By SPIEGEL Staff
The scandal has also cast a not entirely flattering light on several German banks, which apparently had their own fingers in the Liechtenstein pie. A total of up to 20 bank employees, members of foundation boards and account managers in Liechtenstein and Germany are under investigation for their alleged roles in developing tax savings models. Two Frankfurt-based private banks, Metzler and Hauck & Aufhäuser, are at the center of the investigation. Another private bank, the Hamburg-based Berenberg Bank, was also investigated, simply because the wife of an LGT client has a safe deposit box there.
The affair strongly reminds veteran investigators of the "bank cases" in the late 1990s, which led to thousands of investigations after a series of spectacular raids of German banks. Prior to the raids, bank advisors had recommended to their clients that they move their assets to accounts with the banks' subsidiaries in Luxembourg, so as to circumvent a capital gains tax which was introduced in Germany in 1993.
For the banks, this meant that they could retain their clients' accounts, and in some cases could even earn a little additional revenue in transfer fees for moving the money to the Luxembourg accounts. But according to one former investigator who was deeply involved in the 1990s bank investigations, some German banks apparently preferred models that allowed them to keep the funds in-house.
Under this model, assets already deposited in Germany would be transferred abroad using a series of transactions intended to camouflage the flow of money, and would then be transferred back to the same bank, but into a new account. The only difference was that, after making its accounting excursion to Liechtenstein, the money in this new account no longer formally belonged to a bank client liable for German tax. Instead, the assets had become the property of a Liechtenstein foundation, establishment or similar fiduciary entity under Liechtenstein law. The real owners of the assets were known to only a handful of insiders in the Alpine principality -- and possibly to an account advisor at the German bank.
The management of foreign assets for German clients is "a completely normal process," says a spokesman of Metzler, the Frankfurt private bank. But the deciding factor in determining whether criminal activity was involved, according to the Metzler spokesman, was whether the bank was aware of its client's goal of using the Liechtenstein entity for tax evasion. "As far as our clients were concerned, we assume that this was not the case," says the Metzler spokesman.
Investigators searched the banks office's last Monday, and the public prosecutor's office in Bochum is investigating three of Metzler's employees on the suspicion that they may have been accessories to tax evasion. Hauck & Aufhäuser has also confirmed that it is being investigated, although it declined to comment on the matter.
All of this is turning into ammunition in the context of a growing social confrontation in Germany. The public debate over Germany's Hartz IV welfare reforms and excessively high executive compensation has already drawn attention to the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. While life at the bottom of society is characterized by inadequacy and uncertainty, those at the top are accused of living in excess and eroding the cherished German principle of social solidarity.
The tax affair adds new fodder to this conflict. The left-of-center crowd has only one adversary, executives and tax evaders, and somehow the politicians on the other side of the aisle are lumped into this group. SPD leader Kurt Beck set a precedent when he told the German magazine Stern: "Apparently a lack of a sense of wrongdoing has gradually developed in recent years. When historians look back on this phenomenon, they will probably conclude that it was triggered by the CDU contributions scandal (in 1999), which has never been cleared up."
In this way the battle lines for the coming years are being drawn. Beck is pushing to the left, making common cause between the SPD and the far-left Left Party. Meanwhile, the more irresponsible members of the elite continue to provide the kind of material that allows the left to register its indignation.
The country is becoming emotionally charged, making life more difficult for its more levelheaded citizens. The tax scandal could well represent the final nail in the coffin of Germany's mooted social and economic reforms.
None of this is of much concern to Heinrich Kieber. A week and a half ago, he called his mother, who now lives in the Swiss town of Bellach. Playing the devoted son, Kieber asked his mother about her health. Maria Kieber, who was born in Spain, had a shoulder operation in January. "At that time, he called me once in a while," she says.
She hasn't seen her son in a long time. There was no family get-together at Christmas, which her son spent near San Francisco. Maria Kieber has neither a telephone number nor an address for her son. But this isn't unusual, she adds, saying that he's always been this way, "ever since he finished school." According to his mother, Kieber "likes to travel and he's very athletic. He likes mountain-biking." She says Kieber spent several months in Australia, working and traveling around. He only visited his mother now and again.
Kieber's parents met in Barcelona almost 50 years ago. During a beach vacation, the father, a press photographer from Liechtenstein, stayed in the same hotel as Maria and her parents. The couple married and had three children.
But the marriage didn't last long. Until his death, Kieber's father lived in Liechtenstein with his second wife, a Filipino woman. His first wife moved to Switzerland.
Kieber himself led an unsettled life. He sometimes worked in Liechtenstein, at other times in Switzerland. At one point, when he was working in the computer center of the now bankrupt airline Swissair, he became friends with a pilot.
Kieber never managed to hit it off with women. "My son is a perfectionist and thrifty; he hasn't found the right woman yet," says his mother. She is convinced that her son is innocent, and that he returned the data to its rightful owner at the time.
And the newspaper reports? Completely made up, she says. Her daughter has not been in touch with her brother by email because, as Maria Kieber says, "like me, she doesn't know anything about computers."
Maria Kieber's son turns 43 this year. She doesn't want to reveal the exact date. But she is hoping for a phone call.
BEAT BALZLI, MATTHIAS BARTSCH, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, CONNY NEUMANN, BARBARA SCHMID, HOLGER STARK
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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