Secret documents reveal that global banking giant HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channeled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws.
The leaked files, based on the inner workings of HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm, relate to accounts holding more than $100 billion. They provide a rare glimpse inside the super-secret Swiss banking system — one the public has never seen before.
The documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists via the French newspaper Le Monde, show the bank’s dealings with clients engaged in a spectrum of illegal behavior, especially in hiding hundreds of millions of dollars from tax authorities. They also show private records of famed soccer and tennis players, cyclists, rock stars, Hollywood actors, royalty, politicians, corporate executives and old-wealth families.
These disclosures shine a light on the intersection of international crime and legitimate business, and they dramatically expand what’s known about potentially illegal or unethical behavior in recent years at HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks.
The leaked account records show some clients making trips to Geneva to withdraw large wads of cash, sometimes in used notes. The files also document huge sums of money controlled by dealers in diamonds who are known to have operated in war zones and sold gemstones to finance insurgencies that caused untold deaths.
HSBC, which is headquartered in London and has offices in 74 nations and territories on six continents, at first insisted that ICIJ destroy the data.
Late last month, after being informed of the full extent of the reporting team’s findings, HSBC gave a final response that was more conciliatory, telling ICIJ: “We acknowledge that the compliance culture and standards of due diligence in HSBC’s Swiss private bank, as well as the industry in general, were significantly lower than they are today.”
The written statement said the bank had “taken significant steps over the past several years to implement reforms and exit clients who did not meet strict new HSBC standards, including those where we had concerns in relation to tax compliance.”
The bank added that it had refocused this part of its business. “As a result of this repositioning, HSBC’s Swiss private bank has reduced its client base by almost 70% since 2007.”
How the offshore banking industry shelters money and hides secrets has enormous implications for societies across the globe. Academics conservatively estimate that $7.6 trillion is held in overseas tax havens, costing government treasuries at least $200 billion a year.
The secret files obtained by ICIJ — covering accounts up to 2007 associated with more than 100,000 individuals and legal entities from more than 200 nations — are a version of the ones the French government obtained and shared with other governments in 2010, leading to prosecutions or settlements with individuals for tax evasion in several countries. Nations whose tax authorities received the French files include the U.S., Spain, Italy, Greece, Germany, Britain, Ireland, India, Belgium and Argentina.
The documents obtained by ICIJ are based on data originally smuggled away by a former HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower, Hervé Falciani, and handed to French authorities in 2008. Le Monde obtained material from the French tax authority investigation into the files and then shared the French tax authority’s material with ICIJ with the agreement that ICIJ would pull together a team of journalists from multiple countries that could sift through the data from all angles.
ICIJ enlisted more than 140 journalists from 45 countries, including reporters from Le Monde, the BBC, The Guardian, 60 Minutes, Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 45 other media organizations.