Courts & Crime

Banker who tipped feds to UBS tax scam gets prison time

FORT LAUDERDALE — In a surprisingly heavy judgment, Bradley Birkenfeld, the former UBS private banker who blew the whistle on a wide-ranging scheme in which the Swiss bank helped wealthy Americans dodge income taxes through secret accounts, was sentenced to 40 months in prison Friday morning.

The sentence was 10 months longer than the prosecution had asked for. The defense had sought probation, pointing to the major impact of Birkenfeld's unprecedented cooperation. The prosecutors said Birkenfeld is still helping the government and will remain free until Jan. 8, 2010.

In federal court in Fort Lauderdale, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered Birkenfeld to pay a $30,000 fine. After prison, he has three years of probation.

Birkenfeld, a tall and athletic man of 44, laid the foundation for the federal government's most devastating assault ever on Swiss banking secrecy and offshore tax cheats. He wore a gray pinstripe suit, blue shirt, red tie and the beginnings of a goatee.

Drawing heavily on details Birkenfeld provided about UBS' illegal practices in helping U.S. tax cheats, the Internal Revenue Service filed a civil suit seeking to force the bank to turn over information on thousands of unidentified UBS account-holders with secret offshore accounts.

As a result, the U.S. and Swiss government on Wednesday unveiled details of an agreement under which the IRS will end up getting details on 4,450 secret accounts through diplomatic channels in exchange for abandoning its aggressive court tactics.

Assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey A. Neiman recommended that Birkenfeld get 30 months in prison for his conviction on one count of conspiracy to defraud the government -- down from the 60-month maximum sentence he is exposed to -- because of his extensive cooperation.

Zloch had delayed Birkenfeld's sentencing four times at the request of prosecutors who are continuing to debrief him, but last week turned down a fifth request.

Birkenfeld was one of about 50 UBS private bankers catering to U.S. clients. His special services to rich Americans who wanted to hide money in secret offshore accounts once included slipping through U.S. Customs carrying diamonds stuffed inside a toothpaste tube.

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