By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) – Three Germans on trial in Switzerland for helping expose a tax-stripping scheme that cost European governments billions of euros will likely avoid prison after a verdict on Thursday that fell well short of prosecutors’ demands.
The men, Stuttgart-based lawyer Eckart Seith and two former employees of Basel-based Bank J. Safra Sarasin, had faced up to 3-1/2 years in prison for numerous charges. Instead, they got suspended fines and jail terms for violating banking secrecy.
“The Zurich District Court condemns three persons, accused of transferring a bank customer list to a German lawyer, for multiple violations of the banking law,” the court said in a statement, adding one banker was also found guilty of industrial espionage and coercion.
The defendants were acquitted of all other charges, the court said.
Seith could not be reached immediately for comment. He told German newspaper FAZ he would lodge an appeal.
The case, in which prosecutors said the accused passed secret Swiss bank documents to German authorities, is linked to the border-crossing fraud investigation into so-called “cum-ex trades” in which financial powerhouses including BlackRock, Spain’s Santander and Deutsche Bank are under scrutiny.
In the 2001-2011 scheme, European governments were duped into believing a stock had multiple owners, each entitled to a dividend and a tax credit. Germany, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and other countries lost tax revenue that instead benefited wealthy investors.
The Zurich trial was linked to German drug chain billionaire Erich Mueller, a Bank Sarasin client who lost around 50 million euros (43.1 million pounds) in 2012 on cum-ex trades after German tax officials balked at paying him a tax credit.
Mueller, seeking to recoup his money from Sarasin, hired Seith and worked with the two German bankers, both of whom spent time in investigative custody in Switzerland.
In 2017, a German court ruled Bank Sarasin had to pay 45 million euros to Mueller. Sarasin’s ex-deputy chief executive, Eric Sarasin, in 2016 also paid a settlement in Germany.
Switzerland, the world’s largest offshore wealth centre, last year began sharing bank data with many foreign tax authorities, bowing to international pressure to help crack down on tax cheats.
Still, the Zurich case shows the nation continues to move aggressively against people who pass on bank information to foreign individuals or governments.
Meanwhile, German media have celebrated Seith for helping expose the cum-ex scheme.
(Reporting by John Miller; Editing by David Holmes)