An appeals court in France on Monday ordered the Swiss bank UBS to pay a fine of 1.8 billion euros (about $2 billion) for helping rich clients evade taxes — less than half the penalty the bank had been ordered to pay two years ago in a sensational case that prosecutors had likened to the plot of a James Bond movie.
Judges had originally ordered UBS in 2019 to pay €3.7 billion — the largest fine in French history — for carrying out what prosecutors said was a long-running scheme to help wealthy French clients illegally hide huge sums of money from the authorities, using cloak-and-dagger tactics.
The court on Monday cut the fine but upheld the charges against UBS. The fine consists of a €1 billion confiscation order and €800 million in damages.
UBS has denied wrongdoing, and it said it would appeal the latest ruling to France’s highest court. It made a failed attempt earlier this year to get the case overturned on constitutional grounds. In seeking a reduced penalty, UBS lawyers argued that while some of its Swiss bankers met with wealthy French clients, they did not unlawfully solicit them to evade taxes.
The case blew open in 2019 following a seven-year investigation by French financial authorities. Several whistle-blowers at UBS France came forward with tales of how the banks’ employees in France and Switzerland engaged in illegal activity that essentially bilked the French tax authorities of more than 10 billion euros. UBS paid a $780 million fine in the United States in 2009 to resolve accusations that it had helped rich clients there dodge taxes.
Prosecutors described how bankers from UBS France, motivated by the prospect of hefty bonuses, had alerted their counterparts in Switzerland to potential “big potatoes” — French citizens with assets of €500,000 to €10 million.
To lure these people to open undeclared accounts outside of France, UBS employees traveled clandestinely from Switzerland to France, where they organized swank activities — including shows at the Paris Opera, art exhibits and hunting outings — where the bankers could mingle with prospects in hopes of slipping around French laws prohibiting foreign companies from soliciting clients on French territory, prosecutors said.
To avoid detection, the bankers involved in the scheme followed a UBS “security governance manual” that included instructions for using encrypted computers, business cards without the bank’s logo and switching hotels frequently, prosecutors said. If caught, the instructions described how to stash documents and USB computer keys in hidden pockets sewn into coats and backpacks.
The bank also created a parallel accounting system known as the milk books, after the small notebooks used as ledgers by Swiss cow farmers, prosecutors said. The books were used to keep tabs on and mask transfers of illicit money between Paris and Geneva, prosecutors said.
Four UBS bankers were given suspended jail sentences of up to one year and fines of €300,000 each.
UBS has five days to appeal the ruling. The bank’s shares jumped nearly 3 percent Monday following the court’s announcement.