost 70% since 2007.”
How the offshore banking industry shelters money and hides secrets has enormous implications for societies across the globe. Academics conservatively estimate that $7.6 trillion is held in overseas tax havens, costing government treasuries at least $200 billion a year.
“The offshore industry is a major threat for our democratic institutions and our basic social contract,” French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century told ICIJ. “Financial opacity is one of the key drivers of rising global inequality. It allows a large fraction of top income and top wealth groups to pay negligible tax rates, while the rest of us pay large taxes in order to finance the public goods and services (education, health, infrastructures) that are indispensable for the development process.”
HSBC’s questionable tax tactics
The secret files obtained by ICIJ — covering accounts up to 2007 associated with more than 100,000 individuals and legal entities from more than 200 nations — are a version of the ones the French government obtained and shared with other governments in 2010, leading to prosecutions or settlements with individuals for tax evasion in several countries. Nations whose tax authorities received the French files include the U.S., Spain, Italy, Greece, Germany, Britain, Ireland, India, Belgium and Argentina.
It’s not illegal in most countries to maintain offshore bank accounts, and being identified as holding an HSBC Private Bank account is of itself no indication of any wrongdoing. Some who are named in the files may have had some connection to a Swiss bank account, such as a power of attorney, while not owning the money in the account, or owning only a share of it. Others in the files may not even have had a Swiss bank account.
Hollywood actor John Malkovich, for instance, said through a representative that he knows nothing about an account listing his name and conjectured that it might have to do with Bernard Madoff, the former stockbroker convicted of fraud who handled some of his finances. A representative for the British actress Joan Collins told ICIJ: “In 1993 my client deposited funds into a bank account in London and subsequently discovered that, without her instructions, the money had been transferred to the Swiss account referred to in your letter.” The representative added that no tax was avoided.
The rock star David Bowie responded to ICIJ media partner The Guardian that he has been a legal resident of Switzerland since 1976. Tina Turner, though seen by many as a quintessentially American singer, has lived in Switzerland for nearly two decades and gave up her U.S. citizenship in 2013.
In many instances the records do describe questionable behavior, such as bankers advising clients on how to take a range of measures to avoid paying taxes in their home countries — and customers telling bankers that their accounts are not declared to their governments.
The reporting by ICIJ and a team of media organizations from 45 countries go deeper into the dark corners of HSBC than a 2012 U.S. Senate investigation, which found that the bank had lax controls that allowed Latin American drug cartels to launder hundreds of millions of ill-gotten dollars through its U.S. operations, rendering the dirty money usable.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ extensive report on HSBC also said some bank affiliates skirted U.S. government bans against financial transactions with Iran and other countries. And HSBC’s U.S. division provided money and banking services to banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh believed to have helped fund Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the report said.
Later in 2012, HSBC agreed to pay more than $1.9 billion to settle U.S. criminal and civil investigations and entered into a five-year deferred-prosecution agreement.
A subcommittee staff source said Senate investigators had requested the HSBC Private Bank account records obtained by ICIJ and been refused by the bank’s management. The new documents show the bank’s activity in many other parts of the world and reveal a new range of questionable clients and actions by the bank.
The ICIJ revelations also come after The Wall Street Journal reported in January that a progress report by the independent monitor appointed to the bank, a synopsis of which is expected to be made public in April, will show HSBC is failing in its attempts to reform.
An international cast of clients
The documents obtained by ICIJ are based on data originally smuggled away by a former HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower, Hervé Falciani, and handed to French authorities in 2008. Le Monde obtained material from the French tax authority investigation into the files and then shared the French tax authority’s material with ICIJ with the agreement that ICIJ would pull together a team of journalists from multiple countries that could sift through the data from all angles.
ICIJ enlisted more than 140 journalists from 45 countries, including reporters from Le Monde, the BBC, The Guardian, 60 Minutes, Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 45 other media organizations.
The reporters found the names of current and former politicians from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kenya, Romania, India, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Paraguay, Djibouti, Senegal, the Philippines and Algeria, among others. They found several people on the current U.S. sanctions list, such as Selim Alguadis, a Turkish businessman alleged to have supplied sophisticated electrical goods to Libya’s secret nuclear weapons project, and Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of the main targets of sanctions imposed on Russian individuals and businesses in response to the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in eastern Ukraine.