Swiss bank UBS under cloud for secret accounts

As the glitterati jet in for Art Basel Miami Beach, the Swiss banking giant UBS — the event's main sponsor — plans to fete a gaggle of elite clients, as in years past, with lavish parties at the swank Setai, Delano and Tides.

But a little more than a week before the start of this year's art festival, UBS remains under the cloud of a massive investigation into its alleged role in helping wealthy U.S. clients avoid paying taxes by sheltering their money in secret offshore accounts.

U.S. authorities are demanding the names of thousands of investors who counted on Swiss secrecy laws, and Swiss discretion, to keep their financial affairs private. One client, a part-time Lighthouse Point resident unmasked early in the probe, has been forced to pay $52 million in back taxes and penalties.

Some of the bankers' alleged deeds seem downright unbankerly: smuggling diamonds into the United States in a toothpaste tube; using encrypted computers to conduct transactions; lying to U.S. immigration agents that business trips were for nonbusiness purposes; slipping from hotel to hotel to elude detection.

It is all the more unseemly because UBS, one of the world's largest banks, has a distinguished history in Switzerland and has cultivated a corporate image as a patron of high culture, sponsoring tennis tournaments, yachting competitions and, of course, Art Basel.

But federal prosecutors say these events and others served as fertile turf where bankers could mingle with affluent Americans and persuade them to become bank clients.

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