Swiss bank secrecy-destroyer Birkenfeld: the job isn’t finished yet
In a rare public appearance in London on Monday, ex-UBS banker and world-famous whistle-blower Brad Birkenfeld told an audience of financial services executives about his experiences – including his efforts to tell the world about how Swiss banks were intentionally enabling US clients to avoid paying billions of dollars in US taxes; his 31 months in a US prison; and his US$104m thank-you from the IRS – and urged them to come forward themselves, if they were in a position to.
“I think sometimes, people have the wrong impression of what a whistleblower is, and some of the things that they go through to become a whistleblower,” Birkenfeld said, in a presentation that came during a two-day event sponsored by the Miami-based OffshoreAlert news website.
“Because [whistleblowing] is not an easy task. And certainly, it destroys many whistle-blowers, financially, emotionally and physically.
“So I think we can all learn from my experience, but also from those of many many other whistle-blowers, who weren’t as fortunate as I was.”
After he spoke, Birkenfeld signed copies of his hardcover book, Lucifer’s Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy (see below, left), which was published in the US and UK last month, and which he was giving away free to the conference’s delegates, as part of what he describes as his ongoing campaign to “do the right thing” while encouraging others to as well.
‘Sports cars and models and…’
As readers of that book and/or followers of the UBS/Swiss banking secrecy saga already know, Birkenfeld is an American, now in his 50s, who grew up in suburban Boston, became a high-flying banker, and in 2001, was hired to work in UBS’s Geneva wealth management offices.
At the time the whistle-blowing portion of his story began, in 2005, he was head of business development for the bank, and as he tells it, living a surreal life, surrounded by the luxuries, toys and other pricey trappings of his wealthy clients. (The fourth chapter of his book is entitled “Sports cars and models and yachts, oh my!” and begins, “There’s nothing quite like a 2000 Ferrari 360 Modena spider convertible, especially one in candy-apple red…”)
Then, one evening in April, 2005, a colleague drew his attention to a document hidden inside the UBS computer system, which revealed to him, for the first time, that what he and his department were doing was illegal.
It was at that moment, he now says, that he made the decision to come forward and blow the whistle.
At first he tried to do it within the UBS organisation, and when that failed, he resigned, and took his concerns to the US government – wherein lies much of his tale.
In his talk, Birkenfeld concentrated on the fact that out of all the people who were involved in the systematic tax evasion programme outlined in his book, he is the only one, thus far, who has gone to prison; and urged anyone else who was aware of corruption, fraud and illegal activities in their place of employment to come forward, providing they had three things: “the courage to come forward, the documentation you need to prove that what you’re saying is true, and good legal counsel”.
Unlike when he first stepped forward in 2005, he noted, in the US at least, there are new whistleblower laws that he says have been extremely effective in encouraging people to “do the right thing”.
And he stressed that much is still unfinished even in his own story, which is notable, he says, for the fact that “thousands” of tax evaders who had accounts in Switzerland have never even been identified. In response to a question, he confirmed a report, carried here last month, that he has recently offered to help Canada to recover an estimated US$1bn in taxes from offshore accounts.
Both during his talk and afterwards, Birkenfeld urged anyone considering speaking out to check out his website, which provides advice on whistle-blowing and names organisations that help whistleblowers; and even to feel free to contact him, “or others like me”.
“I’m happy to help other people, who are nervous, scared, intimidated or threatened,” he said.
“This is really what must be done. The organisations around the world, the corporations around the world – they don’t want this to happen. They’re the ones who are breaking the law, they do not want to spend money on compliance and regulation, and they do not want to be exposed for their criminal wrong-doing.”
Afterwards, he told International Investment that the TV and film rights to his story are currently under consideration, amid “massive interest”, but thus far nothing has been finalised.
Birkenfeld’s website is wwww.lucifersbanker.com. His book is available online from Amazon and according to Waterstones, may be available in the UK in some of its shops.
To see an exclusive video of Brad Birkenfeld being interviewed by Gary Robinson, log onto www.internationalinvestment.net tomorrow morning