There was once a man named Gulliver who traveled widely and wrote a book about his adventures called Gulliver’s Tales. During his first voyage, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself a prisoner of a race of little people, who live in the country of Lilliput. After giving assurances of his good behavior, Gulliver becomes a resident in Lilliput and becomes a favorite of the court. From there, the book follows Gulliver’s observations on the Court of Lilliput. He is also given the permission to roam around the city on a condition that he must not harm their subjects and otherwise engage in illegal, immoral or unethical conduct.
I am continually amazed at how life imitates art because if I told you the following tale you might accuse me of simply making up things to write about. Imagine there is a corporate banking Chief Executive Officer (CEO), whose company signed one of the largest Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPA) ever a little over two years ago giving assurances of good behavior going forward. Now imagine I tell you that the same CEO has been hiding money for years in a Swiss bank account through a shell corporation for ‘his privacy’ (IE., Hiding money from the Lilliputians of this world). Unfortunately for the real Stuart Gulliver, the CEO at the banking giant HSBC, these facts are true. While his company is in yet another scandal involving its illegal conduct, while under a DPA for its past sins, it turns out the CEO was hiding approximately $7.7MM in a Swiss bank account. To compound this effort to conceal his monies, he did so through a shell Panamanian company.
Yet, just like the fictional Gulliver, the real Gulliver has a very simply explanation for this practice. According to Jenny Anderson, in an article in the New York Times (NYT) entitled “HSBC Chief Defends Swiss Bank Account Worth $7.7 Million”, Gulliver said “This has an everyday explanation to it” and said the explanation was that he was trying to hide the money so his co-workers would not know he much money he made. Or as Anderson wrote, “In an effort to protect his privacy — he was the bank’s top earner — he put the money in Switzerland to hide it from the prying eyes of his Hong Kong colleagues. But he then had to hide it from his curious Swiss colleagues, so he created an anonymous Panamanian company.”
So it turns out that Gulliver was not only trying to hide his money from his co-workers but also from the Swiss by creating a shell corporation to launder the money into before depositing it in Switzerland. Similar to those pesky Lilliputians, who might want to find out something about him that he did not want them to know, as when the fictional Gulliver agreed to not violate the law or engage in otherwise unethical conduct. Of course the real Gulliver has protested that such arrangements were not illegal at the time he engaged in them, side-stepping the question of whether his conduct was unethical (Ethical bankers, does that topic belong in the fiction section?).
Gulliver also went on a charm offensive essentially claiming that not only him but the entire banking industry in general was being picked on. Channeling his inner Mother Theresa, Gulliver was quoted in an article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “Standards for bankers higher than for bishops, claims HSBC chief Gulliver” by Martin Arnold and George Parker, as saying “It seems to me that we are holding large corporations to higher standards than the military, the church or civil service.” While I am not quite certain as to the pay scale of UK church leaders, I am relatively certain that those in the civil service and military do not have an extra $7.7MM laying around that they need to launder through a Panamanian corporation to hide in a Swiss bank account.
The real Gulliver should have just channeled his fictional Gulliver and said that when in the land of Lilliput, you do not have to tell the Lilliputians the truth, even if you have sworn in a pesky DPA to do so. From the real Gulliver’s statement about bankers being held to higher standards, he obviously thinks that the church, military and civil service (and probably the rest of us mere mortals) have Lilliputian ethical obligations compared to him.
What does all this mean for prosecuting HSBC in the newly erupted money laundering through its Swiss subsidiary scandal? Well it is great to know your CEO has first hand knowledge of the mechanics of such activities. The appropriate UK authorities or even the US Department of Justice (DOJ) could interview the real Gulliver as a subject matter expert (SME) on not only how to hide money from your fellow employees, but also from the Swiss and even gain insight into such machinations to hide money from your own national tax authorities. The real Gulliver may be a real find for the DOJ as an expert witness, at the trial of his company for breach its DPA.
Further, just think of the credibility the real Gulliver would have in negotiations with the DOJ on whether HSBC broke its promises to do business in compliance with US anti-money laundering (AML) laws when it signed its DPA back in 2012. He could go right into the meeting and say, “Lads, let me dispel any misconceptions you might have about Swiss bank accounts. They exist to hide money. At least that is how I use them personally.” He could then walk the lowly civil servants who work in the DOJ Fraud Section and who have lower standards than the whiter-than-white bankers through how the real world of money laundering works, or at least the real world of multi-millionaires who, for some reason, want to protect their own privacy.
The real Gulliver could answer yet another rhetorical question that he posed, and was reported in the FT article, when he asked, “Can I know what every one of 257,000 people is doing? Clearly, I can’t. If you want to ask the question could it ever happen again – that is not reasonable.” The real Gulliver could then go on to respond to this rhetorical flourish along the lines of the following, But I can tell you what is reasonable, to ask me if I know what I am doing and how I am doing it. I am hiding money in my Swiss bank account through a shell Panamanian company. He might even add, How brilliant is that?
Since the fictional Gulliver lived and traveled over 300 years ago, he may be distantly related to the real Gulliver of HSBC today. Nevertheless for a bank CEO to have laundered his own money through a shell corporation into a Swiss bank account ‘for privacy’ is one of those convergences where truth surely is stranger than fiction.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015