Secret informants, silent witnesses, code words: a Senate hearing on wealthy alleged tax cheats Thursday morning had all the trappings of a Mafia investigation.
One witness, fearing for his life, testified at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing via videotape, his face a mere shadow on the screen. Three other witnesses refused to testify on the grounds they could incriminate themselves.
And the yarn that unraveled – of secret codes, snooping G-men and admonitions against using home phones or writing information down – sounded as much like background research for a "Sopranos" plotline as what it was: an expose of wealthy Americans allegedly trying to keep their riches beyond the reach of Uncle Sam.
Testifying on video was Heinrich Kieber, a former employee of the LGT Bank of Liechtenstein, the source of 12,000 pages of bank documents detailing secret, multi-million-dollar accounts held by "many, many, many" U.S. citizens for the alleged purpose of dodging taxes.
Kieber, declared a fugitive by Liechtenstein, is living in an undisclosed location, reportedly as part of a witness protection program, after providing information to government officials in England, Germany, the United States and other countries on their citizens who hid billions in wealth through the bank. The German government has admitted to paying him millions for the data.
In his videotaped testimony, Kieber described stumbling across the bank's secrecy schemes while working on a document conversion project several years ago.
"Going through thousands of documents. . . I got the very clear picture" of the "tricks" employed by the bank to help clients dodge tax collectors, creditors, even "international law enforcement agencies," he said.
Because of the bank's efforts to provide their clients with secrecy and anonymity, it "does not have a clue" of the sources of wealth for "the vast majority" of its clients, Kieber asserted, noting that its ignorance undermines its participation in anti-terror, anti-corruption and anti-crime agreements.
For clients seeking such protections, the bank gave explicit "recommendations" on how to keep their ties to their secret accounts from government investigators, Kieber said.
"Firstly," he explained, the bank told those customers "not to tell anybody concerning the legal entity", not even their lawyers or other family members. "Any human relationship can go wrong," Kieber explained.
Second, he said, the bank advised its clients "not to call. . . from home, not from work. Use public phones instead." In general, Kieber said, the bank told its clients only to call in an emergency, and to dial numbers for their bankers' Swiss or Austrian cell phones. That way they could avoid dialing a Liechtenstein country code, which could be noted by investigators.
Even then, Kieber said, clients were told to "always use the code words agreed and never state their own names or name of the legal entities."
To help wealthy Americans get access to the money they had squirreled away, LGT Bank would move their money into new trusts set up in the name of a dead or dying relative, Kieber told the Senate panel. The accountholder would then "inherit" the funds from the deceased individual's estate, he said.