A federal judge today ordered a Swiss bank doing business for a client in the United States to reveal the name of the client to the Securities and Exchange Commission or face daily fines, ruling that the bank cannot invoke Swiss secrecy laws.
In what could be a precedent-setting ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Milton Pollack said, in effect, that a company doing business in the United States must adhere to U.S. laws or do its business elsewhere.
At issue is an SEC investigation into insider trading abuses surrounding the unsuccessful bid made by Seagram Co., the big Montreal-based distiller, for St. Joe Minerals Corp. The SEC has charged that several unidentified customers of Banca della Svizzer Italiana, based in Lugano, made illegal profits by buying options in St. Joe Minerals knowing that Seagram would announce a takeover.
Once the distiller made the takeover offer, the value of both St. Joe Minerals and the options soared.
Last month the SEC made similar charges against a group of unkown investors who, acting through other Swiss banks, allegedly made illegal profits in Santa Fe International options based on insider information that Kuwait Petroleum was about to make a takeover offer for Santa Fe.
Shortly before the Seagram offer for St. Joe Minerals, Banca della Svizzer Italiana bought 1,000 call options through a U.S. broker on behalf of a bank client. The call options allowed the investor to buy stock at a low price. When the price of St. Joe's stock soared after the Seagram bid, so did the option price.
The bank refused to tell the SEC on whose behalf it bought the stock, citing Swiss bank secrecy laws. A U.S. broker would have had to reveal the name of its client.
Neither the Swiss government nor the U.S. State Department opposed the bank's revealing its client.
Pollack, who said he would hold off signing the order for a week, said it would be a "travesty of justice" for a person or company to enter American markets and then fall back on foreign laws. He said the bank either was doing something wrong itself or "facilitating the misconduct of anonymous customers."