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Switzerland takes step to end tax dispute with U.S.

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Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf spoke during a press conference in Bern, Switzerland, today. The Swiss government says it will let banks circumvent the country's strict client secrecy laws as part of an effort to end a long-running tax evasion dispute with the United States.

GENEVA » Switzerland took a strike today to end a long-running tax evasion dispute with the United States with the government’s announcement that it plans to let banks skirt the country’s strict client secrecy laws.

Without providing specific details of the proposals, Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said Switzerland is acting now because U.S. patience with those Swiss banks suspected of aiding American tax cheats is running out.

She said the aim of the government’s planned deal is to “restore stability” to the Swiss banking industry, but that it will be up to the banks themselves to decide if they want to negotiate with U.S. authorities to settle legal disputes over suspected American tax evaders. The deal was agreed to by the Swiss Cabinet and will go to lawmakers in parliament for approval later this year.

“We are convinced it’s a good, pragmatic solution that really helps the banks resolve this issue,” Widmer-Schlumpf told a news conference in the Swiss capital Bern.

She also acknowledged that the talks with U.S. negotiators have been difficult and that the U.S. would make a unilateral amnesty offer once Switzerland has passed legislation creating the legal basis for banks to hand over client names without violating the Swiss law.

Though Switzerland has long been a center for finance, diplomacy and trade, it has been trying to shed its image as a haven for tax evasion and money laundering that has been carried out through the misuse of its famous banking secrecy. The government has signed deals with other nations to provide greater assistance to foreign tax authorities seeking information on their citizens’ accounts.

Widmer-Schlumpf refused to say how much money Swiss banks will have to pay to avoid prosecution. However, she said there will be a distinction between what banks did prior to 2009, when the United States went after UBS AG, Switzerland’s biggest bank, and those that continued aiding tax cheats afterwards. UBS entered a deferred prosecution agreement with U.S. authorities in February 2009, and agreed to pay $780 million in fines, penalties, interest and restitution.

“It will be a certain number of banks that engaged in these practices after 2009 that, let’s say this honestly, they shouldn’t have done,” she said.

She declined to provide further details of the agreement, but dismissed reports that the Swiss government will pay billions of dollars upfront to cover fines the country’s banks can expect to receive from U.S. authorities.

“I can tell you that Switzerland will pay nothing,” she added. “We will ensure that banks can participate in this deal, but we won’t do more.”

In January, Switzerland’s oldest bank, Wegelin & Co., became the first foreign bank to plead guilty in the United States to tax charges when it admitted that it helped American clients hide more than $1.2 billion from the Internal Revenue Service. The bank, which was founded in 1741, is closing after admitting to helping American tax cheats. Over a dozen Swiss banks, including UBS and Switzerland’s second-biggest bank, Credit Suisse, have been caught up in the long-running U.S. probe.

Widmer-Schlumpf stressed, however, that a new Swiss law would work on the basis of the existing legal assistance procedure: the United States has to formally request information about Americans’ past suspected breaches of their U.S. tax obligations.

“What we’re really aiming for is that stability and calm finally returns, so our banks can go after their core business, which is providing good services,” she said.

In a statement, the government said it “wants to create the legal basis for resolving the tax dispute with the United States” by enabling banks to make their own agreements with the U.S. Justice Department and put the disputes behind them.

“The solution chosen will allow legal closure to be achieved without having to enact new legislation with retroactive effect or indeed applying emergency law,” the government said. Banks that cooperate with U.S. authorities, it added, would be obliged to provide maximum protection for their employees against discrimination or dismissal for following orders.

The Swiss Bank Employers Association AGV said the agreement would ensure “legal certainty for bank clients and customers” while preventing prosecution of bank employees. Separately, banks and employers have agreed that bankers who face hardship due to legal proceedings will be able to draw on a special $2.6 million fund.

Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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