Showdown looming over Singapore bank secrecy laws in UBS tax evasion case

The US has sought to make UBS turn over records on an account in Singapore held by a US citizen.
The US has sought to make UBS turn over records on an account in Singapore held by a US citizen. PHOTO: EPA

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY (BLOOMBERG) - The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sought to make UBS Group turn over records on an account in Singapore held by a US citizen, setting up a showdown with the city-state over its bank-secrecy laws and potentially opening a new front against offshore tax evasion beyond Switzerland.

The IRS asked a federal judge in Miami to force UBS, the largest Swiss bank, to produce documents on Hsiaw Ching-Ye, who lives in China. The judge on Wednesday told UBS to show up in court on March 31 to explain why it has refused to supply the account records.

"They're holding UBS hostage in the US by saying you subjected yourself to US jurisdiction, now produce these records outside the US," said Jeff Neiman, a former federal prosecutor. "It's setting up a showdown of Singapore secrecy versus the US need to enforce its tax laws."

UBS spokesman Gregg Rosenberg declined to comment on the case immediately.

The US has focused largely on Switzerland in recent years as it has fought offshore tax evasion. More than 80 Swiss banks, including UBS and Credit Suisse, have agreed to pay a total of US$5 billion or so in penalties and fines.

The question is where the IRS and the Justice Department will turn next as they sift through a trove of data gathered from Swiss banks and from more than 50,000 US taxpayers who disclosed their accounts to avoid prosecution.

The Hsiaw case provides some clues. IRS agents served a summons on UBS in 2013 for records of his account in Singapore from 2001 to 2011. The bank said it couldn't produce them because Singapore's bank secrecy laws prevent disclosure without permission from Hsiaw, which he hasn't provided, according to a court filing.

"Even if Singapore's bank secrecy laws, as UBS contends, precludes disclosure of the summoned bank records relating or pertaining to Hsiaw's Singapore account(s), international comity requires that the records be disclosed," IRS revenue agent James Oertel said in the filing.

"The interest of the United States in combating tax evasion by US taxpayers outweighs the interest of Singapore in preserving the privacy of its bank customers," Oertel wrote.

Mr Neiman, the former prosecutor, said that "UBS can be held in contempt if they don't produce the records. I think it's the IRS's way to start getting at Singapore."

Mr Neiman was one of the prosecutors on a landmark case in 2009, filed in Miami, in which UBS avoided prosecution by paying US$780 million, admitting it encouraged tax evasion, and agreeing to turn over secret account data on U.S. citizens.