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Criminal trial requested as HSBC faces growing pressure

Stephen Green

A former boss of HSBC and current British politician has denied “being asleep” at the wheel of the bank, as authorities in other countries continue to pursue HSBC over allegations of wrongdoing through its Swiss branch.

Stephen Green, who was chief executive and then chairman of the HSBC group from 2003 to 2010 and later served as Britain’s trade minister, has avoided questions since the Swiss Leaks investigation first revealed tax avoidance and alleged money-laundering through HSBC’s private Swiss branch.

Earlier this week UK Channel 4 journalist Alex Thomson confronted Lord Green, who remains a peer in the House of Lords, at a public meeting in London.

Lord Green said the revelations of potential wrongdoing were “dismaying and a source of deep regret,” but denied “being asleep” as leader of the bank through much of the period covered by the Swiss Leaks files.

“I personally always worked hard at setting and seeking to follow high standards in my career,” he said. 

“Did we [at HSBC] get everything right? Maybe not. Did we work hard at trying to do the right thing? Yes we did, and I'm also proud of the way the present leadership team is taking it forward and learning from the experiences.”

Despite calls from Labor MPs, Lord Green has not faced questions from either of the parliamentary committees that are investigating the HSBC affair. Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers have also refused to answer questions on whether or not they discussed issues at the bank with Lord Green before appointing him trade minister in early 2011. 

The confrontation with Lord Green came at a time of increased pressure on the bank from prosecutors and authorities around the world.

Late last week a French prosecutor formally requested that HSBC’s Swiss private bank face a criminal trial in France over allegations the bank was involved in tax evasion.

The bank reportedly turned down a €1.4 billion settlement offer, and must now respond to the request for trial before French magistrates decide whether or not to proceed. 

In Switzerland, Tunisia has reportedly requested to join the Geneva prosecutor’s money-laundering case into the bank in a bid to reclaim funds allegedly stolen by former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. HSBC accounts linked to his brother in law, Belhassen Trabelsi, surfaced during the Swiss Leaks investigation. 

In separate cases, Swiss authorities have also moved this week to return to Nigeria $380 million confiscated from Swiss accounts belonging to former dictator Sani Abacha, and have also reportedly frozen $400 million in accounts at 30 banks tied to allegations of corruption in Brazil.

Switzerland and the European Union also agreed on a deal this week to begin automatic exchange of tax data by 2018, after years of resistance by Swiss authorities. The agreement still needs to be formally signed, and may face a referendum in Switzerland before it is enacted.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the HSBC North America Political Action Committee (PAC) has recorded its second month in a row without making any donations to U.S. politicians. The PAC rarely goes a month without making any contributions, however it is unclear whether the lack of activity is linked to the Swiss Leaks revelations.

In a statement to the London Stock Exchange on Friday, HSBC announced plans to shuffle the roles of several members of its board of directors. The bank also published its 2014 annual report, which revealed a 5 percent pay drop for chief executive Stuart Gulliver, from £8 million in 2013 to £7.6 million in 2014.

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