A former HSBC employee was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for aggravated industrial espionage. Although HSBC claims the whistleblower initially stole the information for his own personal financial gain, his revelations exposed international fraud, tax evasion, and money-laundering scams involving thousands of corrupt businessmen and arms dealers.
While developing a client management database for HSBC’s Swiss private bank in 2004, Hervé Falciani was handed access to extremely sensitive and incriminating data. According to the private bank accounts, HSBC was allowing criminal organizations to launder their blood money while turning a blind eye to affluent clients committing tax evasion. Instead of ignoring the data, Falciani brought his laptop into work and downloaded the details of approximately 130,000 HSBC accounts.
On December 22, 2008, Swiss authorities arrested Falciani and held him for questioning. Following his release, Falciani fled to France where he was arrested in January 2009. After questioning Falciani and seizing his laptop, the French government decided not to extradite him back to Switzerland. Instead of launching an investigation against Falciani, French prosecutors began digging through the stolen HSBC files.
In exchange for his freedom, Falciani began cooperating with several governments including Argentina, England, France, Germany, India, and Spain. While exposing HSBC’s financial ties to international arms dealers, the data also led to charges against high profile tax evaders including Arlette Ricci, the heir to France’s Nina Ricci perfume empire, and Emilio Botín, the late chairman of Spain’s Santander bank.
On December 11, 2014, the Swiss government indicted Falciani for violating the country’s bank secrecy laws and committing industrial espionage. Instead of extraditing Falciani or filing charges against him, the French government opened a criminal investigation into HSBC for their complicity in aggravated money laundering and financial fraud. Earlier this year, Geneva authorities ordered HSBC to pay 40 million Swiss francs over money-laundering allegations.
Refusing to appear in Swiss court, Falciani dismissed the legal proceedings against him as a “parody of justice.” Convicted in absentia, Falciani was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for committing the largest leak in banking history.
“HSBC has always maintained that Falciani systematically stole clients’ information in order to sell it for his own personal financial gain,” HSBC stated in support of the court’s decision. “The court heard that he was not motivated by whistle-blowing intentions and that this was not a victimless crime.”
Instead of using the data for financial gain, Falciani ended up assisting multiple governments in exposing wealthy tax dodgers and criminal organizations. Subsequent investigations discovered HSBC not only assisted tax evaders but also laundering money for drug cartels, Russian gangsters, and terrorist organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. The bank also helped Iran, North Korea, and the Sudan evade sanctions.
During Falciani’s trial, Switzerland was in the process of dismantling its banking secrecy practices. But on November 4, the Swiss finance ministry decided to shelve the plans.
“It is not Falciani who is being judged,” said Falciani’s attorney, Marc Henzelin. “It is the court. It is Switzerland.”