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Document Leak Reveals Secret Swiss Bank Accounts

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Movie stars, famous designers, politicians, royalty - yesterday, several news organizations unveiled the names of some of the people who opened secret accounts at the Swiss subsidiary of HSBC. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, the information came from documents illegally downloaded by a whistleblower at the bank.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: These documents aren't new. They date back to a two-year period ending in 2007, and they were long ago handed over to bank regulators around the world. But they were never unveiled to the public until this weekend when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released some of the details. The documents make clear that HSBC opened thousands of accounts where the rich and famous could hide their money. Robert McIntyre is director of Citizens for Tax Justice.

ROBERT MCINTYRE: What these new revelations illustrate is that rich people - or some of them anyway - will do almost anything to avoid paying their fair share in taxes, and they can almost always find some bank or some accounting firm to help them try to do it.

ZARROLI: The account holders include numerous famous names like Australian model Elle Macpherson, the late photographer Helmut Newton and "Dynasty" star Joan Collins.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DYNASTY")

JOAN COLLINS: (As Alexis Carrington Colby) I'm what I am, and that's why I'm where I am.

ZARROLI: Through her accountant, Collins told the journalist group that she had deposited funds in a British bank, and they were transferred to a Swiss account without her knowledge. The accountant also said she had been cleared of wrongdoing by British tax authorities. Many of the others named were less famous but much more powerful. The daughter of Chinese Premier Li Peng, the brother-in-law of Tunisia's deposed president and a Canadian mining and movie mogul who is a major donor to the Clinton Initiative. The documents show bank employees actively helping clients hide their money from tax officials and providing them with untraceable withdrawals. Again, Robert McIntyre.

MCINTYRE: I've heard stories about many different Swiss banks doing the same thing in this private banking industry where people were carrying suitcases full of cash, suitcases full of diamonds, soliciting clients illegally.

ZARROLI: The release of the documents comes at a time when authorities in the U.S. and other countries have been cracking down on secret bank accounts. And that's posed a big dilemma for many banks and tax havens such as Switzerland.

MCINTYRE: They're shedding their U.S. account holders or they're complying.

ZARROLI: Tax lawyer Jeffrey Kolodny says banks that want to continue to do business in the United States have been forced to stop protecting foreign account holders.

JEFFREY KOLODNY: Bank secrecy is over. I think it's over not just in Switzerland, but all over the world.

ZARROLI: HSBC is one of the biggest banks caught up in the crackdown. In late 2012, the bank paid the U.S. government $1.9 billion in fines for money laundering under a deferred prosecution agreement. Over the weekend, HSBC acknowledged that some of its Swiss employees committed wrongdoing, but said it now complies with international banking laws. But the bank's troubles aren't over. Today, U.S. officials said they are continuing to investigate the bank for tax evasion. And they said they may reopen the 2012 agreement if they find evidence of illegal activity. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.