Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, said on Thursday it would shut its doors permanently after more than 2 1/2 centuries, following its guilty plea to charges of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret accounts.
The plea, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, marks the death knell for one of Switzerland's most storied banks, whose original European clients pre-date the American Revolution. It is also potentially a major turning point in a battle by U.S. authorities against Swiss bank secrecy.
A major question was left hanging by the plea: Has the bank turned over, or does it plan to disclose, names of American clients to U.S. authorities? That is a key demand in a broad U.S. investigation of tax evasion through Swiss banks.
"It is unclear whether the bank was required to turn over American client names who held secret Swiss bank accounts," said Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor involved in other Swiss bank investigations who is now in private law practice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
"What is clear is that the Justice Department is aggressively pursuing foreign banks who have helped Americans commit overseas tax evasion," he said.
Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment immediately.
Wegelin admitted to charges of conspiracy in helping Americans evade taxes on at least $1.2 billion for nearly a decade. Wegelin agreed to pay $57.8 million to the United States in restitution and fines.
Otto Bruderer, a managing partner at the bank, said in court that "Wegelin was aware that this conduct was wrong."
He said that "from about 2002 through about 2010, Wegelin agreed with certain U.S. taxpayers to evade the U.S. Tax obligations of these U.S. taxpayer clients, who filed false tax returns with the IRS."
INITIALLY VOWED TO RESIST
When Wegelin last February became the first foreign bank in recent memory to be indicted by U.S. authorities, it vowed to resist the charges. The bank, founded in 1741, was declared a fugitive from justice when its Swiss-based executives failed to
appear in U.S. court.
The surprise plea effectively ended the U.S. case against Wegelin, one of the most aggressive bank crackdowns in U.S. history.
"Once the matter is finally concluded, Wegelin will cease to operate as a bank," Wegelin said in a statement on Thursday from its headquarters in the remote, small town of St. Gallen next to the Appenzell Alps near the German-Austrian border.
But the fate