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Swiss bank whistle-blower is in demand

Hervé Falciani once worked for HSBC bank, but leaked data.
Hervé Falciani once worked for HSBC bank, but leaked data.

PARIS — Hervé Falciani is a professed whistle-blower — the Edward Snowden of banking — who has been hunted by Swiss investigators, jailed by Spaniards and claims to have been kidnapped by Israeli Mossad agents eager for a glimpse of the client data he stole while working for a major financial institution in Geneva.

"I am weak and alone," Falciani said, as three round-the-clock bodyguards provided by the French government looked on with hard stares. The protection was needed, he insisted, because he faces constant risk as the sole key to decipher the encrypted data — five CD-ROMs with a list of nearly 130,000 account holders that may be the biggest leak in the world of Swiss banking.

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But as he settled into a bistro for a two-hour lunch, Falciani, a former computer technician who has been on the run since 2008, seemed oddly relaxed for a fugitive. And why not?

He is in high demand these days, having cast himself as a crusader against the murky world of Swiss banking and money laundering.

Once dismissed by many European authorities, he and other whistle-blowers are now being courted as the region's governments struggle to fill their coffers and to stem a populist uprising against tax evasion and corruption.

"It's an economic war," said Falciani, "In Switzerland, the banks are so organized that they are able to circumvent new rules and laws to continue to enable tax evasion."

Critics, not least at his former employer HSBC, dismiss him as a manipulator more dazzled by money than high ideals.

The data he has leaked — some say sold — since 2008 has wreaked havoc in the banking world, as well as among the moneyed and political classes of Europe.

Falciani's data formed the basis for the now famous "Lagarde list" that has roiled Greek politics with its revelations of oligarchs and politicians who avoided taxes by stashing millions in Switzerland. His data are also credited with helping Spain collect $345 million in taxes and identify 650 tax evaders, including the president of Banco Santander.

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In 2012, Falciani passed his information to US authorities. They, in turn, used the data to pursue an inquiry into whether HSBC flouted controls on money laundering, eventually forcing a $1.92 billion settlement with the bank in December.

Since his release from jail this year after a Spanish judge denied a Swiss extradition request, Falciani, who is married and has a young daughter, has resurfaced in France. French authorities offered protection in exchange for Falciani giving testimony to prosecutors investigating if HSBC helped French clients dodge taxes.

"My main objective is to help authorities develop a defense," Falciani said.

HSBC dismisses Falciani's information as flawed, insisting that the small sample the bank has seen is filled with errors.