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Throwing open the vault

Credit Suisse secretly opened bank accounts for human rights abusers, money launderers and corrupt officials

Despite two decades of pledges by Credit Suisse to crack down on illegitimate funds, data leaked from the bank reveals that it held money for dozens of unsavoury clients from almost every corner of the world

20 February 2022 - 20:01 By OCCRP and SZ
A Credit Suisse cash services sign placed at a cafe outside a Credit Suisse bank branch in Zurich, Switzerland. File photo.
A Credit Suisse cash services sign placed at a cafe outside a Credit Suisse bank branch in Zurich, Switzerland. File photo.
Image: BLOOMBERG

A Yemeni spy chief implicated in torture. The sons of an Azerbaijani strongman who rules a mountainous territory as his own private fiefdom. Bureaucrats accused of looting Venezuela’s oil wealth and hastening its descent into humanitarian crisis.

They come from all over the world, each associated with a different corrupt, authoritarian regime and each enriching themselves in their own way. But there is one thing that unites them: Where they kept their money.

After its luxury watches, snow-capped mountains, and superior chocolates, the Alpine nation of Switzerland is perhaps known best for its secretive banking sector. And at the heart of that sector is Credit Suisse, which over its 170-year history has become one of the world’s most important financial institutions.

With nearly 50,000 employees and $1.5-trillion in assets under management for 1.6-million clients, this banking behemoth is a testament to how central the banking sector is in this wealthy and comfortable nation.

But, as a new collaborative investigation spearheaded by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and OCCRP reveals, this glittering success has its murky side.

Journalists have obtained leaked records identifying thousands of foreign customers who stashed their money at Credit Suisse. The records are nowhere near a complete list of the bank’s clients, but they provide a revealing glimpse behind the curtain of Swiss banking secrecy.

Nearly 163 reporters from 48 outlets spent months poring through the data to identify dozens of accounts that belonged to corrupt politicians, criminals, spies, dictators, and other dubious characters. These are not obscure names, their misdeeds often identifiable through a simple Google search. And yet, their accounts — which held over $8bn — remained open for years. They included:

  • the family of an Egyptian intelligence chief who oversaw torture of terrorism suspects for the US Central Intelligence Agency;
  • an Italian accused of laundering criminal funds for Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta crime group;
  • a German executive who bribed Nigerian officials for telecoms contracts; and
  • Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who held over 230-million Swiss francs ($223m) in a single Swiss bank account, even as his country raked in billions in foreign aid every year.

In Venezuela, elites accused of plundering the state oil firm funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into Credit Suisse accounts." The money flowed during a period when widespread looting from government coffers precipitated an economic collapse that has prompted 6-million people to flee extreme poverty, malnutrition, and a lack of medical care. The bank kept its Venezuelan clients’ accounts open even as global media exposed corruption cases against many of them..

Compliance experts who reviewed OCCRP’s findings said many of these people should not have been allowed to bank at Credit Suisse at all.

“People should not have access to the system if what they are carrying is corrupt money,” said Graham Barrow, an independent expert on financial crime.

“The bank has a clear duty to ensure that the funds it handles have clear and legitimate provenance.”

Credit Suisse is not the only culprit. Many major banks and financial service firms have faced similar scandals over the years. Many then pledge to reform. And yet — as projects like this one reveal — they continue to allow dodgy clients to take wealth they’ve made in countries with poor legal systems and lax oversight, and safeguard it in some of the safest and most secure places in the world. From there, it’s available anywhere the Swiss banks operate, and has the imprimatur of clean money.

“The irony is that Switzerland has become the place for dirty money to go because it is pure, well-managed, reliable,” says James Henry, a senior adviser to the U.K. charity Tax Justice Network who has studied tax evasion at Credit Suisse. “The business model of taking money out of poor countries is the problem.”

Asked to comment on the findings of the Suisse Secrets project, Credit Suisse said it was in full compliance with all applicable laws. While refusing to discuss individual cases unearthed by journalists, the bank said that they were “predominantly historical” and that “related issues have already been addressed.” 

“As a leading global financial institution, Credit Suisse is deeply aware of its responsibility to clients, and the financial system as a whole to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are upheld,” it added.

OCCRP talked to more than a dozen former and current Credit Suisse employees to see if they could explain why the bank took on so many problematic clients. None would talk on the record, saying the bank was highly litigious to former employees. There were many opinions that could be corroborated by others but none that could be definitively proven.

Most talked of a highly toxic corporate culture. Part of this culture involved incentivizing risk for profits — and bonuses.

Employees said bonuses were tied to “new net money”, how much additional money bankers brought into the company over accounts that leave.

“The bank incentivizes a banker to look the other way with an account they know to be toxic,” said a long-time executive. “If you close a toxic account, especially a large account in excess of $20m, the banker finds himself in a deep hole. A deep hole that is almost impossible to get out of.”

Bonuses and even jobs depended on this performance. That led to a culture, they say, where there are two sets of rules for two levels of customers - the common customer and the very rich customer.

“Due diligence of customers and accounts — say at a level of $1m — are very thorough,” said a former senior executive. “But when it comes to high net-worth accounts, bosses encourage everyone to look the other way and managers get intimidated about their bonuses and job security.”

“The bank’s compliance department are masters of plausible deniability,” a former Zurich-based Credit Suisse banker told OCCRP. “Never ask a question you do not want to know the answer to."

The secrecy of the bank also allowed toxic accounts to operate. Very big accounts were kept so secret that only a few senior executives might know who owns the account.

“When someone wants to engage in money laundering after he loots assets of the country, for example, he needs to transfer the money. So holders of big accounts go directly to the very senior managers, and they do not go through the normal private banking system,” said one executive.

The system was based on plausible deniability, said former employees. Employees are given strict rules but not only are they not enforced on big accounts, the incentives are to ignore them.

“It’s never the bank’s fault, it’s always this bad apple employee who is responsible for something bad happening. That’s the approach,” said a former employee.

The end result said one manager is a lack of loyalty between the bank and its employees.

“The kind of people the bank attracts are mercenaries and they all look to enrich themselves first – probably understanding that there is no real relationship with the bank. You’re only there for as long as you make money, however you make that money,” he said. 

The employees are unlikely to care how bad their clients are and that the deals they made were likely to come back to haunt the bank.

“You don’t need to worry about what happens 8-10 years from now because you’re unlikely to be there. Usually that’s how long it takes for deals to blow up,” he said. 

These insider accounts echo allegations Credit Suisse is now fighting in court, in the first criminal case ever launched against a Swiss bank in Switzerland.[1] Prosecutors say the bank allowed a group of Bulgarian cocaine smugglers to launder over 9-million euros in drug money through Credit Suisse accounts.

Senior managers are accused of ignoring many warnings that their Bulgarian clients were up to no good, including the fact that they were depositing suitcases of cash driven from Sofia to Switzerland. Even after one of the criminals was assassinated and named in the media as a cocaine trafficker, bank staff looked the other way.

A banker who dealt with the Bulgarians testified that Credit Suisse trained her carefully on how to present herself to potential clients and on the importance of Swiss banking secrecy, but not on compliance.

As evidence, one of her compliance tests was presented in court. She had answered just a quarter of the questions right.

An OCCRP got in touch with Credit Suisse and asked if they could open a numbered account on behalf of a wealthy investor from an African country — a story that was truthful,  The reporter found the bank’s representatives were careful about what they said and preferred to talk by phone rather than e-mail. They said most clients came from referrals, but agreed to talk. And they made it clear that privacy was important.

“There are limited people even within the bank who would be able to access your account information,” a Credit Suisse vice president assured the reporter.

“Information is treated strictly with secrecy and on a need-to-know basis,” said another banker in an e-mail.

Aside from anonymous numbered accounts — at a cost of around $3,000 per year[1] — the bank offered the African investor an array of options designed to enhance secrecy.

"Numbered accounts are a service we are actually phasing out, as the protections offered by this have diminished greatly over the years,” said the Zurich-based vice president overseeing emerging markets.

The secrecy of numbered accounts took a series of hits in the 2010s, when repeated tax evasion scandals led to international pressure on Switzerland to share clients' tax information with foreign governments — although the agreement excluded developing countries, which Credit Suisse said were its biggest target markets.

Top Credit Suisse executives proposed several alternatives to numbered accounts in their presentation to the prospective client, including putting her money in a trust.

Trusts are a common financial vehicle in many jurisdictions, but they have come under fire from transparency advocates because they allow the true owners to hide behind “nominees,” who can act as shareholders and directors[2].

In the presentation, Credit Suisse indicated that its staff can act as nominee shareholders and directors in holding companies, trusts and bank accounts, which can be registered to anonymous holding companies. That service would create legal layers of ownership that would allow wealthy individuals to distance themselves from their wealth.

Trusts have not been widely used in Switzerland until recently — in large part because banking secrecy filled the same role. But that may be about to change. Last month, Switzerland introduced a new draft law that would allow Swiss bankers to create trusts in Switzerland for the first time.

Sebastian Guex, a professor of history at the University of Lausanne who studies Swiss banking, said this was a direct reaction to new tax-sharing agreements that opened up wealth stored in Swiss banks to more scrutiny.[

“Swiss bankers have found solutions that will allow them to continue to hide the wealth of the most interesting clients, those who bring in the most profits, i.e. the famous ultra-high-net-worth individuals,” he told the Guardian.

Switzerland’s reputation for financial secrecy goes back hundreds of years.

“These solutions will involve the creation of tax-evasion systems for this clientele based on the family foundation or, even more so, on the Anglo-Saxon legal institution, the trust.”

Switzerland’s reputation for financial secrecy goes back hundreds of years.

In 1713, the Council of Geneva banned bankers from divulging their clients’ details to safeguard the interests of the French monarchy, which wanted to obscure its dealings with banks in a ‘heretical’ protestant country.

Switzerland’s internationally recognised status of neutrality from 1848 onward helped attract huge amounts of capital from abroad, as did an expanding tourism sector that was trying to lure Europe’s wealthiest for long stays in lakeside palaces or Alpine sanatoriums. 

“To add something that other countries didn’t have, they also adopted tax measures to stimulate rich people coming from outside to stay long in Switzerland,” explains Sebastian Guex, a professor at the University of Lausanne who studies the Swiss banking industry.

Switzerland became a tax haven, and started competing with France and other European banking heavyweights to attract foreign capital. Whether it was the mountains or the laws, it worked — wealthy foreigners started arriving in droves, with their money.

With the outbreak of the First World War, wealthy Europeans turned to Switzerland to insulate themselves from economic instability and tax hikes associated with the war effort.

In 1934 Switzerland formalised this with a Banking Act, a law which promised to jail any bank employee seeking to disclose confidential customer information.

More recently, Switzerland has made changes to the way its banking sector is regulated.

After the 2008 financial crash, the country agreed to lift the veil on thousands of accounts after a UBS employee told US prosecutors how the bank was helping Americans hide their assets.

But not without first securing the dismissal of US charges for enabling tax evasion, and raising the max sentence for breaching financial secrecy laws from just six months to five years.

Experts say the law essentially criminalises whistleblowing, silencing insiders and journalists who may want to expose wrongdoing within a Swiss bank.

“That law demonises those who come forward with good information to expose corruption,” said Jeffrey Neiman, a US lawyer representing Credit Suisse whistleblowers.

The leaked records analysed by Suisse Secrets reporters show accounts held by several high-profile human rights abusers, such as Algeria’s former defence minister Khaled Nezzar. As head of the armed forces, Nezzar was Algeria’s de facto leader from 1991 to 1993, when the country was embroiled in a civil war marked by atrocities committed against civilians.

Aside from Nezzar (already footnoted above), other human rights abusers are documented in Bank of Spies story with several intelligence figures implicated in torture. There is also Bo Stefan Sederholm (Aleph) who trafficked sex workers (Reuters); Azad Rahimov who profited from people smuggling (see also related ECHR ruling, 2021).

Despite well-publicised allegations against him, Nezzar appears in the Suisse Secrets data as a Credit Suisse client, with two accounts worth at least 2-million Swiss francs ($1.6m).[1] A 1995 law criminalised the removal of the financial proceeds of Algerian economic activity from the country without central bank approval. The source of the funds deposited in Nezzar’s Credit Suisse account is unknown.[2] It remained open until 2013, two years after he was charged in Switzerland with war crimes.

He denies any wrongdoing.

Credit Suisse also offered banking services to key figures implicated in corruption scandals in some of the poorest countries in the world. In Angola a disgraced banker, under investigation in Portugal after the bank he led collapsed with $5.7bn in untraceable debt, was able to open at least a dozen Credit Suisse accounts, some of which are being looked at by Portuguese prosecutors.

In Kenya Credit Suisse banked a key player in a huge corruption scandal even after authorities declared him wanted in a criminal probe. Millions of dollars appeared to be withdrawn from the account even as investigators in Switzerland and Kenya were trying to trace the stolen funds.

Another client was former Venezuelan spy chief Carlos Luis Aguilera Borjas. Aguilera was close to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president who died in 2013 after establishing a socialist regime that has become mired in corruption, with officials looting state funds and stashing the money overseas. 

In 2001, Chávez installed Aguilera as head of the secret service, where he kept a low profile, avoiding interviews and photographs. “They call him ‘The Invisible One’, Carlos Aguilera, the head of the political police. Nobody sees him. I know where he is,” Chávez said in a 2002 national broadcast of his weekly TV show, Hello President.

But Aguilera fell out of favour later that year after failing to prevent a coup attempt that almost toppled Chávez. He left his secret service post and entered the private sector full time, amassing wealth most Venezuelans could only imagine.

In 2007, Aguilera became the major shareholder of Inversiones Dirca S.A., a Venezuelan firm that secured a $1.85bn contract the following year to renovate a Caracas metro line. There was no public bidding process, and Aguilera took a 4.8 percent commission worth almost $90m.

In 2011, two accounts were opened in Aguilera’s name and credited with at least 7.8-million Swiss francs ($8.6m). The Aguilera accounts were still open well into the last decade when the Suisse Secrets data was collected.

“By any definition, he’s high-risk,” said Barrow, the financial crime expert, adding that banks are responsible for making sure the sources of funds from politically connected customers are legitimate.

But a whistleblower who previously worked at Credit Suisse in Zurich recalled how executives encouraged bankers to pursue high-risk relationships.  

“Management incentivises the servicing of questionably sourced money by putting pressure on its bankers, especially junior bankers, to keep toxic accounts or face the consequences,” the former banker said, on condition of anonymity. “Those consequences are often termination, no bonus, and no pay increase.”

Aguilera did not respond to OCCRP’s e-mailed questions.

Credit Suisse has repeatedly pledged to crack down on illicit funds, following a string of scandals beginning over two decades ago with the death of an infamous Nigerian dictator. After Sani Abacha died in 1998, it emerged that Credit Suisse had helped stash some of the billions of dollars his family had looted from his country.

In an effort to defuse the fallout from that revelation, the bank’s then-chairman said in 2000 that it had “continuously improved … control procedures and compliance with them.”

Later that year, Credit Suisse became a founding member of the Wolfsberg Group, an international banking association assembled to curb illicit financial flows.

“The bank will endeavour to accept only those clients whose source of wealth and funds can be reasonably established to be legitimate,” read a Wolfsberg Group mission statement in 2000.

The bank likes to say it’s just rogue bankers, but how many rogue bankers do you need to have before you start having a rogue bank?
US lawyer Jeffrey Neiman

Yet Credit Suisse’s promises to clean up did little to prevent its entanglement in criminal cases for many years to come.  

“The bank likes to say it’s just rogue bankers,” said Jeffrey Neiman, the American lawyer. “But how many rogue bankers do you need to have before you start having a rogue bank?”

Neiman does not represent the source of the SuisseSecrets leak, but his clients include a whistleblower who in February 2021 told a US court that Credit Suisse continued to help American citizens illegally hide hundreds of millions of dollars offshore. If true, this would be a violation of a 2014 pledge the bank made in order to settle criminal charges in the US.

The Department of Justice and the powerful Senate Finance Committee are currently investigating whether Credit Suisse continued to facilitate tax evasion after it settled and paid a record $1.3bn fine in 2014.

The bank’s chairperson at the time, Urs Rohner, conceded mistakes in its handling of the tax evasion scandal but told a Swiss television station that he himself had “clean hands.”

Recalling this incident in a recent interview with OCCRP, Swiss member of parliament Gerhard Andrey said he was still incredulous that Credit Suisse executives never accepted personal responsibility for the scandal.

“He’s the head of the company,” Andrey said by phone as he paced the foyer of the Swiss parliament, where he represents the Green Party. “If you’re CEO or president, you can’t say, ‘It has nothing to do with me,’ because you’re responsible for defining the culture. Culture is defined top-down by senior staff, the board and executives.”

Frank Vogl, a former World Bank official who is now an anti-kleptocracy campaigner, said US and European justice authorities had filed an “astounding” number of cases over the years against Swiss banks, including Credit Suisse. But he pointed out that yet not a single chairman of such banks has ever been personally prosecuted, or even lost his job because of these crimes.

“The criminal prosecutions force the banks to pay fines, but the bankers appear to treat these as merely the costs of doing business,” he said. 

With those at the top accused of ignoring corruption and other crimes, mid-level employees feel powerless to take action, according to former bank officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“I took early retirement, as toxicity between compliance and business grew – the former slowly and fully becoming subservient to the latter,” one former senior Credit Suisse banker said.  

Internal e-mails leaked to OCCRP confirm that this culture remains a problem today. An October 2021 e-mail from Credit Suisse’s chairman and CEO to its 50,000 staff following a global employee survey identified a “need for an environment that empowers colleagues  to speak up.”

But experts say Credit Suisse’s culture won’t change until top executives face repercussions for the scandals that plague the bank. “CEOs have to go to jail for this to hit home,” said James Henry, an economist and senior adviser to the UK charity Tax Justice Network who has studied tax evasion at Credit Suisse. 

While critics accuse Credit Suisse of negligence, they reserve much of the blame for Switzerland’s government, which is responsible for a lax regulatory environment and laws that punish those who speak out against corruption.

Stefan Lenz, a Swiss former federal prosecutor who led major corruption cases, said there are very few investigations targeting Swiss banks or their management for accepting illicit money. “There seems to be a lack of both political will and law enforcement resources,” Lenz told OCCRP.

Andrey, the Green Party parliamentarian, urged the government to take action for the sake of its citizens.

“I’m a proud Swiss,” he said. “It hurts me when banks spoil my country’s reputation with this behaviour.”

“People are angry at the scandals that have already been exposed – and we don’t even know the unknown scandals.” 


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