Former HSBC banker beats charges in $1.8B French tax case

A former executive at HSBC Holdings Plc’s Swiss private bank was cleared in a probe where his boss pleaded guilty to helping wealthy clients hide assets worth at least 1.6 billion euros ($1.8 billion).

Judah Elmaleh, 60, had been charged three years ago over allegations he approached French residents to encourage them to move funds to Switzerland and helped clients evade taxes, but Paris judges decided the case should be dropped. HSBC fired Elmaleh in 2012 after saying it had lost faith in him amid a separate money-laundering probe targeting his three brothers.

The investigative judges considered there wasn’t clear evidence of the involvement in 2006 and 2007 of Elmaleh, who was in charge of the Mediterranean-Israel department as well as “Diamonds and Jewelry” at the time. The previously unreported non-public decision dated Jan. 4 also notes that Elmaleh’s testimony was useful in building the larger case against the lender.

The building that houses HSBC Holdings Plc's private banking unit in Geneva, Switzerland
The building that houses HSBC Holdings Plc's private banking unit in Geneva, Switzerland

The same month Elmaleh was cleared, the chief executive officer of HSBC’s Swiss private bank pleaded guilty to similar charges and was fined 500,000 euros. That came more than a year after HSBC paid 300 million euros to resolve allegations it faced in the same case.

The HSBC case is part of a French crackdown on tax fraud and money laundering operated through Switzerland that’s seen the conviction of a former minister and UBS Group AG ordered in February to pay a record 4.5 billion-euro fine.

An official at France’s financial prosecutor, the Parquet National Financier, said after looking at all the evidence, the charges against Elmaleh were dropped. Thierry Marembert, a lawyer for Elmaleh, said the dismissal of charges against his client is an acknowledgement of his good faith and innocence.

In France, investigative judges can decide to charge companies or individuals in a procedure known as “mise en examen” when there are “serious and consistent” indications showing likely involvement in the matter under investigation. They can then decide to refer a case to trial or drop the charges.

French authorities began scrutinizing HSBC’s Swiss private bank after Herve Falciani, a former information technology worker at the firm, stole client account details from the Geneva office in 2008 and shared the data with investigators.