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Project on Government Oversight

Anti-Corruption and Whistleblower Advocacy Groups Urge Holder to Review UBS Whistleblower Case

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October 22, 2009

Punishing Whistleblowers Discourages National and International Anti-Corruption Efforts

Washington, D.C. October 22, 2009. Today the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC), the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review the case of Bradley Birkenfeld, the international banker who blew the whistle on secret offshore accounts at UBS Bank in Switzerland. On August 21, Mr. Birkenfeld was sentenced to 3 years and 4 months in prison for his actions, despite the fact that UBS's tax fraud scheme never would have been discovered without Mr. Birkenfeld's disclosure.

The letter calls on the Department of Justice to reconsider Mr. Birkenfeld's case and "take action to prevent one of the worst setbacks in international law enforcement history."

The letter, states in part:

As estimated by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations, $5-7 trillion dollars in U.S. 'taxpayer' assets are hidden in offshore accounts.  Annually, the treasury loses over $100 billion in revenue due to these illegal accounts. These accounts provide sanctuary for the worst criminal elements in our society.  They are safe havens for people who profit from selling heroin in our inner cities or who bribe our elected leaders.  As recognized under international treaties signed by the United States, bank secrecy is the handmaiden of corruption.  These international treaties recognize that corruption undermines the rule of law and threatens human rights around the world

Denying Mr. Birkenfeld whistleblower status, and sending him off to a long prison term, radically undermines the ability of the U.S. government to detect, prosecute and prevent illegal off-shore banking practices.  Without exaggeration, on the day Mr. Birkenfeld enters a federal penitentiary, every criminal using offshore secret banks to hide their ill-gotten gain will celebrate.  The Department of Justice will, unintentionally, be party to a well-publicized worldwide event that will send a chill down the spine of any international banker who, like Mr. Birkenfeld, feels guilty about the practices they participate in and wants to help stop these insidious practices that undermine the rule of law.

Will the Department of Justice imprison the international banker who had the courage to voluntarily step forward and blow the whistle on one of the world's most powerful corporations?  Or will the Department of Justice use the Bradley Birkenfeld case as an historic opportunity to promote whistleblowing in the fight against corrupt international banks?

In urging the Attorney General to conduct this review, the public interest leaders stated the following:

Lindsey M. Williams, Advocacy Director, National Whistleblowers Center  "This case is about more than just Mr. Birkenfeld – it is about every international banker with critical information about the thousands of secret offshore bank accounts held by rich and powerful Americans who are illegally hiding their income.  Putting Mr. Birkenfeld in jail serves no purpose and undermines anti-corruption efforts."

Jesselyn Radack, Homeland Security Director, Government Accountability Project "Birkenfeld gave the Justice Department its entire historic case against UBS on a silver platter.  It thanked him by letting all the Swiss bad actors go free and prosecuting the whistleblower (Birkenfeld)--an American.

Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project on Government Oversight "This case sends a clear message to those considering reporting wrongdoing to DOJ: don't bother."

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.