France & UK Ignore Corporate Bribery: One Hand Launders the Other

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) – Dec 29, 2006

This month, Siemens, the Germany-based global engineering and electronics company, informed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that prosecutors investigating the company for corruption have seized bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, two leading offshore banking centres.

Investigators in Switzerland, Germany and Italy have been looking into evidence that some of the more thanSiemens half a billion dollars that Siemens — Europe’s largest engineering company by sales — paid to consultants since 1999 were in fact bribes.

And an investigative judge in France is looking into charges that French oil and gas giant Total paid bribes to win a two-billion-dollar gas contract in Iran in the late 1990s. Christophe de Margerie, the official who Totalnegotiated the contract, has also been accused of corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food programme. He is scheduled to become Total’s CEO in February.

Evidence was provided by Swiss investigators who froze 82 million dollars in two Swiss bank accounts they believe was a bribe Total paid to an Iranian intermediary to get the Iranian contract.

Just a few years after the mega-corporations Enron and Parmalat focused the attention of the press, the public and politicians on the nefarious use of offshore banks and shell companies set up by Citibank and Chase Bank (now JP Morgan Chase) to cook the books and cheat investors, after the Bank of New York was shown to have moved and laundered billions of dollars for Russian criminals and tax evaders, after the revelations that ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had used secret bank accounts to hide arms sales kickbacks, the offshore secrecy system is alive and thriving.

What has happened in the French case suggests why. The French investigating magistrate in both Total cases, Philippe Courroye, has a reputation for independence and skill in probing corruption. However, he is being stymied by his own government. At the request of a Swiss magistrate, the French fraud squad seized documents in Total’s headquarters last March, but declined to release them for reasons of national interest.

French governments under both the socialists and the conservatives have refused to provide records to another investigating magistrate, Renaud van Ruymbeke, that allegedly show the details of more than one billion dollars in bribes and kickbacks paid by the French arms company Thomson (now Thal¨s) to Taiwan and French officials for a frigate warships contract.

Money deposited by the alleged bagman has been frozen in Swiss accounts. The French excuse: defence security. However, many believe it is more likely that the high French officials who got the kickbacks are thinking of their own security.

National interest is the same the reason given by Prime Minister Tony Blair when this month he forced the UK Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation of bribes the British arms company BAE may have paid Saudi officials beginning in the 1980s to win multi-billion-dollar contracts. BAESwiss bank records show that BAE ran an offshore bribery system using Swiss bank accounts and British Virgin Islands shell companies.

The U.S. has also ignored big-time offshore illicit dealing. A still secret report, seen by IPS, based on records seized in the 2002 Operation Spiderweb dragnet coordinated by Italian authorities and involving France, Monaco, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and the U.S. showed that billions of dollars a year was channeled offshore for Russian crime groups through the Bank of New York (BoNY) and other banks, and then to Europe to be invested in legitimate businesses, or returned to mafia-controlled enterprises in Russia.

A U.S. Congressional investigation found that the Bank of New York had moved seven billion dollars from Russia through shell company accounts in the late 1990s. The BoNY network was clearly a major Russian crime operation, yet under President George W. Bush, the U.S. Justice Department’s scrutiny was dropped. BoNY got a verbal slap on the wrist and had to promise to improve examination of clients’ identities and suspicious transfers.

New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau — famous for exposing and prosecuting the BCCI offshore scandal in the early 1990s when George Bush senior’s Justice Department sat on its hands — believed that the department didn’t dig deeply enough. However, U.S. authorities told him not to pursue this case and cut him off from information.

Global Witness, the London-based group that investigates corruption in African extractive industries, has detailed how Angolan heads of state have stolen billions of dollars in revenues that western oil companies such as ChevronTexaco and TotalFinaElf conveniently deposit in offshore accounts run by banks such as Lloyds. Watchdog groups note that Tony Blair’s highly touted Campaign for Africa becomes a cruel joke when he refuses to shut down the system that loots those countries’ revenues and prevents them from being self-sustaining.

There are now more than 70 offshore centres that sell bank and/or corporate secrecy, collectively holding deposits worth trillions of dollars. They allow criminals of all stripes, including big-time tax evaders, to set up companies and accounts under fake or borrowed names. Offshore tax havens are banking profit centres.

There is no reason for any country in the world to be permitted to use the common plumbing, the common financial infrastructure that we all use to move money around the world, without guaranteeing that funds can be traced from beginning to end when something goes wrong, whether it goes wrong from sanctions busting, a terrorist, a drug money launderer, a spouse hiding money from a husband, or a wife hiding money from their ex-spouse, Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for International Law Enforcement, told a Congressional panel in March.

It does not matter. The transactions need to be traceable, and the information needs to be shared, and the U.S. foreign policy should be focused on that goal because there are a lot of goals that can be accomplished not just for the United States but for a lot of other countries that cannot tolerate what we can tolerate because they are not as wealthy, he noted.

Experts believe that as much as half the world’s capital flows through offshore centres. Tax havens like the Cayman Islands have 1.2 percent of the world’s population but hold 26 percent of the world’s wealth, including 31 percent of the net profits of U.S. multinationals.

Another few hundred billion come from fraud, corruption and drug trafficking. According to the International Monetary Fund, between 600 billion and 1.5 trillion dollars of illicit money is laundered annually, equal to two to five percent of global economic output — most of it in offshore banking centres.

But Western governments, who may think their banks and corporations are simply ripping off other countries, should take a closer look. They are losing billions of dollars in taxes through offshore tax evasion. A hearing in the U.S. Senate in August detailed how Sam Wyly, famous in the U.S. for financing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack on presidential candidate John Kerry, may be guilty of one of the largest personal tax frauds in U.S. history.

With the help of Bank of America and an offshore network of fake companies in the Isle of Man, he and other members of the family allegedly cheated the country of taxes on nearly a billion dollars.

While the cheating on taxes has an often deadly impact — killing people from poverty-related causes when their governments lack revenues for development — other purposes for which the offshore sector’s opacity can be used have a speedier lethal effect.

In June, police in Spain and France arrested 12 people they said had for 20 years funded the Basque terrorist group ETA through extortion, blowing up businesses of those who refused to pay. They laundered the money through tax havens around the world.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodr­guez Zapatero, who has rejected status quo policies in other respects, may see good reason to reject the do-nothing attitude of his colleagues in the U.S., Britain, Germany and France and press for action to dismantle the worldwide offshore secrecy network.

See article on IPS site.

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