HSBC's clients linked to dictators, arms dealers and tax dodgers

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Secret documents reveal that global banking giant HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channeled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws.

The leaked files, based on the inner workings of HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm, relate to accounts holding more than $100 billion. They provide a rare glimpse inside the super-secret Swiss banking system — one the public has never seen before.

The documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) via the French newspaper Le Monde, show the bank’s dealings with clients engaged in a spectrum of illegal behavior, especially in hiding hundreds of millions of dollars from tax authorities. They also show private records of famed soccer and tennis players, cyclists, rock stars, Hollywood actors, royalty, politicians, corporate executives and old-wealth families.

These disclosures shine a light on the intersection of international crime and legitimate business, and they dramatically expand what’s known about potentially illegal or unethical behavior in recent years at HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks.

How the offshore banking industry shelters money and hides secrets has enormous implications for societies across the globe. Academics conservatively estimate that $7.6 trillion is held in overseas tax havens, costing government treasuries at least $200 billion a year.

In many instances the records do describe questionable behavior, such as bankers advising clients on how to take a range of measures to avoid paying taxes in their home countries — and customers telling bankers that their accounts are not declared to their governments.

Highlights from ICIJ's investigation:

The reporters found the names of current and former politicians from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kenya, Romania, India, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Paraguay, Djibouti, Senegal, the Philippines and Algeria, among others. They found several people on the current U.S. sanctions list, such as Selim Alguadis, a Turkish businessman alleged to have supplied sophisticated electrical goods to Libya’s secret nuclear weapons project, and Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of the main targets of sanctions imposed on Russian individuals and businesses in response to the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in eastern Ukraine. 

The files reflect a spectrum of royalty, from King Mohammed VI of Morocco to the Crown prince of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the beloved cousin of Queen Elizabeth II of England, to dozens of members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family. Many were partial or full beneficial owners of accounts. The role of the King of Morocco was not specified.

Business figures and political donors from the U.S. include the billionaire owner of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie chain, Les Wexner, who in 2012 donated $250,000 to a super PAC supporting former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney; the Israeli diamond-dealing Steinmetz family, and the financier and philanthropist S. Donald Sussman, whose account predated his marriage to Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine. 

A representative for Sussman said the account was not his, adding that he had made a passive investment in a technology venture fund. The representative said it was this fund that had the account, the existence of which he learned for the first time when questioned by ICIJ. “Mr. Sussman’s investments were minority interests,” the spokesman said, “and he had no involvement in the funds’ management, investment decisions, or other activities.” 

An analysis of the files by ICIJ shows that many individuals linked to accounts took extra precautions to protect their identities, even though HSBC staff repeatedly assured customers they were already bound by tight Swiss banking secrecy. 

Clinton Foundation Donors

The files show Richard Caring, a major donor to British politics, transferring $1 million to the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit set up by the former U.S. President Bill Clinton with the stated mission to “strengthen the capacity of people in the United States and throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence.”

The donation to the Clinton Foundation was requested in December 2005. The previous month, Caring funded a champagne and caviar extravaganza at Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia, flying in 450 guests to be entertained by Sir Elton John and Tina Turner and addressed by Bill Clinton. The event raised more than £11 million for a children’s charity.

A number of other prominent donors to the Clinton Foundation appear in the files, including the Canadian businessman Frank Giustra and German motor racing superstar Michael Schumacher, a seven-time Formula One champion. A representative of Schumacher, who is listed as a beneficial owner of an account closed in 2002, told ICIJ that he is a long-term resident of Switzerland.

A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation told The Guardian it “has strong donor integrity and transparency practices that go well beyond what is required of U.S. charities, including the full disclosure of all of our donors."

Links to Al Qaeda?

HSBC’s clients’ links to Al Qaeda were first publicly raised in the July 2012 U.S. Senate report, which cited an alleged internal Al Qaeda list of financial benefactors. The Senate report said the list came to light after a search of the Bosnian offices of the Benevolence International Foundation, a Saudi-based nonprofit organization that the U.S. Treasury Department has designated as a terrorist organization.

Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, referred to the handwritten list of the 20 names as the “Golden Chain.”

From the moment the names on the Golden Chain list were made public in news reports in the spring of 2003, the Senate subcommittee stated that HSBC should have been “on notice” and aware these powerful business figures were high risk clients.

Though the significance of the Golden Chain list has since been questioned, the ICIJ found what appear to be three Golden Chain names with HSBC Swiss accounts that existed after that date.

Read the full story on ICIJ.org and explore the data.

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