Germans Admit Tax Evasion as Scandal Widens to US, Australia | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 26.02.2008
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Germans Admit Tax Evasion as Scandal Widens to US, Australia

Several countries, including the US and Australia, have begun investigating whether their own citizens have opened bank accounts in Liechtenstein to evade taxes. Germans have already begun to confess.

Photo montage of a briefcase with euro bills sticking out of it and the Liechtenstein coat of arms

More and more countries are interested in knowing if their citizens are sneaking money to Liechtenstein

Rich Germans have stashed away more than 200 million euros ($300 million) in trusts used to evade taxes, investigators said Tuesday, Feb. 26, while presenting an interim report into a probe linked to a Liechtenstein bank.

Prosecutors in the western city of Bochum, who are leading the probe, said employees at three domestic German banks were also under investigation.

"Taxes have been evaded to an immense extent," spokesman Hans-Ulrich Krueck told journalists.

Hans-Ulrich Krueck addresses the media in Bochum, western Germany, on the investigations about the tax affair with Liechtenstein

Investigators' work is increasing by the day, Krueck said

He said 72 people had come forward to make revised tax assessments and that the domestic revenue service had taken in an additional 27.8 million euros in unpaid taxes. German law allows tax evaders to "report themselves" and make revised assessments in return for milder penalties.

The amount of previously undeclared taxes was rising by the day, Krueck said.

Search warrants had been issued in 120 cases, and the net had thus far drawn in around 150 suspects, of whom 91 had made admissions of guilt, he added.

Second bank implicated

Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, DC

US tax authorities are looking at 100 Americans in relation to the tax scandal

Apart from the LGT bank in Liechtenstein, another foreign bank was involved, the spokesman said. He refused to provide further information for fear of jeopardizing the investigation.

The German Finance Ministry said it would make the information, which it bought for 4.2 million euros from a BND foreign intelligence service informant, available to other countries free of charge.

"We are going to respond to requests in this regard," said Thorsten Albig, spokesman for the Finance Ministry.

Global investigations

The German investigation has sparked similar inquires in several European countries, the United States and Australia.

US officials said Tuesday they were investigating over 100 American citizens for tax fraud via Liechtenstein.

"Combating off-shore tax avoidance and evasion are high priorities for the IRS," the Internal Revenue Service's acting commissioner Linda Stiff said in a statement on Tuesday, according to AFP news service.

"It should be clear from recent events that there is no safe hiding place for the proceeds of tax avoidance and evasion," Stiff said.

The Australian tax authorities also said Tuesday they had opened probes into 20 taxpayers. French Budget Minister Eric Woerth said on Tuesday that his country had received a list of "several hundred" people suspected of evading taxes.

How to handle hot information

Concerned over the "moral problem" of buying confidential tax information, Danish tax officials have also said they would check for Danes on the tax evasion list only if the data landed in their laps.

"I don't like this advanced form of handling stolen goods, and I don't think this ethic is the best way to ensure that taxes are paid correctly," Danish Taxation Minister Kristian Jensen told Danish business daily Boersen. "If Germany sent us, of its own volition, a list of names of Danes with accounts in tax havens, we would be stupid not to check."

The spokesman said prosecutors were working on the assumption that their use of the information was in accordance with German law.

The hand of a monument reaches out towards the castle of Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Some wonder if they should be using stolen data as ground for tax investigations

Authorities in Liechtenstein have expressed outrage at the use of stolen information bought from a man who has a conviction in the Alpine principality. A report appearing in Thursday's edition of the Munich-based daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, however, said the man fingered by Liechtenstein is not the German intelligence agency's informant.

LGT said it believed about 1,400 customers, including about 600 Germans, were included in the data bought by German authorities.

"Apparently, the stolen data material has also been illegally disclosed, directly or indirectly, to other authorities," the bank said in a statement. "LGT regards such methods as being extremely offensive."

Merkel to meet Prince of Monaco

Prince Albert II of Monaco meanwhile arrived in Berlin on Tuesday for a two-day visit to consult with Chancellor Angela Merkel and other government officials over the tax scandal. In addition to Liechtenstein and Andorra, Monaco is among the three nations blacklisted as a tax haven by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

Banking officials in Switzerland and Luxembourg, two other countries thought to help foreigners hide money from tax authorities with the help of banking secrecy rules, have both denied any involvement in the international string of investigations.

The tax evasion scandal broke on Feb. 14, when prominent German businessman Klaus Zumwinkel was shown on national television being led from his house by prosecutors. Zumwinkel resigned as head of Deutsche Post the next day.

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