Sunday, December 25, 2016

Big, Bad International Banking

Lucifer’s Banker

Book Description:  As a private banker working for the largest bank in the world, UBS, Bradley Birkenfeld was an expert in Switzerland's shell-game of offshore companies and secret numbered accounts. He wined and dined ultrawealthy clients whose millions of dollars were hidden away from business partners, spouses, and tax authorities. As his client list grew, Birkenfeld lived a life of money, fast cars, and beautiful women, but when he discovered that UBS was planning to betray him, he blew the whistle to the US Government.

The Department of Justice scorned Birkenfeld's unprecedented whistle-blowing and attempted to silence him with a conspiracy charge. Yet Birkenfeld would not be intimidated. He took his secrets to the US Senate, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service, where he prevailed.

His bombshell revelations helped the US Treasury recover over $15 billion (and counting) in back taxes, fines, and penalties from American tax cheats. But Birkenfeld was shocked to discover that at the same time he was cooperating with the US Government, the Department of Justice was still doggedly pursuing him. He was arrested and served thirty months in federal prison. When he emerged, the Internal Revenue Service gave him a whistle-blower award for $104 million, the largest such reward in history.

A page-turning real-life thriller, Lucifer's Banker is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the secret Swiss high-net worth banking industry and a harrowing account of our government's justice system. Readers will follow Birkenfeld and share his outrage with the incompetence and possible corruption at the Department of Justice, and they will cheer him on as he ''hammers'' one of the most well-known and powerful banks in the world.

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Amazon Reader Review of the Book

4 Stars
Top Flight Memoir and Call to Action
By Andrew Kreig on November 4, 2016

"Lucifer’s Banker" is a top-flight memoir by Boston-reared Bradley Birkenfeld, the most important American financial whistleblower in history.

Birkenfeld, 51, helped American authorities recover an estimated $15 billion in back taxes and penalties from wealthy tax cheats served by his former employer, UBS, the world's largest bank.

UBS operates at the center of the notoriously secretive Swiss banking system. It helped the wealthy duck debtors and hide crime that includes drug and arms trafficking. The schemes thus hurt many of the depositors’ fellow citizens and governments.

But authorities sent only Birkenfeld to prison, a disturbing result for all of us, not just him. He received a 40-month sentence even though he had stepped forward voluntarily in 2005 to bring lawbreakers to justice. A timid Justice Department refused him immunity. Yet without his initiative, the investigation of secret Swiss bank accounts would not have happened.

His memoir, subtitled, "The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy," unfolds as a suspenseful, well-crafted adventure. At first, he immersed himself in marketing financial services in Boston and then in Geneva. He made big bucks and lived the good life by helping clients shirk taxes.

Upon deciding to alert authorities, he received bad advice from top lawyers and rebuffs from officials. Birkenfeld offered to help Justice Department and other authorities learn the account information for 19,000 Americans with secret accounts and arrest their UBS bankers to squeeze them for evidence about their clients’ crimes. That offer to build cases against VIPs apparently spooked authorities, who refused to grant him immunity.

One client he reported to the authorities had $200 billion in secret Swiss accounts. Another, a major arms dealer, was close friends with one of the leading GOP contenders for the 2008 presidential nomination. As for UBS, its CEO for America was a top financial advisor to President Obama’s 2008 campaign and then later the president’s golfing partner in 2009. This was when authorities were wondering what to do about UBS, Birkenfeld and his disclosures.

He promptly pleaded guilty when charged with aiding his clients’ tax evasion. He then made the best of his 31-months served, with time off for good behavior. A new set of attorneys helped him in prison win a $76 million reward (reduced after taxes from $104 million) from a 2006 law that he had not foreseen when he stepped forward the previous year.

This fall, the Justice Integrity Project (for which I report) published “Courageous Memoir Denounces Banks, Justice Dept. Corruption,” an in-depth overview of Birkenfeld’s "Lucifer’s Banker" book launch Oct. 18 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Afterward, Birkenfeld hosted about a dozen of us at the new Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. The locale nearly adjoins across the street the Justice Department’s headquarters where authorities had sneered at Birkenfeld a decade previously.

Like the man in person, the writer tells this story well, and it rings true. The book quickly reached a best-seller status on in several categories even though it was launched via a tiny imprint in order to avoid the self-censorship, delays and other obstacles that can arise elsewhere in publishing for this kind of sensitive topic.

This book would have benefited from an index but also deserves far more extra credit for its larger goal, which is far more ambitious than most memoirs. He seeks to build a movement supporting whistleblowers, beginning with a White House and Congress that dare expose even more wrongdoing among banking and tax avoidance criminals.

“The American taxpayers,” he wrote in a letter to President Obama Oct. 1, “need to know why the DOJ took such extraordinary actions to protect the perpetrators of the largest tax fraud in history." He plans to lead a campaign to pressure all members of Congress to tackle the problem.

I was strongly tempted to award the book five stars here (like every one of its previous 13 reviewers, as of this writing) for such high ambitions that are so well executed on a daring topic of importance. But a ratings system has to reserve the very top for the Shakespeares. Also, experience has proven that readers hold especially dear the recollections of celebrities who are already famous, not simply those who might deserve to be famous one day. Finally, I’ve encountered the outgoing Birkenfeld several times in Washington whistleblower circles, and so probably should discount my rating in fairness to account for possible pro-author bias.

Ultimately, however, a book such as this is about the reader, not the author. It’s your time, your wallet, your country.

One online thesaurus I consulted for this review lists 129 synonyms for the ever-popular notion of “escapism,” and just one feeble antonym for the opposite concept, “involvement.” That parallels the challenges raised by this book. We may need a new mindset and vocabulary to delve into matters like financial corruption that are so easily ignored and hidden. But for those so inclined, if not so infuriated, the page-turning adventure "Lucifer’s Banker" is a great place to start.

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