Britain has been criticised for its failure to prosecute tax evaders using HSBC’s Swiss arm. In March 2015, chancellor George Osborne was asked six times whether he had discussed the HSBC scandal with the bank’s former boss, Lord Green, before appointing him as a government minister.
He refused to answer each time and, according to The Mirror’s Jason Beattie, he “also struggled to explain why”, since the government received these files in May 2010, only one person has been prosecuted out of 1,100 names.
This has led to Margaret Hodge, who chaired the Public Accounts Committee investigation into the HSBC Swiss bank, calling Britain “pathetic”.
The latest French case “has shown you can really take people to court over tax evasion and win,” she said.
A Paris court ordered Ricci, who was on the original list of 70 suspected tax evaders with accounts at HSBC Switzerland, to pay €1m in fines and serve three years in jail, two of them suspended. Some two properties worth €4m were confiscated.
Ricci was accused of hiding $22m using offshore accounts in places such as Panama. The court called the evasion an “exceptional threat to public order and the republican pact”.
Her daughter was also convicted of tax and given an eight-month suspended sentence.
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Jean-Marc Fedida, Ricci’s lawyer, suggested that his client’s “strict prison terms” was a means of “sending a warning” to others.
Ricci blamed HSBC for wrongly advising her. However, transcripts of phone conversations between Ricci and her daughter quoted in court suggested she was aware of breaking the law.
In one phone conversation, she said: “I believe I did the right thing and I never heard from [the French finance ministry] so all is well.”
“Yes, inevitably, necessarily because all that is illegal anyway,” she said.
She is the first on a list of 50 French people to be brought to trial.
The conviction comes days after French authorities placed HSBC itself under criminal investigation. France started to investigate HSBC’s Swiss bank, along with thousands of individuals, after data from more than 100,000 accounts was obtained in 2010 via whistleblower Hervé Falciani.
The French government gave British authorities the UK names on the list more than five years ago. While HMRC collected £135m from those 3,600 individuals, it secured three potential criminal cases from the data, but only prosecuted one case.
HSBC, which was forced to post bail of €1bn, said the assumption made by authorities was “without legal basis”. The bank “intends to appeal” and defend itself “vigorously in any future proceedings”.
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