By Marina Depetris
Geneva’s public prosecutor searched HSBC’s lakeside Swiss office on Wednesday after opening a criminal inquiry into allegations of aggravated money laundering, the second probe to hit the bank this week.
Europe’s largest lender is in regulators’ sights after details about how its Swiss private bank allegedly helped wealthy clients evade taxes were leaked to the media and published last week.
The Geneva prosecutor said he had launched an investigation following the allegations and could extend it to individuals.
“A search is currently under way in the premises of the bank, led by Attorney General Olivier Jornot and the prosecutor Yves Bertossa,” Geneva’s prosecutor said in a statement.
HSBC has apologised to customers and investors over the previous failings of its Swiss business and has said the operation has since been overhauled.
However, Britain’s financial watchdog said on Monday it would investigate HSBC and focus on its current behaviour.
HSBC’s Swiss unit has been in the spotlight since 2008 when a former IT employee fled Geneva with files allegedly showing evidence of tax evasion by clients.
The French tax authorities later passed the information to tax authorities around the world. U.S. officials opened a criminal investigation and French magistrates put the bank under formal investigation last November.
Tax authorities in Belgium, Austria and Argentina are also looking at the allegations.
HSBC SAYS BUSINESS TRANSFORMED
HSBC’s private bank has major operations in Switzerland, London and Hong Kong, and its Chief Executive Peter Boyles is based in the lakeside Geneva office. The office has a few hundred staff, who continued to work on Wednesday.
“We have cooperated continuously with the Swiss authorities since first becoming aware of the data theft in 2008 and we continue to cooperate,” HSBC said in a statement.
It declined further comment. The bank has said compliance and controls at its Swiss private bank in the period up to 2007 fell short of requirements, but said the business had been transformed in recent years.
Swiss financial regulator FINMA, which had already investigated HSBC and criticised its internal controls in 2011, said it was aware of the proceedings by the Geneva prosecutor and was in contact with HSBC about it.
HSBC’s main concern may be that US authorities could look at re-opening a 2012 deferred prosecution agreement with the bank, which followed a $1.9 billion fine after it was found to have helped move hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit drug money through the U.S. financial system.
The disclosures about the Swiss bank have sparked a political row in Britain over practices at HSBC and whether tax authorities had done enough to pursue possible wrongdoers.
HSBC shares were 0.6 per cent firmer at 606.7p by 1155 GMT, having slipped two percent since the first reports based on the leaks were published 10 days ago.
HSBC Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said recent allegations had been “painful”. The allegations are likely to overshadow HSBC’s annual results on Monday and Gulliver and Chairman Douglas Flint are due to testify to British lawmakers on the Swiss scandal on Feb. 25.