The New Yorker | 30 May 2016 Issue
The computer technician who exposed a Swiss bank’s darkest secrets.
A few days before Christmas in 2008, Hervé Falciani was in a meeting at his office, in Geneva, when a team of police officers arrived to arrest him. Falciani, who was thirty-six, worked for H.S.B.C., then the largest bank in the world. He was on the staff of the company’s private Swiss bank, which serves clients who are wealthy enough to afford the minimum deposit—half a million dollars—required to open an account. Falciani had been at H.S.B.C. for eight years, initially in Monaco and then in Geneva. He was a computer technician who helped supervise security systems for the handling of client data. He had grown up in Monaco, where as a young man he had worked as a croupier at the Casino de Monte-Carlo, and developed an excellent poker face. As the Swiss police escorted him from the building, he insisted that he had done nothing wrong.
Officers questioned Falciani at a nearby station. They were investigating a data theft from the bank. Since 1713, when the Great Council of Geneva banned banks from revealing the private information of their customers, Switzerland had thrived on its reputation as a stronghold of financial secrecy. International élites could place their fortunes beyond the reach of tax authorities in their own countries. For Swiss wealth managers, who oversaw more than two trillion dollars in international deposits, the promise to maintain financial privacy was akin to a religious vow of silence. Switzerland is the home of the numbered account: customers often specify that they prefer not to receive statements, in order to avoid a paper trail. In light of these safeguards, the notion of a breach at H.S.B.C. was shocking.
Police officials told Falciani that someone calling himself Ruben al-Chidiak had stolen client data from the bank. They weren’t sure how much information had been taken or how the theft had been engineered. But they suspected that Chidiak was a pseudonym, and that the real culprit was Falciani.
Falciani told the police that his job was to protect data: How could they accuse him of compromising such information? As darkness fell, he asked to go home. His wife, Simona, would be worried about him. The investigators released him, but instructed him to return for further questioning the next morning.
Falciani walked through streets strung with Christmas lights to his apartment, in a dingy building on the Rue des Mouettes. He and Simona packed a few bags, bundled their three-year-old daughter, Kim, against the cold, and prepared to flee the country. Despite his protests, Falciani had stolen the data.
When the Falcianis walked out of their apartment, they left the keys in the door. Falciani rented a car, and they drove through the Alps. The next morning, as Swiss investigators assembled at the police station in Geneva, Falciani was approaching the South of France. He left the rental car at the airport in Nice. His wife and daughter went on to Italy, for a visit with Simona’s family; Falciani travelled to his parents’ home, in Castellar, a hill town near the French-Italian border.
W. Somerset Maugham once described the Côte d’Azur as “a sunny place for shady people,” and Falciani, who was now a fugitive, hunkered down in Castellar. As a precaution, he had not travelled with the stolen data, instead uploading the information to remote servers. He now downloaded the files onto his laptop. The Swiss had asked French authorities to help track down Falciani, and at dawn on January 7, 2009, gendarmes raided his parents’ house. The prosecutor in Nice who handled the case, Éric de Montgolfier, told me that authorities in Switzerland were so eager to seize Falciani’s computer that they sent a Swiss prosecutor to accompany the gendarmes.
The French police arrested Falciani and seized his MacBook Pro and his iPhone. But when he was out of earshot of the Swiss prosecutor, on the way to the police station in nearby Menton, he told the gendarmes that his computer contained information of possible interest to the French state: names, account numbers, account balances. The hard drive held evidence, he said, of “tax evasion committed by French people.” Falciani had obtained sixty thousand files relating to tens of thousands of H.S.B.C. clients from nearly every country. An H.S.B.C. lawyer later described Falciani’s crime as “the largest robbery of a bank ever committed in the world.”
Falciani’s flight to France coincided with the onset of the global financial crisis. Many countries were scrambling to secure revenues and crack down on citizens whose fortunes were stashed in offshore tax havens. Years before the leak, this April, of the Panama Papers—a cache of documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama City that specializes in the creation of anonymous shell companies—there was ample evidence that the global plutocracy has many outlets for dissimulation in the realm of personal finance. “Only the little people pay taxes,” the billionaire Leona Helmsley once remarked—to her housekeeper. In 1989, the housekeeper recounted the exchange to a New York jury, and Helmsley spent eighteen months in prison. Most tax evasion, however, goes unpunished.
The data that Falciani stole could function as a treasure map, enabling a country like France to recover some of that lost revenue. Montgolfier said, “When you have so many French people with Swiss accounts”—he raised his eyebrows and his shoulders in a synchronized Gallic shrug—“it has a perfume of fraud.”
The Swiss prosecutor demanded that Montgolfier turn over Falciani’s laptop, but he demurred. “We’ll look at the computer,” he said. “Then we’ll decide if we return it.” To the Swiss government, Falciani was merely a thief, but the French saw him differently. “I would characterize him as a bit messianic,” Montgolfier told me. “There was the context of the world crisis, provoked by finance and all these big banks enabling tax evasion, and this guy just wanted to set the world free of those behaviors.” In a memoir recently published in Europe, “Earthquake on Planet Finance,” Falciani writes of his motives: “I wanted a different world for my daughter. I didn’t want her to grow up in a reality where money rules, where the abuse of power and the constant bypassing of the rules was the norm.”
As if to underline the incendiary implications of Falciani’s data, Montgolfier placed the laptop in a safe. While French authorities deliberated how to proceed, Falciani spent the night in a holding cell in Menton. But the next morning, in a gesture that indicated a shift in Falciani’s status, his guards surprised him with coffee and croissants.
When I first met Falciani, on a winter day at the Place d’Italie, in Paris, in 2014, he had been living under police protection, fearful that his life was endangered because of the information he had exposed about unscrupulous élites. He often travelled with three bodyguards, who were provided by the French state, but when we met Falciani arrived alone, on a fold-up scooter. He had proposed a curious venue for our meeting: Hippopotamus, a chain restaurant that caters to French children, with a cartoon mascot and colorful menus featuring an array of tiny steak frites.
Falciani ordered a slice of cheesecake. He was dressed in the manner of a Tarantino assassin: white shirt, skinny black tie, aggressively tailored black suit. He is soap-star handsome, with a dimpled chin, olive skin, and what one French newspaper described as “a commercial smile.” His sideburns tapered to a sliver. “My father worked in a bank,” Falciani said, in accented English. As a child in Monaco, which is one of Europe’s oldest tax havens, he often accompanied his father to work and marvelled at the discreet power of the institution. The bank was immaculate, and everybody spoke in hushed tones. It reminded Falciani of a church. After business hours, he liked to dash through the carpeted hallways.
As Falciani grew older, he noticed that the flow of money into Monaco was affected by political events. When war ravaged Lebanon during the eighties, wealthy Lebanese moved their families, and their fortunes, to the principality. When François Mitterrand came to power in France, the country’s aristocrats, fearful of new taxes, stashed their money in Monacan banks. Sometimes suitcases filled with cash arrived for deposit, and Falciani watched his father count the money by hand. The names of clients were never mentioned.
Falciani studied math and physics at the University of Nice, then began working in the Casino de Monte-Carlo, initially on the gaming floor and later in the casino’s internal bank, which extends lines of credit to wealthy clients. In 2000, he joined H.S.B.C. Around the time he started working there, an employee named Stephen Troth, who had handled celebrity clients in Monaco, was discovered to have skimmed millions of dollars from their accounts. “It was a very simple scheme,” Falciani told me, adding that he had followed the scandal closely. When the fraud was revealed, the Monaco branch determined that it needed to improve the security of its internal network, and Falciani was one of the employees who worked on devising better systems. In 2006, he was transferred to the private bank in Geneva, where he undertook a similar project. He was excited about this new challenge, he recalled: “I had great expectations.”
H.S.B.C., or the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, traces its origins to 1865, and its early success to the opium trade. The bank has grown substantially over the past two decades—it now has nearly fifty million customers—and it has acquired a reputation for being less than scrupulous, even by the loose standards of international banking. In 2012, a U.S. Senate investigation concluded that H.S.B.C. had worked with rogue regimes, terrorist financiers, and narco-traffickers. The bank eventually acknowledged having laundered more than eight hundred million dollars in drug proceeds for Mexican and Colombian cartels. Carl Levin, of Michigan, who chaired the Senate investigation, said that H.S.B.C. had a “pervasively polluted” culture that placed profit ahead of due diligence. In December, 2012, H.S.B.C. avoided criminal charges by agreeing to pay a $1.9-billion penalty. The company’s C.E.O., Stuart Gulliver, said that he was “profoundly sorry” for the bank’s transgressions. No executives faced penalties.
The private bank in Geneva had become part of H.S.B.C. in 1999, when the company, which is headquartered in London, acquired Republic National Bank from the estate of Edmond Safra, the Lebanese-born financier. Safra had split his time among homes in Geneva, Monaco, and the Riviera town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, where he owned a palatial villa that had once belonged to King Leopold II, of Belgium. Many of Safra’s clients had been Russians alleged to have criminal ties. As a U.S. prosecutor once remarked, “Republic always had some very interesting customers who find the government looking at them, more so than maybe other banks.”
When Falciani arrived in Geneva, he told me, he realized that H.S.B.C. was engaged in a “gigantic swindle.” Clients were not only placing their fortunes in accounts that were “undeclared” to tax authorities; H.S.B.C. bankers were actively assisting clients in hiding their money, by setting up shell companies and sham trusts in the British Virgin Islands and Panama. In some instances, the bankers were handing customers hundred-thousand-dollar bricks of U.S. bills, allowing money to be smuggled back home. In a subsequent investigation by French prosecutors, an H.S.B.C. client said that the bank had instructed him to “make a company in Panama, which should open an account at H.S.B.C. in Lugano, into which I should transfer all my holdings, in order to not be hit by this tax.”
Like many Swiss banks, H.S.B.C. offered “hold mail” accounts, refraining from sending any statements or other mail to clients. One might suppose that the inconvenience of such an arrangement would make it attractive only to the rare client who fetishized privacy, but nearly fifteen thousand clients chose this method—roughly half of the account holders at H.S.B.C.’s Swiss bank. Another client questioned in the subsequent investigation recalled that when he wanted to make a deposit he would meet his account manager in a public place. “I would give him an envelope holding my money, in cash,” he explained. “And a few days later he would tell me by phone that the funds had been credited to my account in Switzerland.” H.S.B.C. has numerous offices in Paris, but, according to the French investigation, when the Swiss bankers visited clients there they preferred to meet in cafés; in a similar spirit of concealment, account holders used pay phones when making calls to Switzerland. One client pointed out that the furtive face-to-face meetings offered “a bit of reassurance about the money I had in Switzerland, since I had no documents or anything that attested to my having an account.”
Although the conduct that Falciani witnessed may have been illegal, it was fairly standard practice for Swiss banks at the time. A 2014 U.S. Senate report describes a Credit Suisse banker travelling to America to meet a client for breakfast at a Mandarin Oriental hotel, and passing along an issue of Sports Illustrated in which account statements were concealed between the pages.
Swiss banks routinely dispatched emissaries to cultivate new clients at art shows and regattas, and the illegality of the service was implicit in the pitch: if you bank with us, your fortune will not be taxed. It is not illegal for a person or a corporation to hold a Swiss bank account, or to engage in tax “avoidance”—skirting tax requirements through gymnastic accounting and the exploitation of loopholes. But tax evasion, in which wealth is actively concealed from authorities, is illegal, and the behavior of Swiss bankers often suggested that they knew they were crossing the line. According to testimony in a 2014 criminal trial in Florida, representatives of the Swiss bank U.B.S. who travelled to such events as Art Basel to recruit clients carried encrypted laptops that were configured with an emergency password, so that they could erase the hard drive with a few keystrokes. An unnamed Swiss banker, speaking to the Times, recalled telling colleagues, “We all have one foot in prison.” He observed to the paper, “Maybe that’s why we were all paid so much.”
Most Swiss banks had compliance procedures designed to prevent tax evasion, money laundering, and other financial crimes. But Sue Shelley, who until 2013 was an H.S.B.C. executive vice-president in charge of compliance in Luxembourg, and who worked closely with the Geneva bank, told me that “compliance really took a back seat” to making profits. Shelley found that when compliance officers raised too many questions about large deposits with dodgy origins they risked being sidelined. Compliance was often perceived as “a business-prevention department,” and as a result the division was chronically understaffed. “We kept finding more and more red flags that we didn’t have the resources to address,” she said.
When I asked Falciani about compliance at the bank, he said, “They just do a few checks.” He said that he tried to sound the alarm internally and was ignored—a claim that the bank disputes. To Falciani, the bankers at H.S.B.C. were little more than crooks in pinstripes. “I spent too many years waiting for something to change,” he told me. Eventually, he took matters into his own hands.
It started with the gradual accumulation of client data. In theory, this should have been impossible: one principle of security at Swiss banks is that client information is distributed in “cellular” fashion, so that no individual has access to too much data. The bank’s computer system was “subdivided into airtight compartments,” Falciani maintains, and each employee was instructed not to wonder about what was happening beyond his own computer screen. In order to preserve the anonymity of accounts, only a few employees knew the identity behind any account number.
But, like Edward Snowden, with whom he claims a strong affinity, Falciani was a systems guy. His technical expertise allowed him to outmaneuver the bank’s security software. In Geneva, he was working on a new customer-relations management system. One day, as he harvested data from the bank’s internal network, he says, he stumbled upon information to which he should not have had access: not just the names and account numbers of customers but also the confidential notes that H.S.B.C. bankers maintained about their meetings with clients. “I’d never heard about this sort of flaw in the computer system,” Falciani later told the investigators. The data were being updated in real time—it seemed that he had stumbled into a wormhole that held the bank’s deepest secrets. He even came across the details of his own account with the bank. At this point, another computer technician might have hastened to inform his superiors about the vulnerability. Falciani did not.
Nobody knows exactly how Falciani purloined such a staggering volume of sensitive data. Alexandre Zeller, who at the time was the head of H.S.B.C.’s Swiss operations, has spoken of the theft as if it were a magic trick. In a deposition provided to French investigators, Thibaut Lestrade, a technician with the French tax administration, praised Falciani’s wizardry: “It wouldn’t have been enough to just press a button and copy a whole grouping of data. There were data that came from several different systems which, I suspect, were not made to be connected to one another.” A confidential investigative file compiled by Swiss authorities notes that Falciani has “a certain talent for computing” and describes him as “an autodidact” who is “passionate about the exploration of data and the establishment of links within them.”
When I asked Falciani how he had avoided triggering digital alarms, he explained that he had help from a shadowy league of like-minded professionals. “We started to work out a strategy,” he said.
“Who is ‘we’?” I asked.
“The Network,” he replied.
“How many people are in the Network?”
He smiled cryptically. “I don’t want to give too much detail.”
According to Falciani, the Network was a loose confederation of “anti-tax-evasion crusaders,” consisting of law-enforcement officers, lawyers, and spies. He told me that the Network not only helped him to steal the data; it facilitated his escape to France. H.S.B.C., which conducted an internal investigation after Falciani became a fugitive, maintains that his story about the Network is a ruse, and that he had only one co-conspirator: a thirty-four-year-old Lebanese woman named Georgina Mikhael, who had become a technical administrator at H.S.B.C. in September, 2006. Mikhael, who has since returned to Beirut, has a throaty voice, large dark eyes, and caramel-colored hair. She and Falciani worked in adjacent offices, and they became close. They would leave the building to get coffee or to exercise at the gym. Mikhael knew that Falciani was married, but she sensed that he was unhappy in his marriage, and he looked at her, she later said, as if he could “devour me with his eyes.” Before long, they had embarked on an affair.
The prosecutor in Nice, Éric de Montgolfier, discovered that the files on Falciani’s hard drive were encrypted—an unintelligible compost of names, nationalities, account numbers, and deposit amounts. French authorities established a task force to decode the information, calling it Operation Chocolate. (“A dumb name,” a French official acknowledged. “But we weren’t going to call it Operation H.S.B.C.”) In February, 2009, twenty specialists assembled at a hotel in Nice and set to work, in close consultation with Falciani, who provided passwords to decrypt the information and advice on how to organize it. By the end of the summer, they had extracted a list of a hundred thousand names that were connected to H.S.B.C. accounts. Éric Woerth, the French budget minister at the time, announced that the French government had recovered the names of three thousand taxpayers who held undeclared accounts in Switzerland, remarking, “This is the first time we have this kind of information: accurate, with names, account numbers, and amounts on deposit. This is exceptional.”
Swiss officials threatened to halt a series of unrelated intergovernmental initiatives if the French refused to return the data. The Swiss newspaper Le Temps characterized the clash over Falciani’s files as “a diplomatic earthquake.” One Swiss justice official sent Montgolfier an intemperate letter saying that Falciani had not merely damaged the bank; he had attacked the Swiss state. “It was extraordinary,” Montgolfier said. “To harm H.S.B.C. was to harm Switzerland.”
The agitation of the Swiss should not have been surprising. By the time Falciani handed the H.S.B.C. data to the French, the Swiss tradition of financial secrecy was coming under assault. In 2007, an American banker who had worked for U.B.S. in Geneva, Bradley Birkenfeld, approached U.S. authorities with information about how the bank had helped thousands of Americans evade taxes. Birkenfeld himself had provided a variety of “concierge” tax-evasion services: he once bought diamonds for an American client, then smuggled them into the U.S. inside a toothpaste tube. “This was an orchestrated money-laundering, tax-evasion machine,” Birkenfeld told me. “In Switzerland, you can do whatever you want. You want to walk in the door with a hundred million dollars? You can deposit it. Have a nice day. Never pay taxes again.” Although the European Central Bank plans to eliminate the five-hundred-euro note, given that high-denomination bills are perhaps most useful to criminals, Switzerland still has a thousand-franc note (roughly, a thousand dollars). “They have the largest currency denomination in the world—what does that tell you?” Birkenfeld said. “One time, in Geneva, I took a thousand-Swiss-franc note and bought a pack of gum. The guy behind the counter didn’t blink an eye.”
As a result of Birkenfeld’s leak, U.B.S. was forced to turn over to the I.R.S. the details of more than forty-five hundred clients with undeclared accounts, and the bank eventually paid a fine of seven hundred and eighty million dollars. In 2008, Switzerland’s finance minister, Hans-Rudolf Merz, warned other countries that if the world tried to crack down on Swiss bank secrecy it was liable “to break its teeth.” When the Group of 20 met in London in 2009, offshore accounts and tax evasion were high on the agenda for the first time, under the rubric “The End of Bank Secrecy.” Neutrality is another cherished Swiss tradition, but now Switzerland’s closest neighbors were tabulating the ways in which bank secrecy had enriched the country at the expense of others. As Nicholas Shaxson suggests in his book “Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens,” the Swiss banking industry was predicated on the idea that “it is perfectly O.K. for one jurisdiction to exercise its sovereign right to get rich by undermining the sovereign laws and rules of other places.”
In this political context, the Falciani list posed an existential threat to the Swiss economy. The files had ended up in the possession of the French, but they contained incriminating details related to H.S.B.C. clients around the world. It was not long before other governments began asking the French to share information. Early in 2010, tax authorities in the United Kingdom asked if British taxpayers were on the list, and officials in Paris turned over several thousand names. That May, police in Italy announced that they had received details about Italian account holders. The scandal unfolded while Italy’s Prime Minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi, was being investigated for tax fraud, and leaks to the press revealed that many prominent Italians were on the list, from a Roman princess to the jeweller Gianni Bulgari. The Italian press called it the elenco della vergogna—the list of shame.
French authorities also shared portions of the list with Argentina, Russia, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and India (where the hidden funds were described as “black money”). Scandals erupted in each country, but the biggest aftershock was felt in Greece, which was already suffering from the global economic crisis. In 2010, Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister, shared two thousand names on Falciani’s list with her Greek counterpart, George Papaconstantinou. According to a study by scholars at the University of Chicago and Virginia Tech, in 2009 Greek taxpayers failed to declare as much as twenty-eight billion euros—roughly twelve per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Greece had amassed a giant debt, and to reduce it Papaconstantinou had enacted severe austerity measures, cutting pensions and wages and raising taxes, even though many Greeks were in desperate financial straits. Yet, when Papaconstantinou learned the names of wealthy Greeks who were hiding their fortunes offshore, the government took no action.
In 2012, the Greek magazine Hot Doc published a version of the list. Papaconstantinou’s successor, Evangelos Venizelos, initially claimed ignorance. Then he announced that he had discovered a memory stick containing Falciani’s data in an office drawer, and had given it to authorities. When prosecutors requested a fresh copy of the Greek list, from Paris, and compared it with the data provided by Venizelos, they found that three names were missing from the memory stick. All were relatives of Papaconstantinou, who was convicted of tampering with the list and given a suspended sentence.
Although the Swiss government appears to have quickly understood the possible repercussions of the Falciani list, the management at H.S.B.C. was slow to comprehend the extent of its predicament. Alexandre Zeller, the head of the private bank in Switzerland, downplayed the data loss, claiming that only ten or so clients were affected. Zeller did not understand that the breach was of historic dimensions until December, 2009, when the French finally shared the complete list with the Swiss. H.S.B.C. executives were shocked when Falciani was subsequently hailed across Europe as the “Edward Snowden of banking,” in part because they had become convinced that he was something decidedly more sinister.
The Swiss Bankers Association, an industry group, maintains an international alert system that allows participating banks to issue security bulletins to other banks. The system is monitored by Swiss police, and in February, 2008, an officer noticed a posting from a woman named Samira Harb, who worked at Bank Audi, in Lebanon. Harb explained that she had recently met with a man who was looking to sell a database containing what appeared to be private-client information from a Swiss bank. In a subsequent interview with Swiss authorities, Harb said that she had been taken aback by the man’s presentation, and had pointed out to him that “my name could have been on the list if I had an account.” The man was aggressive. Opening a Mac laptop, he showed her a spreadsheet containing account numbers, addresses, and job titles. When Harb asked him how he had obtained this information, he was evasive, saying that he had used “I.T. techniques.” Harb declined the man’s offer, but held on to his business card. It identified him as Ruben al-Chidiak. He was travelling with an associate—a Lebanese woman named Georgina Mikhael.
In Bern, a Swiss federal prosecutor named Laurence Boillat opened an investigation. There was no record of a Ruben al-Chidiak in Switzerland, and the name had a fictitious ring. But Georgina Mikhael was working at H.S.B.C. in Geneva. Boillat placed Mikhael under surveillance, including a wiretap on her cell phone. She did not appear to be communicating with Chidiak, but Boillat determined that she was having an affair with a married colleague—Hervé Falciani. Mikhael exchanged more than five hundred phone calls and text messages with Falciani. During an instant-message chat on Skype, she seemed to be asking about the transfer of client information onto a memory stick. “Have you committed a sin?” she wrote. “You have to be careful baby.”
Toward the end of 2008, the surveillance revealed that Mikhael was planning to leave her job and return to Beirut. Boillat and a team of investigators confronted Mikhael at her office. She immediately confirmed that Chidiak was actually Falciani, and pledged to coöperate.
Mikhael told the investigators that Falciani had intended to use his database not to expose tax evasion but to make money. They were in love, she explained. He told her that he wanted to leave Simona. “I thought that Hervé was serious, and that we could imagine a future together,” she said. But Falciani told her that he needed to raise money in order to finance a divorce. (Simona was aware of the relationship, Mikhael told the investigators, adding, “I don’t know if she knows the story of the data.”)
Private banks routinely attempt to poach wealthy clients. Mikhael told the investigators that she and Falciani had travelled to Beirut to sell the data on H.S.B.C. customers to another bank. Before departing, they had created a company, based in Hong Kong, named Palorva—a mashup of “Palomino,” which was Mikhael’s nickname, and “Hervé.” They set up a Web site and posted a motto: “Business is the art of extracting money from another man’s pocket without resorting to violence.” The Web site said that Palorva could help banks recruit new customers by scouring public databases for information.
Falciani felt that he should have an alias, Mikhael said. Wanting “a name that would be familiar to his Lebanese interlocutors,” he decided that Ruben al-Chidiak sounded plausibly Arab. They printed business cards—Chidiak was identified as Palorva’s “sales manager”—and in February, 2008, they flew to Lebanon, using Simona Falciani’s H.S.B.C. credit card to buy tickets. In addition to Bank Audi, they met with four other banks, but made no sales. According to Mikhael, Falciani travelled at all times with a can of mace and a knife. (He denies this, saying, “That’s not my style.”)
When I asked Falciani if he had an affair with Mikhael, he said yes, but added, “It was nothing special.” In Beirut, the couple strolled along the Corniche, and Mikhael introduced Falciani to her family. “Georgina thought we were going to settle in Lebanon,” Falciani subsequently testified in a deposition in France. “I let her think I had the same idea.” But once they returned to Switzerland the relationship soured. Mikhael noticed that each time a new young woman started working at the bank Falciani followed her around “exactly like he did with me.” Eventually, she told Swiss investigators, she “realized that he wasn’t ready to leave his wife.” At one point, she sent him an e-mail: “The deal we made doesn’t say that you should never call me!! Apparently you’ve been having great weekends.”
Falciani, it seems, had begun seeing other women. Later, when Swiss investigators analyzed his cell phone, they found a contact listed as “Myriam government.” Was this a liaison from a foreign-intelligence service? Was it someone from the Network? When they looked up the number and summoned the woman for an interview, they discovered that Myriam was a philosophy student and a part-time secretary from Geneva—“a romantic conquest” of Falciani’s, as one investigator put it. (Apparently, Falciani, mindful that his wife or his mistress might inspect his contact list, had added “government” to throw off suspicion.) Mikhael eventually concluded that Falciani was “a liar, a born manipulator, a seducer, a pickup artist.”
Falciani told me that he never intended to sell files in Beirut. On the contrary, he had known about the warning system maintained by the Swiss Bankers Association, and had set up meetings in Beirut with the express intention of triggering the alert system, in order to lure Swiss authorities into exposing H.S.B.C.’s criminality. “It was a trap,” he said.
Why fabricate a false identity? Falciani told me that his friends in the Network had developed suspicions about Georgina Mikhael and her sudden appearance in Geneva. “This girl was maybe not there only for her,” Falciani said. “She had no banking experience at all.”
“Whom did you think she was working for?” I asked.
Falciani cast a theatrical glance around Hippopotamus before leaning toward me and whispering, “It was Hezbollah.”
I looked at him with bewilderment. There were times when Falciani reminded me of Chuck Barris, the host of “The Gong Show,” who, in his 1984 memoir, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” claimed that he had secretly led a double life as a C.I.A. assassin. In order to determine whether Mikhael was a Hezbollah spy, Falciani said, he tested her by seeing if she had the means to secure him “a real fake identity”—a Lebanese passport and an identity card with a pseudonym. His actions sounded bizarre, Falciani allowed, but you had to understand that, during this period, dangerous people were coming to Geneva and taking a great interest in him. He said, “You have read about the kidnapping?”
One night in August, 2007, Falciani was walking in Geneva’s Champel district when a van suddenly pulled alongside him. Men inside the vehicle “threw me in, holding a gun to my head,” he recalled. “I found myself in the basement of a church, in front of two men. A big red-headed guy that speaks impeccable French and a super-tough brown-haired guy.” They were Mossad agents, and the Israeli government needed his assistance. An Islamist mole had apparently infiltrated H.S.B.C. Would he help expose the infiltrator? He accepted the mission.
At least, this is the version that Falciani told the French newspaper Nice Matin. When I pressed him about the episode, his story shifted. “My friends organized the kidnapping,” he said. It was staged by the Network.
So the kidnappers weren’t actually Mossad agents?
“It was real fake,” Falciani replied. “Like a real fake identity.” He conceded that, in the H.S.B.C. saga, “you have a lot of real fake things.” In 2010, Swiss prosecutors asked Mikhael about the Mossad story. “I’m convinced that this story is pure invention,” she said. She has initiated a defamation suit against Falciani in Paris, insisting that she is neither a terrorist nor a spy, and arguing that Falciani’s allegations are “worthy of a crime novel.” (Through a lawyer, Mikhael declined to speak with me, but the lawyer reiterated that she has never been a member of Hezbollah, noting that she is Christian.)
In Paris, I met with Christian Eckert, the French budget minister, who wrote a report on Falciani and his revelations. The French government has not only vaunted Falciani’s information; it has fought a significant international battle to protect him from prosecution by the Swiss. Eckert acknowledged that Falciani “has a tendency to romanticize his stories a little.” But he insisted that financial authorities had confirmed “the authenticity of the information that he gave.” Even if Falciani wasn’t always a reliable narrator, the French government had no buyer’s remorse. When I alluded to Georgina Mikhael’s contention that Falciani is merely a con man and a common thief, Eckert grimaced as if he’d swallowed a bad oyster, and muttered, “Salope”—the French word for “bitch.”
Until recently, it seemed impossible to shame the Swiss into breaking their tradition of banking secrecy. In the nineteen-nineties, when U.S. investigators came looking for looted assets that had been stolen from Jews during the Second World War, the Swiss government stonewalled. But by 2012 Falciani’s revelations and other pressures threatened to overwhelm the Swiss resistance to transparency. In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring banks overseas to submit to the I.R.S. the names and account details of American clients. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, meanwhile, amended a convention on mutual administrative assistance in tax matters so that Swiss banks could be obligated to divulge client information. In February, 2012, prosecutors in New York indicted Wegelin & Company, the oldest bank in Switzerland, for money laundering and abetting tax evasion. The bank was effectively put out of business. Chancellor Angela Merkel infuriated Swiss officials when she announced that the German government would happily pay a Swiss bank employee who was offering to sell information about secret accounts held by German taxpayers. “If these data are relevant, we should aim to get hold of them,” she said. This established a frightening precedent for Swiss banks. Oswald Grübel, the chief executive of U.B.S., said, “If governments are in the market of buying illegal data, that changes the world.”
On June 30, 2012, Falciani travelled to the southern port of Sète, where he boarded a Morocco-bound ferry that would make a stop in Spain. His reasons for going to Spain have never been clear. I heard a rumor in Paris that there was a woman there. But Falciani, characteristically, offered me a more intriguing explanation. During the summer of 2012, the U.S. Senate concluded the investigation revealing that H.S.B.C. had engaged in money laundering and facilitated the operations of Mexican drug cartels. According to Falciani, he had been an instrumental source for this investigation, and he was advised by supporters in the U.S. government to leave France. “There was a lot of risk in that period for people to kill me,” Falciani told me. (A staff member who was involved in the Senate inquiry told me that Falciani was not a source for the investigation.)
Early the next morning, the ferry arrived in Barcelona. When Falciani disembarked and presented his passport to Spanish immigration officials, he was arrested. He had been safe in Paris, because he had a French passport and France rarely extradites its own citizens. But Switzerland had issued a Red Notice—an international arrest warrant—with Interpol, and the Spanish elected to honor it. This placed Spanish authorities in a slightly awkward position, given that in 2010 they had requested Falciani’s list from the French. Madrid tax inspectors had subsequently conducted a series of investigations into prominent Spaniards who had used H.S.B.C. to mask their wealth. Emilio Botín, the head of Banco Santander, was exposed as an account holder and was obliged, along with other members of his family, to pay nearly three hundred million dollars in back taxes.
Falciani hired a lawyer to challenge the extradition. Pending the resolution of his case, he was sent to Valdemoro prison, south of Madrid. Falciani was cavalier about this interlude, telling me, “It’s tough for my family, you know, but I’m kind of Superman—for me, it’s O.K.” He passed the days playing racquetball with members of ETA, the Basque terrorist group. A priest loaned him a book about Julian Assange, which he read with great interest.
At an extradition hearing in April, 2013, Falciani appeared in thick glasses and a preposterous brown wig. The disguise was for his own safety, he explained in his memoir: “My only fear was that someone might take me out before my arrival at the court.” In arguing that he should not be returned to Switzerland, Falciani volunteered to assist the Spanish government in its battle against tax fraud, saying, “The fight for financial transparency is fundamental.” A month later, a Spanish court ruled against extradition. Because the principle of bank secrecy does not exist in Spanish law, the court argued, violating that secrecy in Switzerland was not a crime in Spain.
Falciani insists that the five and a half months he spent in the Spanish jail was part of his grand design. “I knew I would be imprisoned,” he told me. “But I had to flee the threats that I was exposed to and take up the fight against financial secrecy.” But why would Spain be safer than France? Visibly impatient with my failure to grasp his logic, he said, “Because I would be in jail.”
Upon his release, Falciani returned to France, where he was given police protection. Montgolfier, the prosecutor in Nice, told Le Temps that Swiss attempts to discredit Falciani should be dismissed. “No one seems to doubt what we have in our hands,” he said. “We cannot question the data.” Falciani told me that his house had been broken into and that, as a consequence of his notoriety, Simona, who had remained in Italy with Kim, was fired from her job as a clerk in a shoe store. In interviews, he has adopted a tone of menace toward his antagonists. “I have become more dangerous,” he told Le Monde, in 2013.
The French government says that it has never paid Falciani for his information, and he denies having been paid by any of the governments that have used his data to pursue tax cheats. But, if Falciani had been compensated, such a transaction would not be without precedent. In 2006, a former employee of L.G.T. Group, a private bank in Liechtenstein, offered the details of hundreds of accounts to German intelligence services—and received a reported five million euros in return. Some German officials voiced discomfort with the quid pro quo, and with Angela Merkel’s endorsement of such deals. Kurt Lauk, the president of the business council of the Christian Democrats, said, “We are signalling to these data thieves: We will buy what you steal.”
Georgina Mikhael has observed of Falciani, “He has an enormous imagination. Overflowing.” His outlandish stories about secret agents and a network of hackers opposed to tax evasion seem like the fantasies of a paranoiac or the ramblings of a fabulist. But in March, 2008, before fleeing Geneva, he had sent e-mails to British and German intelligence agencies, announcing, “I have the whole list of clients of one of the world’s top five private banks.” (The agencies did not pursue this opportunity.) He also contacted a French revenue inspector named Jean-Patrick Martini. During the summer of 2008, Falciani arranged a secret meeting with Martini in a French village across the Swiss border. Martini brought along a psychologist, who helped him come to the conclusion that Falciani seemed credible about the provenance of his data.
In a subsequent deposition, Martini testified, “He said there had been fraud, that the bank was complicit in a fair number of irregularities, and that it was important to put a stop to it. I always had the conviction that he was acting out of pure civic duty.” After Falciani crossed into France in December, 2008, he met Martini again, at a café in the Nice airport, and turned over CDs containing the H.S.B.C. data. When Montgolfier and his team raided the apartment of Falciani’s parents, they did not realize that another French official already possessed a copy of the list.
Georgina Mikhael has said that Falciani’s overtures to foreign governments were simply a hedge on his efforts to sell the data: if he failed to make a deal with a bank, he would seek a buyer in the intelligence community. He was aware that Germany had paid millions to the leaker from L.G.T. Group, the Liechtenstein bank. In “Falciani’s Tax Bomb,” a 2015 documentary by the British filmmaker Ben Lewis, Mikhael says that it was the Liechtenstein deal that “gave him the idea to sell the data to secret services.” Of course, someone can have a desire to expose wrongdoing and also want to be rewarded for his trouble. Government agreements with whistle-blowers often look morally confused. In 2009, Bradley Birkenfeld, the American banker who leaked documents about illegal activity at U.B.S., was sent to prison for his role in the conspiracy. He served two and a half years. (Though U.B.S. paid a fine, no other executive went to jail for the misconduct that Birkenfeld exposed.) Upon Birkenfeld’s release, he received a government reward of a hundred and four million dollars—the largest ever paid by the I.R.S.
In airport terminals around the world, H.S.B.C. posts advertisements that emphasize its reach across continents and cultures. An image appears twice, with different captions: a tattooed arm is labelled “trendy” in one picture and “traditional” in the next, suggesting that the cosmopolitan traveller needs a global bank that grasps differences in cultural perception. As Falciani’s fortunes rose and fell, we kept in touch through Skype, and I often thought of those ads. In France, Falciani looked like a whistle-blower; in Switzerland, he looked like a thief. “I was taken in by his charm,” Mikhael says in the documentary. “But I am still amazed that the whole world has been charmed by him.” In December, 2014, Swiss prosecutors indicted Falciani for industrial espionage and data theft. After the charges were announced, he seemed unruffled. He couldn’t understand why anyone questioned the purity of his motives. “I did everything straight,” he told me.
One day in early 2014, someone dropped off a memory stick at the reception desk of Le Monde, in Paris. It contained a copy of Falciani’s data. Until that point, bits of the list had become public, but no media outlet possessed a complete copy. Overwhelmed by the amount of information, the editors of Le Monde joined with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to comb through it. In February, 2015, the project, SwissLeaks, resulted in dozens of articles in newspapers around the world.
The novelty and importance of the list lay more in its magnitude than in its confirmation of individual venality. Nevertheless, it was bracing to put human faces—many of them famous—on the story. The Guardian and other SwissLeaks participants revealed that the Falciani list included politicians, arms dealers, and people linked to terrorist financing and to the trade in blood diamonds. Stuart Gulliver, the C.E.O. of H.S.B.C., acknowledged that the list had become “a source of shame.”
Exposed clients sometimes offered comical responses. The French chef Paul Bocuse said that he had “forgotten” about an account containing 2.2 million euros. David Bowie explained to the Guardian that although he lived in Manhattan, he had been a legal resident of Switzerland since 1976. One person whose name ended up on the list, John Malkovich, sued Le Monde, saying that he has never had an undeclared account at H.S.B.C.
There were serious consequences for a few of the named clients. For example, a French court sentenced Arlette Ricci, the seventy-three-year-old heiress to the Nina Ricci fortune, to a year in prison for tax fraud. But the vast majority of people identified as holding undeclared accounts were not prosecuted. Instead, they appear to have settled with their respective governments, in a series of quiet amnesties.
Nearly three thousand accounts were held by U.S. taxpayers. When I met with Christian Eckert, the French budget minister, he showed me official documentation indicating that in early 2010 U.S. authorities had requested French assistance in securing the American names on the list. In May, 2012, four I.R.S. agents and a prosecutor from the Department of Justice flew to Paris and interrogated Falciani about his database. “I remain at your disposal,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on its questioning of Falciani, and the I.R.S. denied my request, under the Freedom of Information Act, for details about its possible use of the list to pursue tax violators. But, in 2009, the I.R.S. introduced a plan allowing U.S. citizens with undeclared accounts to volunteer the details to the government and pay outstanding taxes, without fear of criminal penalties. I.R.S. officials maintain that they have collected more than eight billion dollars through this program, and it stands to reason that some people who settled in this fashion were on Falciani’s list. Indeed, there is evidence that U.S. authorities have used the list to pursue cases against American taxpayers.
According to an affidavit in a federal case against a New Jersey couple, Eli and Renee Chabot, the government received a CD in April, 2010, containing a portion of Falciani’s list, and the data revealed that the Chabots had several million dollars at H.S.B.C. Switzerland, in accounts associated with a company called Pelsa Business, Inc. The Chabots refused to turn over information to the I.R.S. about the accounts. Last year, an appeals court held that this was not a permissible invocation of the Fifth Amendment. But the case against them may face complications. In the Falciani documentary, Victor Song, a former enforcement officer at the I.R.S., says that a determination was made by the Department of Justice that Falciani’s information would be inadmissible in U.S. courts, because it had been “stolen from a bank in Europe.”
Last November, at a federal court in Bellinzona, Switzerland, a prosecutor named Carlo Bulletti argued that Falciani was no crusader. “The whole construct of the White Knight is a tissue of lies,” he said. Falciani was being tried in absentia, for industrial espionage and data theft. A former supervisor of Falciani’s testified that he had grumbled about the cost of living in Geneva and complained about his salary, which never exceeded a hundred and thirty thousand dollars. Laurent Moreillon, a lawyer for H.S.B.C., called Falciani a “data robber” and noted that the breach had been devastating for the bank, had created embarrassment for account holders, and had precipitated numerous divorces.
Falciani’s attorney, Marc Henzelin, denied that his client had attacked a financial fortress. The data practically “fell into his pocket,” leaving Falciani feeling “troubled” by the vulnerability of the bank’s internal software. Henzelin acknowledged that the trip to Beirut wasn’t a “very glorious episode,” but he suggested that Falciani had overplayed the intrigue. “All this is part of a movie script, but not very serious,” he insisted. Falciani had gone to Lebanon to sell data, Henzelin said, but only with material harvested from the Internet. “There is no indication that the data he wanted to sell in Beirut were precisely data from H.S.B.C. Switzerland,” Henzelin argued.
The prosecution claimed that the privacy of thousands of honorable clients had been violated, but, as Henzelin pointed out, this was hard to reconcile with the damning particulars of the list. Of six hundred and twenty-eight Indian names on the list, only seventy-nine had declared their assets to the Indian government. The proportion was similar for Argentina and Greece. Gabriel Zucman, the economist, estimates that eighty per cent of assets in offshore havens are undeclared. Tax evasion wasn’t incidental to H.S.B.C.’s Swiss bank, Henzelin concluded; it was the bank’s raison d’être.
Switzerland has been hard on those who violate bank secrecy: Rudolf Elmer, a former employee of the Swiss bank Julius Bär, was tried in 2011 for sharing information about tax evasion and other improprieties with WikiLeaks. Elmer was imprisoned for two hundred days, some of it in solitary confinement; he says that his family was harassed by detectives working for the bank. In Swiss society, to violate the covenant of secrecy is to risk not just prison but also ostracism.
During the trial, Falciani taunted prosecutors by speaking at a conference in Divonne, a French spa town a mile from the Swiss border. The subject of the conference was “Investigative Journalism in the Time of WikiLeaks.” Falciani arrived unshaven, his dark hair slicked back, dressed in a black blazer and jeans. He had a tan, and as flashbulbs popped he had the self-conscious demeanor of a movie star at a première. “My action continues to be fruitful,” Falciani declared. “I’m working with administrations and investigators.” Although he had remained in France, he had joined a new Spanish political party, Partido X, and stood for election in the European Parliament, in 2014, on an anticorruption-and-transparency platform. (The Party won no seats.) He was also promoting “Earthquake on Planet Finance,” in which he related his adventures and called for greater accountability in the international financial system.
The book is an extraordinary document. Falciani writes that the Network consists of “about 100 people working toward the same objective.” He claims that while he was fleeing Switzerland he was contacted by Network operatives on a keyboardless phone, “white in color and the size of a credit card, so slim that one could hide it in the pages of a book.” The device sounds like something Apple will be selling a decade from now, but Falciani describes it as proprietary Network technology. In Beirut, he “was always running the risk of being kidnapped.” In Spain, powerful enemies could have “faked an accident to eliminate me.” He describes secret meetings on railway platforms and bodyguards who watch over him so discreetly that nobody but Falciani ever seems to notice them.
At a press conference, a reporter asked Falciani how Simona had coped with his troubles. “She is courageous, she has never failed,” he said, adding, “I never had any mistresses.” Noting that he no longer lived with his family, he initially called it “a life-style choice,” then explained that he was trying to protect their safety. “We communicate by Skype,” he said. The hotel where the event took place was also a casino, and Falciani seemed at ease there. A few days later, in Bellinzona, the attorneys and the presiding judge spent the morning debating whether, in light of Falciani’s decision to boycott his own trial, his remarks in Divonne were admissible in lieu of testimony. (They were not.)
On November 27, 2015, Falciani was convicted of aggravated industrial espionage, and sentenced to five years in prison. H.S.B.C. released a statement celebrating the verdict, and noted that the bank “has always maintained that Falciani systematically stole clients’ information in order to sell it.” It was the harshest sentence ever delivered in Switzerland for the violation of bank secrecy, but the authorities were clearly waging a rearguard battle. Marc Henzelin, Falciani’s attorney, noted that his client was being prosecuted while Switzerland succumbed to international pressure to dismantle bank secrecy altogether. “It is not Falciani who is being judged,” Henzelin said. “It is Switzerland.” Eckert, the French budget minister, told me, “I think the Swiss are now convinced that secret banking doesn’t have much of a future.”
The French are pursuing a criminal case against H.S.B.C. over the Falciani revelations, and have indicted the bank for direct marketing to nationals, money laundering, and facilitating tax fraud. But in Switzerland authorities dropped an investigation of H.S.B.C. after the bank agreed to apologize for “organizational deficiencies” and pay a conspicuously manageable fine of forty-three million dollars. (Last year, H.S.B.C.’s net profits exceeded thirteen billion dollars.) When I asked Birkenfeld, the former U.B.S. banker, about the penalty H.S.B.C. paid in Switzerland, he laughed. “I had friends who worked at H.S.B.C. who handled accounts that were larger than that,” he said. The system is rigged, Birkenfeld said: “The Swiss government can’t investigate the bank. They would be investigating themselves!”
A few days after Falciani’s sentencing, I visited Geneva. The city felt scrubbed and prosperous. As dusk fell, neon signs bearing the logos of Swiss banks and watch companies glowed over the lake, which looked as clear as glass.
H.S.B.C. had recently relocated from an old lakeside palace that it inherited from Edmond Safra to a row of handsome whitewashed buildings. No executives would meet with me, but a beleaguered-seeming British press spokesman escorted me through a series of sleek glass interiors to a conference room on a high floor, and assured me that the bank has changed. H.S.B.C. has nearly tripled its number of compliance officers, to nine thousand, and has ceased operations in a dozen countries. “The number of accounts has been managed down,” he said.
Where will the profits that H.S.B.C. is forfeiting go? To other banks, he said, or other countries. Money has a tendency to move, and Switzerland is hardly the only tax haven. If it becomes impractical to hide fortunes there, the money could migrate to Singapore, or, for that matter, to America. Shruti Shah, the vice-president of Transparency International U.S.A., recently found that in such states as Delaware and Nevada it is easier to establish an anonymous shell company than it is to obtain a library card. It seems unlikely that reforming the Swiss banking sector will diminish the widespread practice of tax evasion, because wealthy clients can simply transfer their money to a more lax jurisdiction or convert their cash to art or gold or some other easily laundered asset. The Times recently observed that fighting tax evasion by striking deals with an individual banking haven is like “plugging one hole in a colander.”
Whether the culture at H.S.B.C. has actually changed is open to debate. After the bank was implicated in servicing drug cartels and sanctioned regimes, the U.S. Justice Department appointed an independent monitor to assess H.S.B.C.’s efforts at reform. Last summer, the monitor reported that employees continued to display a lack of coöperation with internal audits. Managers maintained the same approach to in-house compliance: “discredit, deny, deflect, and delay.”
Sue Shelley, the former compliance chief in Luxembourg, began her career at Midland Bank in Liverpool when she was a teen-ager, ripping up old checkbooks. After Midland merged with H.S.B.C., in 1992, she created a compliance department for H.S.B.C.’s operation in the Cayman Islands. She arrived in Luxembourg in 2009, and was struck by the lax precautions at the private bank—and by its reaction to the Falciani leak. “The steps that I saw taken were more about protecting data, making it harder for employees to take data out, than they were about the underlying issue, which was tax evasion,” she told me. In a series of reports, Shelley raised concerns to management and the board of directors about suspicious clients and transactions, and about the permissive culture at the bank. In response, Shelley said, she was “bullied, isolated, and ignored.” By 2013, she had become consumed by stress, feeling that she was both aggravating superiors with her warnings and failing to catch other irregularities. Shelley had what she describes as “a bit of a nervous breakdown.” While she was home recuperating, H.S.B.C. fired her, without explanation. Shelley, who had been at the bank for thirty-six years, believes that she was fired because she refused to ignore compliance issues. In 2014, she won an improper-termination lawsuit. Her story echoes that of Carolyn Wind, who oversaw compliance and money-laundering prevention for H.S.B.C.’s U.S. operations, and was fired in 2007. Wind told a Senate subcommittee that she lost her job because she had pushed for “additional compliance resources.”
This spring, the Falciani list was dwarfed by the Panama Papers leak. An anonymous source released eleven and a half million documents relating to the practices of Mossack Fonseca, exposing the financial dealings of a dozen current and former heads of state, and underscoring how extensively the global élite uses shell companies and tax havens to obscure its wealth. The leak documented that H.S.B.C. and its subsidiaries had created some twenty-three hundred shell companies that had been registered by Mossack Fonseca. According to a Guardian report, H.S.B.C. helped to keep open the Swiss bank accounts of Rami Makhlouf, the financier cousin of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, after hostilities in Syria intensified. (Makhlouf’s family has been blacklisted by the U.S. government since 2007.)
Last winter, several senior H.S.B.C. executives were summoned to a committee of the House of Commons, in London, to address improprieties. Asked why no top executives had been fired after the recent string of scandals, Douglas Flint, the group chairman, said that he was “a great supporter of individual responsibility” but felt that, in this instance, it would be inappropriate “for a single individual to be responsible.” Gulliver, the C.E.O., said that since taking over, in 2011, he had implemented “root and branch” reforms. But it was hard to see him as an agent of change. When committee members inquired how he chose to receive his personal compensation from the bank, Gulliver acknowledged that for many years he was paid through an anonymous shell company that he had set up in Panama—through Mossack Fonseca.
Gulliver insisted that he had always paid his taxes, and that he employed the Panamanian shell simply for “privacy.” But he admitted his “inability to convince anyone that these arrangements were not put in place for reasons of tax evasion.”
Falciani remains in Paris, and the week the Panama Papers were released I spoke with him over Skype. He welcomed the leak, he told me, but he was dubious about the prospects of broader change. The banking industry, he said, will make the minimum reforms necessary in order to quell outrage. Then executives will figure out how to game the new regulatory environment. Bankers, Falciani observed, have a great “ability to adapt.”
He mentioned the huge sum that Bradley Birkenfeld had been awarded for blowing the whistle on U.B.S., and said that France needed to follow America’s lead and create incentives for whistle-blowers. Falciani seemed a bit glum, and it struck me that one problem with adopting the vestments of a transparency advocate in order to stay out of a Swiss prison cell is that you are obliged to keep wearing them. I asked Falciani if it had been worth it to upend his life. He hesitated, then said yes. “It used to be that when people thought of Switzerland it was chocolate, watches, and rich people,” he said. “Now it is also corruption.”