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Swiss banking’s whistleblowers: the regulators of last resort

Swiss banks’ history of absolute confidentiality for their clients has led to the small country becoming the world’s largest centre for private banking. That secrecy is backed up by national laws: if Swiss bank employees disclose details they come across professionally, they don’t just risk losing their job — they face prison.

International initiatives to combat money laundering and tax evasion have put increasing pressure on Switzerland to break with the past and adopt greater transparency and better reporting standards. The Swiss resistance to surrendering their competitive advantage is reflected by the treatment meted out to whistleblowers from the banking sector, who – as the Economist reports this week –  have been fiercely persecuted.

Last summer Pierre Condamin-Gerbier, a former Geneva-based private banker, revealed that French budget minister and tax tsar, Jérôme Cahuzac, had hidden €600,000 in a Swiss bank account for over 20 years, despite repeatedly denying ever holding a bank account abroad. The revelation led to Cahuzac’s resignation and expulsion from France’s Socialist Party. Whistleblower Gerbier  was arrested on his return to Switzerland, released on bail in September last year and has recently appeared before a Swiss prosecutor.

This follows an extraordinary decade of retaliation against whistleblower Rudolf Elmer, a former executive with Bank Julius Baer based in the Cayman Islands, who raised concerns internally before turning to authorities and finally WikiLeaks to expose alleged complicity with tax avoidance and money laundering. Elmer and his family suffered extended close surveillance, intimidation and harassment (for which Julius Baer has already paid an undisclosed out of court settlement). Elmer has been imprisoned twice without charge, once for 187 days and once for 30 days, with periods in solitary confinement.

Rudolf Elmer, Julius Baer whistleblower

Rudolf Elmer, Julius Baer whistleblower

Swiss disclosure to international tax authorities is gradually inching forward. In October last year, Switzerland signed the OECD Multilateral Convention – an agreement to exchange information about taxpayers between tax authorities on request. But while the Swiss government has signed on to the Convention, it has failed to do anything to improve the situation of the whistleblowing bankers who have done so much do demonstrate why international agreements were needed. Secrecy laws remain in place and, as the case of Pierre Condamin-Gerbier shows, drawn out criminal proceedings and pre-trial detention for whistleblowers continue.

Whistleblower protections in Switzerland would serve the public interest more effectively than the decade-long trial Rudolf Elmer has had to suffer.