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Switzerland parliament votes to send US banking treaty to referendum

The Swiss Federal Assembly [official website] on Tuesday approved an agreement [text, PDF] with the US that will allow Swiss bank UBS [corporate website; JURIST news archive] to disclose account information of clients suspected by the US government of tax evasion, but also voted to send it to a referendum. The Swiss National Council [official website], the lower house of parliament, voted 81-61 [NYT report] to pass the treaty, also voting 106-80 to submit it to a popular referendum. The agreement would allow UBS to turn over information of 4,450 US clients to the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) [official website]. The treaty will now return to the Council of States [official website], the upper house of parliament, which voted two weeks ago [AP report] to approve it and forgo a referendum. If the Council of States fails to pass the referendum measure, the two houses will meet in a conciliation conference in order to merge the two proposals, which then must be approved by both houses. The Swiss government hopes to pass a final version of the agreement before parliament adjourns June 18 [DW report] in order to make the information available by August, a deadline it had agreed to with the Obama administration. The soonest possible date for a referendum is early 2011. If the Federal Assembly fails to pass the deal before it adjourns, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] has stated that it will resume a lawsuit against UBS in US federal court in Florida seeking the names of 52,000 UBS clients. The Swiss Federal Tax Administration [official website] has already transmitted the information of 500 UBS clients [AP report] who signed waivers.

Last week, the Swiss National Council voted 104-76 to reject the treaty [JURIST report], opting to send it to a national referendum if they cannot reconcile their differences with the upper house of parliament. The tax conflict has already cost UBS USD 780 million in fines levied by the DOJ for its admitted assistance [BBC report] of US citizens in avoiding taxes. The agreement is currently before the parliament due to a court ruling in January, when the Swiss Federal Administrative Court [official website, in French] ruled [JURIST report] that an American taxpayer's financial information at UBS may not be disclosed to the IRS pursuant to the August 2009 agreement [JURIST report]. The agreement was found to conflict with a previous treaty, requiring the approval of parliament. Also in January, the Federal Administrative Court ruled [JURIST report] that the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority [official website, in German] violated the law in February 2009 when it ordered UBS to disclose information to the US on more than 250 of the bank's clients without the authority to do so. In September, the US and Switzerland signed a treaty [JURIST report] that would increase the amount of information shared between the two nations on would-be tax evaders. The agreement came one month after a Swiss banker and lawyer were indicted in US federal court [JURIST report] for helping clients hide assets. In March 2009, the Swiss announced their intention to adopt a more stringent definition [JURIST report] of tax evasion and to work with other countries to investigate such claims.

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