US pays convict whistleblower $104m

2012-09-12 13:00

Washington — First, the US government threw Bradley Birkenfeld in prison for helping a former client at UBS AG hide his wealth from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Now, as part of the same case, the IRS has awarded the former banker $104m — yes, million — for helping expose the widespread tax evasion scheme by the Swiss banking behemoth.

The dizzyingly abrupt turnabout in Birkenfeld's life leaves him with the largest government whistleblower award ever to an individual, said Stephen M Kohn, one of Birkenfeld's attorneys and executive director of the National Whistleblowers Centre.

The centre is a nonpartisan group that defends employees' disclosures of wrongdoing and waste.

The size of the award, announced on Tuesday by Birkenfeld's lawyers and confirmed by the IRS, reflects an investigation that resulted in UBS being fined $780m.

It also led to an unprecedented agreement requiring UBS to give the US government the names of 4 700 Americans who held secret overseas accounts and the recovery by the IRS of $5bn in back taxes and penalties from other taxpayers with overseas accounts under agency amnesty programmes, Kohn said.

Cause celebre

More broadly, the award is a resounding signal to other financiers with information about tax wrongdoing that the IRS' programme will treat them properly, said Kohn.

"It's not about Brad," Kohn said. "It's about how other sources of information, other bankers view the US whistleblower programme."

Birkenfeld has become something of a cause celebre among whistleblowers because of the magnitude of his case and the fact that he was jailed after co-operating with authorities.

His lawyers say he discovered UBS' illegal activities in 2005, and after the company failed to change them he went to US authorities with the information in 2007.

Birkenfeld, aged 47, served 31 months of a 40 month prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2008 to a count of conspiracy to defraud the US related to his work for UBS.

The Justice Department said Birkenfeld did not reveal his own misconduct in helping a client, a charge his attorneys say is not true.

Three years of parole

As Birkenfeld entered prison in 2010, he called his treatment an injustice, saying, "I'm a proud American who did the best I could for my country and this is how they reward me."

His time was cut short for good behaviour in prison and "they did not take one minute off his sentence" for his co-operation with the IRS on the UBS case, Kohn said.

Kohn said Birkenfeld left prison in August and is now confined to a house in a New Hampshire conference centre — he did not say where — and works as a groundskeeper to satisfy his release requirement for a job.

He said his home confinement ends in November, when he will begin three years on parole.

"This is the day I thought would never come," said a statement issued by Douglas Birkenfeld on his brother's behalf. "This is a monumental day not only for me, but for every whistleblower worldwide."

Bradley Birkenfeld did not appear at a Washington news conference held by his lawyers, who said their client did not have government permission to talk to reporters.

Privacy laws

Kohn said Birkenfeld has already received his check — from which the IRS has already withheld taxes. He would not how much was withheld.

The tax agency acknowledged Birkenfeld's award in terse written remarks by a spokesperson, Michelle Eldridge. She said privacy laws bar the agency from saying much about the case. She said Birkenfeld signed a disclosure waiver allowing them to confirm his award.

The Justice Department said it would let the IRS comment on the Birkenfeld case.

In a summary of the award provided by Birkenfeld's lawyers, the IRS wrote, "Birkenfeld provided information on taxpayer behaviour that the IRS had been unable to detect", including methods used by UBS AG and relationships between people involved in transactions.

"The information provided by the whistleblower formed the basis for unprecedented actions against UBS AG, with collateral impact on other enforcement activities," the agency wrote.

The IRS whistleblower programme was strengthened by Congress in 2006 to focus on high-earning tax dodgers, guaranteeing awards for whistleblowers whose information leads to collections of at least $2m in unpaid taxes, interest and penalties.

Fewer collections, rewards

The agency is allowed to pay an award of up to 30% of the collected taxes, interest and penalties.

In its annual report on the whistleblower programme, the IRS said it collected $48m from scofflaws under the programme last year and handed out $8m in awards.

That's down from $465m collected and $19m in awards in 2010. The report did not explain why the amounts had decreased.