Last November, Christian H., the manager of a medium-sized Swiss private bank, received a letter headlined: “Investigation in Germany.” It was not sent by an investigating authority but by a German tax lawyer working in Switzerland.
“At the end of last week I was approached by a high-ranking representative of the North Rhine-Westphalia finance authority,” the lawyer wrote to the bank manager. The official had told him that Christian H.’s bank was being probed for allegedly abetting tax evasion.
“The finance official then confronted me with a special request,” the lawyer wrote. Christian H. couldn’t believe his eyes when he read the next sentence: “He asked me to get in touch with you and to have myself retained.”
This is not an isolated case. According to financial sources, the tax administration in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states with some 17 million people, has asked numerous lawyers to make Swiss banks aware of investigations in order to push them into agreeing to speedy settlements.
Since 2010, North Rhine-Westphalia has collected fines of some €600 million, or $663 million, from Swiss banks found to have aided tax evasion.
Investigators have based their probes on information gleaned from CDs containing tax data stolen from Swiss banks. Increasingly, they’re also using data from the flood of so-called “voluntary disclosures” by tax evaders, a provision of German law whereby evaders can avoid trial by detailing taxes they have skipped.
Handelsblatt has learned that investigators are working their way down a list of 50 Swiss banks.
But the apparent use of tax lawyers as go-betweens to ramp up pressure on banks adds a new dimension to Germany’s efforts to reclaim tax and punish offenders.