By Angelos Anastasiou
Over 300 Cyprus-affiliated individuals or companies have money sitting in Swiss bank accounts according to the findings of an investigation of over 100,000 HSBC clients from 203 countries by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it was reported on Tuesday.
Scrutiny of leaked documents removed from the bank in 2008 by former IT technician turned whistleblower Herve Falciani by the ICIJ produced a list of clients who maintained accounts with HSBC Switzerland in 2006 and 2007.
These involved total amounts upwards of $100 billion, a part of which formed the infamous ‘Lagarde list’ of some 2,000 Greek tax evaders handed by the French finance ministry to their Greek counterparts in 2010 – and then again in 2012 – with no action taken thus far by the Greek government.
The House Ethics committee, which discussed the issue on Tuesday, decided to ask the finance minister to obtain the list and submit it to the House.
The 308 individuals or companies affiliated with Cyprus maintained 553 individual accounts in the Swiss bank from 1996 to 2006, 25 per cent of whom belong to Cypriot nationals.
“The issue of the ‘Lagarde list’ was discussed, and it was decided that contact with the finance ministry resumes so that the committee receives all the evidence,” acting committee chairman Demetris Syllouris said. “The necessity for this becomes even direr following reports of Cypriot names included on the list.”
Syllouris said that Cyprus “could not have been the altar for the movement of money, or hiding capital, or graft, which is all the more reason why we should have the list so that we can escape the platitudes”.
“This is information that, when made public, should start to reduce the unacceptable view that we are all the same,” he said.
In response, the Finance ministry issued a statement saying that the European Union’s Savings Directive mandates several countries, including Switzerland, to withhold tax levied on savings interest, and forward the equivalent to the account-holder’s national Central Bank.
“The rest of the member states which implement the Savings Directive are obligated to provide the Cypriot Taxation Department detailed information on Cyprus residents’ interest income,” the statement said. “Identification records include the depositor’s full name, date of birth, and address.”
Additionally, the Finance ministry said the Taxation Department has signed double taxation avoidance agreements with approximately 50 countries, meaning it may request and obtain data on Cypriot taxpayers from each of these countries.
“With regard to various lists reported on at various times, it is noted that there is no specific information, either relating to their validity or the way they were obtained,” the statement read. “Nevertheless, recent information regarding such lists will be investigated with a view to obtaining them.”
Citing Greek newspaper Ta Nea, which was the only Greek participant in the ICIJ investigation, local daily Phileleftheros reported that one Cypriot construction magnate with significant activity in Greece and other countries was found to hold an account with a balance of approximately $18 million.
Other international entries released by the ICIJ include soccer and tennis professionals, rock stars and Hollywood actors.
But, the consortium, said, although some of the information gathered suggests that tax-evasion manoeuvres were employed by the bank and its clients in some cases, this does not necessarily involve everyone listed.
“There are legitimate uses for Swiss bank accounts and trusts,” a disclaimer read on the ICIJ’s website. “We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included […] have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
HSBC Switzerland found itself embroiled in a financial scandal of global proportions after the leaked documents suggested it may have helped some of its high-profile clients hide billions of dollars from national tax collectors.
And, there was a failed attempt by former Greek finance minister Georgios Papakonstantinou to remove the names of three relatives that resulted in him facing corruption charges before a Greek court.