By Lucy Komisar
March 3, 2008
Tony Defries, the rock manager who launched David Bowie and who takes credit for managing, marketing and branding such rock stars as Lou Reed and John Mellencamp as well as being “present at the birth of Madonna [and] the reincarnation of Stevie Wonder,” might be making some headlines of his own soon. (He is shown here in 1972 with Bowie’s wife Angie on his right.)
The ex-impresario, a Brit who now lives in Los Angeles and who for a promoter is unaccountably interview- and camera-shy, was one of the beneficiaries of a fake annuity scheme organized by a Swiss bank and its partner, a pseudo insurance company whose main product seems to be tax evasion. But the “benefit” turned out to be a disaster.
A Swiss whistleblower, Rudolf Elmer, who worked happily for the Julius Baer Bank office in Grand Cayman at $212,000 a year, got into a dispute with his employers, leaked some documents, was fired after failing a lie detector test and is now publishing his purloined papers on the Wikileaks internet site. The bank tried to get the site taken off line, at first succeeded but finally failed. It has not charged Elmer with a crime, probably because it would have to then detail what documents had been taken, and that would show proof of clients’ tax evasion.
The Defries story was discovered by this reporter after investigating Swisspartners, the pseudo insurance company, which had been cited in Elmer’s posted documents. Defries was not mentioned in them.
Swisspartners Insurance Company was a subsidiary of Swisspartners Investment Network and Wealth Management, Zurich, partly owned by Julius Baer Bank. It had registrations, for tax and secrecy purposes, in the Cayman Islands and Liechtenstein, but was run out of Switzerland. Julius Baer Bank was SPIN’s partner and held policyholders’ portfolio accounts.
The deal was that clients would buy annuities with huge premiums, say $1 million, and after Swisspartners and Julius Baer took their commissions, the rest was invested in offshore funds whose records could not be examined either by Swiss authorities or by tax officials of any other country. The profits from the investments were kept in the funds or transferred to offshore accounts of the clients, who could handily avoid/evade taxes.
Defries bought into the scheme and invested, ie paid an annuity premium of $22 million.
A source familiar with the case said, “Tony got caught up in trying to shield his assets legally. They said this is the way to do it, shelter your assets so there won’t be claims of estate tax or attribution of income for the large portfolio you have in Switzerland.” But Defries has a law degree, though he never practiced law, and he must have understood the implications of buying an annuity that wasn’t an annuity.
“It’s not for the faint of heart to figure out how this works,” said the source. “You want to use a Caymans trust to hold the assets used to fund the life insurance annuity.”
He said, “You make a lump sum single payment for the annuity. You put in big money, they write an insurance policy. It’s a way of getting that $2 or $22 million offshore so it’s held in the name of a Cayman Islands trust. That insurance trust uses it to back insurance policies also issued in the Cayman Islands, but the assets are actually Swiss assets assigned into Swiss Partners Investment Company. Now all the millions in this bank don’t belong to me but to you, even though they never move, there’s just a paper transfer. Now all your assets in Switzerland are on paper in the Cayman Islands.”
He explained, “They did this because the Swiss at the insistence of number of countries, especially the US trying to follow money laundering, agreed to disclose more about what assets they held. That if you’re holding assets in Switzerland, they have to be in a vetted entity. They put the clamps down. We can no longer show all this money in Swiss accounts, we have to move it, because we don’t want to disclose that “Jones’” $10 million is in this bank. If Jones is a drug dealer from Columbia, he’s not going to like that.”
“The banks fought it. But because of pressure from 9/11, there is now more transparency in Swiss bank assets. So they’ve tried to put another layer in there. The new layer is that money is held in SPIN in the Cayman Islands in title. They’ve set up a number of corporate entities by which people who bank with them in Zurich are transferring money into Cayman Islands accounts.”
Unfortunately for Defries and other investors, the money managers were focusing on the scam and weren’t properly monitoring investments. In 2000, the bubble broke and dot.coms crashed. Defries said “sell,” but under the law, he was not allowed to have control – otherwise it wasn’t really an insurance policy, it was a taxable investment! His money managers, like many financial wizards who make their money by finessing the law, didn’t have real market skills. They failed to pull out of those stocks, and Defries lost his $22 million.
Attempting to recoup what he could, Defries filed a civil complaint in federal court in Virginia in 2003, charging Swisspartners, Julius Baer Bank and a collection of other defendants with “securities and insurance fraud.” At that time Defries lived in Berryville, VA, on a large estate in the hunt country. The suit was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Attempts to reach him through his lawyer were not successful.
Till now Defries’ main creative work of his own has been the film, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1973). But it was announced recently that his autobiography, Gods and Gangsters, will be published this year. Now, he may need to add a chapter.
Swisspartners was sold in 2005 to the Liechtensteinische Landesbank (LLB) of which the country of Liechtenstein, a notorious tax haven, holds 68% of the capital. Liechtenstein bank and government officials have been tied by German intelligence reports to international drug traffickers and other criminals.