Banking giant HSBC reportedly threatened the Sunday Times over its article on wealthy South Africans who held R23 billion in secret Swiss bank accounts, demanding this data be destroyed, the newspaper reported.
In a three page letter sent to the Sunday Times, HSBC’s lawyers Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr said the list of South African clients were “stolen from HSBC”.
They said it would be a “breach of confidentiality” to publish the names, especially as this would lump them with crooks and tax dodgers. They demanded that no details be disclosed to anyone, ever.
The Sunday Times reported that the list of South African clients who held bank accounts with the bank in Switzerland is headlined by CEOs of top blue-chip companies, sports stars and a key figure in the arms deal.
It said it is not a crime for South Africans to have a Swiss bank account, and many of the individuals contacted on the list by the newspaper said they had disclosed full details of the accounts and paid all the tax.
The SA Revenue Service said it was analysing the information.
The files were stolen in 2007 by the company’s former computer specialist Herve Faciani, who said he was alarmed how “banks such as HSBC have created a system for making themselves rich at the expense of society, by assisting in tax evasion and money laundering”.
He fled to France and gave the files to French police. They were leaked to French newspaper Le Monde, then to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who released names this week.
The Sunday Times carried a spread of some South African names, with comment from some.
Scandal-hit HSBC, Britain’s largest bank, has issued a public apology, saying that the media firestorm that followed allegations it had helped rich clients dodge taxes had been a painful experience.
Chief executive Stuart Gulliver says the allegations deal with historical practices that are no longer in place. He said in an ad placed in Sunday newspapers in Britain that HSBC has “no appetite” now to help clients hoping to avoid paying taxes.
He says in the letter addressed to clients and staff that the bank “must show we understand that the societies we serve expect more from us. We therefore offer our sincerest apologies.”
HSBC has been shaken by leaked documents, most from around 2005-2007, that show it helped wealthy customers evade taxes.