Back when you were a little kid, Mom and Dad warned you that crime doesn't pay. (They also told you it was the tooth fairy leaving that money under your pillow.) But it turns out that crime does pay — at least for one felon-turned-whistleblower.
Bradley Birkenfeld grew up in suburban Boston before moving to Switzerland to pursue a career in banking. In 2001, he started work at Switzerland's biggest bank, UBS. His job was to solicit American depositors, 90% of whom he said were trying to evade taxes. His main duties included schmoozing clients at UBS-sponsored events like yacht races in Newport or the Art Basel festival in Miami Beach. But he also helped clients create shell companies to hide ownership of their accounts, shredded documents recording transactions in their accounts, and once even smuggled a pair of diamonds through U.S. Customs in a tube of toothpaste. (Doesn't everyone carry their diamonds in their toothpaste?)
By 2005, Birkenfeld reports, he suffered a crippling attack of conscience. He approached his superiors at the bank to complain about "unfair and deceptive" business practices. When those complaints went nowhere, he took his story to the U.S. government. He originally sought immunity for his own role in any crimes, but wound up pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. He spent 2½ years in prison before moving to a halfway house, and he's scheduled to be released for good on November 29.
Now Birkenfeld is getting ready to "re-enter society." But he leaves the Big House with parting gifts that most felons don't enjoy. He'll have $104 million dollars waiting for him, courtesy of none other than — you guessed it — the IRS! That works out to $4,600 for every hour he spent behind bars. Of course, Birkenfeld doesn't get to keep all those millions. His lawyers get a cut, and the rest is fully taxable. But some of you reading these words might consider taking the same deal for yourself!
Birkenfeld wasn't the first guy to tell the IRS that rich Americans were using Swiss banks to cheat on their taxes. But he was the first to document it so devastatingly, and he was the first to offer evidence that the bank itself encouraged illegal behavior. The IRS said, "While the IRS was aware of tax compliance issues related to secret bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere, the information provided by the whistleblower formed the basis for unprecedented actions against UBS.”
How much was Birkenfeld's help worth? Well, UBS itself paid $780 million in fines and ratted out their 4,700 biggest American clients. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly 35,000 Americans have taken advantage of special IRS amnesty programs and have collectively paid more than $5 billion in back taxes. And Birkenfeld's bars-to-riches story, which included an appearance on 60 Minutes, has spurred a gold rush of whistleblower claims. In some cases, enterprising hedge funds have actually "invested" in those claims, paying whistleblowers up front in exchange for a share of any future awards.
The irony here is that none of the cheaters who sent their money on an alpine vacation had to cheat to pay less tax. They just needed to plan to take advantage of perfectly legal concepts and strategies. We give you the plan you need to pay less tax, legally, so you can spend your time in Switzerland visiting chocolate factories and cuckoo clocks — not your hidden bank accounts!
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