FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) - A former top banker who headed global wealth management at UBS was found not guilty on Monday on U.S. charges of conspiring with wealthy Americans to hide US$20 billion in secret offshore accounts.
Raoul Weil, the highest-ranking Swiss banker to stand trial in the United States, was accused in South Florida federal court of conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
The verdict was a major setback to the U.S. Justice Department which spent six years seeking to prosecute Weil, including extraditing him from Italy last year.
The jury took only 75 minutes to reach its verdict after a three-week trial that ended abruptly on Monday when Weil's defense team decided not to call any witnesses, saying the government had failed to make its case.
The defense team jumped up in joy as the verdict was read. Weil, 54, held his sobbing wife in a lengthy embrace.
Legal experts said that while the government presented plenty of evidence that bankers at UBS defrauded the IRS, including some who testified at the trial, it failed to show that Weil was intimately involved in those schemes. "For a jury to acquit after only an hour means that there were some huge holes in the government's case," said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami.
As a result of the verdict, future efforts by the U.S. government to bring tax fraud cases "will require more than just the word of former alleged co-conspirators," said Weinstein. "Corporate defendants will also be less likely to cooperate with the government and may instead choose to begin fighting the allegations made against their institutions," he added.
The United States in recent years pursued Swiss banks for their role in aiding tax evasion and has increasingly pressured individual bankers.
In 2009 UBS admitted to helping U.S. taxpayers hide money and paid a US$780 million fine. Credit Suisse pleaded guilty in May to a U.S. criminal charge and will pay more than US$2.5 billion in penalties.
UBS is also under investigation in France and Germany over whether it helped wealthy individuals there dodge taxes.