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The No-Longer-So-Secret Swiss Bank Account

Bankers from Credit Suisse, one of the world's largest financial institutions, courted wealthy Americans in airports, at family weddings and on golf courses from Florida to the Bahamas with a simple pitch: We'll help you hide your money. The bankers shielded the funds using code names and shell companies. They even set up private airport branches clients could use to do their banking, as they flew in and out of Switzerland, without leaving a paper trail.

The effort worked: A Senate investigation this week found that the bank ultimately held $13 billion of American money in 22,000 secret accounts. On Wednesday, lawmakers hauled Credit Suisse's top management before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and delivered an equally simple pitch: Stop your behavior or risk serious penalties, including potential jail time. "You want to do business here, you've got to comply with our laws," said Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the panel's chairman.

Credit Suisse is in talks with the Justice Department to settle an ongoing investigation by paying an $800 million fine, the largest ever for allegedly aiding tax evasion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

At the hearing Wednesday, senators from both parties accused executives from the Swiss bank of using "spy novel" tactics to help Americans hide billions of dollars. 

The Credit Suisse investigation is part of a broader U.S. crackdown on Americans who use offshore accounts to hide their income. In 2009, the largest Swiss bank UBS agreed to pay a record-setting $780 million fine and admit to facilitating tax evasion. The tax cheat dragnet has already compelled over 43,000 Americans with secret accounts to come clean through an amnesty program, a Justice Department official said at the hearing.

Credit Suisse has stopped accepting new American clients, unless they can prove that they are paying their taxes, bank officials said. In addition, Chief Executive Brady Dougan said his firm had investigated the problem on its own and shared with authorities what he said the law-breaking bankers had tried to keep hidden.

"The evidence showed that some Swiss-based private bankers went to great lengths to disguise their bad conduct from Credit Suisse executive management," Dougan said. Seven Credit Suisse employees have been arrested in connection with the tax evasion scheme, though none of them have been tried yet.  

Levin said he wants the bank to do more than just pay fines and make promises to do better. "Turn over the names of the people whom you aided and abetted in tax evasion," Levin said. He said the Swiss bank has given U.S. authorities the names of only 238 out of the 22,000 secret account holders. Credit Suisse officials said they hired outside accountants to go over their books, closed accounts and stopped certain lines of business to help ensure that customers aren't using the country's vaunted secrecy laws to shirk tax responsibilities. But Credit Suisse General Counsel Romeo Cerutti said Swiss laws won't let them disclose the names of their American clients.   U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said Swiss secrecy laws were a problem, but the Justice Department had started a new program to encourage Swiss whistleblowers to share information with U.S. authorities. He said the program had been successful, but he couldn't share details about ongoing investigations. "Just because we can't disclose what we are doing, doesn't mean we are not actively pursuing these cases," Cole said at the hearing. Senators directed their ire not just at Credit Suisse, but also at the Swiss government for frustrating U.S. investigations by not allowing Swiss banks to hand over more information about their American clients.

"Any real idea that the government of Switzerland is cooperating with us is a joke," said Sen. John McCain (R-Az.).

New laws and treaties could make it easier for American and Swiss authorities to work together. Until then, Swiss banks are in a tough spot.  Republican Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma said the contradictory laws present bankers with a choice: going to jail in the U.S. or Switzerland. "Where would you like to spend time?" Sen. Coburn asked the Credit Suisse's head lawyer. "That's a tough decision," Cerutti responded.

Jonathunder/Wikimedia

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Adidas Looks to Score in Brazil and Chokes

After an unusual complaint from the Brazilian government, sports goods manufacturer Adidas has agreed to ban the sale of two controversial T-shirts designed for the soccer World Cup in Brazil, which kicks off on June 12.

In what the designers thought to be a clever pun, one of the shirts reads "Looking to Score" and features a bikini-clad woman waiting with open arms -- presumably for a "striker" -- against a sunny Rio de Janeiro backdrop. The other shirt, modeled after the ubiquitous "I <3 NY" design, shows a heart that resembles an upside-down thong-clad female bottom. Adidas, it appears, would like to perpetuate the hypersexualized stereotype of Brazilian woman as bikini-clad sex pots.

The shirts elicited an outpouring of official responses from Brazilian authorities. The country's ministry of women's affairs said that the Adidas T-shirts were "all the more shocking" because of Dilma Rousseff's recent election as the country's first female president, which "brought greater respect for women and zero tolerance for any form of violence against them." The country's tourism board said in a statement that it "strongly repudiates the sale of products that link Brazil's image to sexual appeal."

The shirts belong to a limited-edition run to be sold only in the United States. The German company is one of the World Cup's chief sponsors and makes the tournament's official ball.

This is not the first time Adidas designers have exhibited what might be diplomatically described as insensitivity in its designs. In 2012 the company announced a "shackle" sneaker, which included colorful "handcuffs" attaching the shoe to the wearer's' ankles. After an outcry online, with multiple accusations of racism and arguments that the "cuffs" remained associated with slavery, the company scrapped the shoe.

In Brazil, the government's clear fury over the T-shirts isn't just political posturing. Both sex tourism and child prostitution remain serious problems in Brazil despite its image as a relaxed, sun-drenched paradise. In 2010, UNICEF estimated that there are some 250,000 child prostitutes in Brazil, many of them strolling the country's beaches in exactly the same type of revealing bikinis that Adidas saw as a clever marketing tool.

Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images