Switzerland denies banking deal in principle reached with U.S.

ZURICH, March 24 Sun Mar 24, 2013 9:03am EDT

ZURICH, March 24 (Reuters) - The Swiss government on Sunday denied a newspaper report that the country had reached a deal in principle with the United States over undeclared funds hidden by wealthy Americans in Swiss offshore bank accounts.

"There is no agreed framework. The negotiations for an industry-wide deal to enable all Swiss banks to draw a line under the matter are ongoing," Swiss government spokesman Mario Tuor said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

Tuor was responding to a report in Sunday's edition of weekly Neue Zuercher Zeitung am Sonntag which said that, instead of an industry-wide settlement for the Swiss private banking industry, banks including Credit Suisse and Julius Baer as well as all others with U.S. clients would negotiate individual penalties with U.S. officials.

The NZZ am Sonntag cited undisclosed sources in its story.

The Swiss government's comments on Sunday, however, left the door open to an alternative to an industry-wide settlement.

"The federal council will explore possible solutions in its regular meetings with bank representatives," Tuor said, without elaborating.

The plan outlined by the NZZ am Sonntag would see each Swiss bank with U.S. clients negotiating individual settlements with the United States for its role in hiding untaxed money.

Most of the 13 banks in the crosshairs of U.S. justice officials, which include Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have said they are already in settlement negotiations.

What is new is that the remainder of Switzerland's more than 300 banks with U.S. clients would have to seek a U.S. settlement individually, according to the NZZ.

Those banks would be required to "motivate" remaining U.S. clients to come clean to U.S. tax officials. If they failed to do so, confidential bank data would be forwarded to U.S. officials. The initial shipment of data from those banks would not include client names but, based on the data, U.S. officials would be able to submit a judicial aid requests to get the names of alleged tax evaders, the newspaper said.

The report comes a month after Switzerland and the United States agreed a pact to make Swiss banks disclose information about U.S. account-holders in the future, which NZZ said paved the way for a deal to settle past transgressions as well.

Spokesmen for Credit Suisse and Julius Baer declined to comment. The Swiss banking lobby wasn't immediately available for comment.

The NZZ did not say whether the deal it reported would end protracted negotiations and legal action against Swiss banks.

Earlier this month, Switzerland's oldest bank, Wegelin & Co, was fined nearly $58 million after it admitted to helping wealthy Americans evade taxes.

Last year, Wegelin said it would shut its doors permanently after pleading guilty to charges of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret accounts.

The latest tax crackdown comes several years after U.S. authorities extracted an admission of wrong-doing from UBS that was accompanied by the release of thousands of sets of client data plus a $780 million payment by UBS to avert criminal prosecution.

Through information gleaned from UBS as well as thousands of so-called voluntary disclosures by one-time Swiss banking clients in the United States, officials there were able to mount the second wave of investigation into Swiss banks.

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