Unlocking Swiss secrets

Secrecy is deeply embedded in Swiss political, bureaucratic and business culture. It’s of course not surprising that the world’s banking capital puts a premium on discretion and confidentiality. Switzerland is still a preferred location for companies and rich individuals around the world because it offers tax and other advantages, including political stability and a low level of transparency. Many journalists probing business, corruption, and even organized crime are bound to encounter either a Swiss bank account or a Swiss company in the course of their reporting. And getting information on them is not going to be easy.

But even in Switzerland, the walls of secrecy are slowly being breached. Banking secrecy there is no longer as ironclad as it used to be, after the U.S. began aggressively forcing Swiss banks to open their records as part of an effort to collect taxes from American citizens stashing their wealth overseas.

The Swiss government, too, is slowly opening up, enacting a federal freedom of information law in 2004 making it possible for citizens and journalists to get information that was previously unavailable. But huge problems remain, and Swiss journalists, a few of whom are attending this year’s Summer School of Investigative Reporting at Columbia’s Journalism School, can only dream about the transparency that the Swedes or Finns enjoy. The culture of secrecy, they say, forces journalists to lean more heavily on human sources and leaked documents.

Anyone seeking information on Swiss companies, organizations or individuals should understand that much of governing in Switzerland takes place at the cantonal or local level. Information on education, health, police, taxation and business are held by the country’s 26 cantons. Cantonal administrations  have different rules for accessing information; data that is available in one canton may not be available in another. Each canton also has its own FOI law. Bern was the first — a law came into effect in 1993, in the wake of a political scandal (this paper by Swiss professor Martial Pasquier gives an excellent overview of freedom of information in Switzerland). Fribourg’s law came into effect only last year. And Zug has yet to get a law.

Swiss journalist Jean-Francois Tanda says that some cantons post information online; others will provide certain information only to residents; and yet others will provide information for only a limited period of time after it has been received.

Speaking at the Summer School for Investigative Reporting at City University in London earlier this month, Tanda provided a very useful handout that has links to government and other websites that provide information on Swiss companies, court cases, public procurement and politics.

Here’s where some basic information on companies and individuals can be found (thanks to Tanda for the links):

Company information. Each canton has a company register that has documents providing basic information on companies, including address, names of shareholders, capital invested and date of incorporation (see, for example, the corporate registry document of Morgan Stanley Bank in Switzerland). French-speaking cantons like Geneva, Fribourg, Vaud and Neuchatel will provide original registry documents online. (This page in the Swiss Confederation website links to cantonal company registers). But Zug, the preferred home of more than 30,000 companies worldwide because it offers secrecy and light taxation, will provide this information only upon request.

Among the companies that call Zug home are the world’s biggest commodities traders, which deal in everything from diamonds and oil to cobalt and grain. Zug is where the controversial commodities giant Glencore is registered. Glencore’s colorful chief executive Mark Rich has been indicted for tax evasion. Based in Switzerland, he’s been called the biggest tax fugitive in U.S. history. The company was also recently embroiled in alleged tax evasion case involving a copper mine in Zambia.

Tanda says that some cantons provide taxation information on companies and individuals, but Zug does not. Creditors, however, can get this information, so Tanda says journalists can access the information through them. (Commercial databases provide more information on Swiss companies, but most of them require a subscription. See Tanda’s handout for links.)

A great source of information in companies are the Official Gazettes or Amtsblatt published by cantonal registers. These publish information on insolvencies, debt enforcements or other legal action taken against companies.

Court records. Decisions of court cases and settlements of criminal suits are available, some online, but the names of individuals and companies involved are anonymized. So it’s a matter of triangulating information, says Tanda. Based on details in the judgments, it may be possible to determine which individual or company was involved. Settlements can be requested from the courts — and the Swiss investigative reporting organization Recherche-Netzwerke Schweiz has templates of letters that journalists can send requesting this information. Decisions of the Federal Supreme Court are made public; so are indictments in the Swiss Federal Court. Particularly useful, says Tanda, are the requests for judicial assistance made to Swiss tax authorities by foreign governments. These requests are available at the Swiss Federal Administrative Court.

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