Tax dodgers should not be heartened by this verdict

About an hour and 15 minutes after they began deliberations over the fate of the highest-ranking Swiss banker to be tried in the U.S. for tax conspiracy, members of a federal jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this week sent a note to judge James Cohn.

"We have a verdict!!" said the handwritten, all-caps message.

Raoul Weil
Andrew Innerarity | Reuters
Raoul Weil

It would turn out to be very good news for Raoul Weil, 54, the former head of global wealth management at UBS, who stood accused by the U.S. government of helping rich Americans hide as much as $20 billion in Swiss bank accounts. If convicted, Weil faced as many as five years in prison and a substantial fine.

But instead the jury fund Weil not guilty, and suddenly—after nearly a year under the control of the U.S. justice system—Weil was a free man.

The acquittal surprised tax law experts—because in cases like these, the government usually gets its man. "The conviction rate is at least 94 percent," said Ian Comisky, chair of the white collar defense and investigations practice group at the law firm Blank Rome. "It is very unusual for the government to lose a case."

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Still, experts said Americans with money hidden offshore should not assume the acquittal means they are in the clear. "I still think that there is a huge risk for American taxpayers who have not yet properly reported their offshore assets," said Scott Michel, president of the law firm Caplin & Drystale. "I think it would be a mistake to conclude that this would force a tectonic shift in the nature of the overall offshore enforcement program."

The last day of Weil's trial was marked by a surprising decision by the defense team: They did not call a single witness to defend Weil, and instead argued the government had failed to make the case that Weil was involved in illegal activities carried out by those below him in the bank.

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"It's a gutsy call," said Michel of the defense decision not to call any witnesses. "But when it works, it's great. When you get into a courtroom, anything can happen."

Matthew Menchel, a member of Weil's defense team, said they watched the jurors carefully as the government's witnesses testified. "Jurors will react in a nonverbal way," he said. "The jury showed the same sense of outrage I shared that these people were simply not telling the truth."

Menchel said the government should not have brought the case against Weil in the first place. "The government really wanted to go after a quote unquote big fish, and I think they were blinded by that," he said. "We had in fact prepared a very robust defense of Mr. Weil, but at the end of the day the government fell so far short that we didn't feel it was necessary."

Over the course of three weeks of testimony, government prosecutors called in a variety of UBS's former clients and bankers to the stand, offering a glimpse inside the high stakes world of international tax avoidance. Witnesses described bankers traveling to the U.S. with high-tech laptops whose contents could be deleted at the touch of a few buttons, and one banker said he had handed a client $50,000 in cash folded in a newspaper.

The government gave non-prosecution agreements to some of the Swiss bankers testifying against Weil, which the defense said gave those bankers an incentive to testify against Weil.

"Prosecutors have to make deals with witnesses to garner testimony," Michel said. And despite the acquittal, he added, "I don't think you can second guess the decision of a prosecutor."

UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from a member of Raoul Weil's defense team.