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2015 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Swiss Leaks: Murky Cash Sheltered by Bank Secrecy

About the Project

It began as a David versus Goliath mismatch. A small Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit newsroom takes on the world’s second largest bank, facing down multiple legal threats and an injunction to tell how the bank profited from doing business with arms dealers, blood diamond traffickers and global tax dodgers.

It ended with the first-ever raid by Swiss authorities on a Swiss bank, criminal proceedings in multiple countries and the bank taking out full-page advertisements in Sunday newspapers in Britain apologizing for its actions.

The slingshot used by the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was to convince more than 170 investigative journalists from 55 countries to work together on the project.

Along the way the journalists created an almost entirely data-driven project that grew into the biggest collaboration in journalism history.

The ICIJ obtained via the French newspaper Le Monde 60,000 files with names and assets of over 100,000 clients of the Swiss branch of HSBC bank. Politicians, royalty, influential public figures, celebrities and criminals from more than 200 countries held assets worth $100 billion. The information had been stolen by a former employee of the bank and shared with French and other tax authorities, but – despite numerous attempts – no journalist had been able to obtain a copy of the data.

Though the reporting started with raw information on hitherto secret accounts, ICIJ wanted to do more with this data than just publish a list of famous names. The complex data work started with a re-engineering of the client database, which ended up forming a network of thousands of nodes that we mined through social networking analysis tools.

The key to the investigation was that ICIJ shared all the data securely with reporters around the world through a custom-built online platform. To foster collaboration, ICIJ also implemented a cloud-based solution that served as a “virtual newsroom” to exchange tips and share story ideas.

A systematic analysis of internal bank notes showed that HSBC was aware of wrongdoing by many clients. Some visited the Swiss offices to make discreet cash withdrawals in person.

ICIJ performed identifications to associate the data to countries and make it relevant for the journalists invited into the project.

The data analysis was shared among the journalists and was complemented with old-fashioned shoeleather reporting and a thorough review of public records. One of the hardest parts of the investigation was trying to locate hundreds of individuals, seeking their comment.

In addition to the stories we produced, our data team created a responsive, interactive application that allowed users to see the key facts of their country in connection to the leak, such as the number of clients, their type of accounts and the public figures in the data. The app was embedded in many of the partners’ websites and received millions of pageviews. It later formed the basis of hundreds of follow-up articles in other media outlets.

Minutes after we published, the #swissleaks hashtag trended on Twitter for days. The huge public reaction created pressure for a swift response from governments and authorities, including the raid by Swiss authorities and a criminal investigation against HSBC in France where the prosecutor set bail for at €1 billion (about US$1.06 billion).

Aside from the bank itself, more than 50 French individuals face criminal or civil charges, with the first hearing in a Paris court being that of the heir to the Nina Ricci fashion and perfume company fortune. She was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in prison with two of them suspended.

By then the bank’s initial hostile attitude – including a threatened injunction in Britain and legal action in the U.S. – had well and truly changed. It issued a statement that it was “accountable for past compliance and control failures” and took out full-page advertisements in the British Sunday newspapers to issue a public apology.

In a statement to the London Stock Exchange in March, HSBC announced plans to shuffle the roles of several members of its board.

By then the bank’s share price had plummeted by several billion dollars.

Bank leaders were repeatedly and publicly hauled before the British Parliament. One, a former employee of the bank who had become head of the BBC Trust, was publicly urged to resign. The stories became a major issue in the May 2015 UK election and led to a new law in Britain, punishing bankers and financial managers caught facilitating tax evasion.

In the United States, Loretta Lynch’s nomination to be federal attorney general was passed by the Senate judiciary committee despite questions over her 2012 prosecution of HSBC for alleged money laundering and the subsequent agreement she made with the bank.

Inquiries, prosecutions and public hearings occurred in Argentina, Belgium, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Nepal, Macedonia, Namibia, Ghana, El Salvador, Tunisia and Tanzania. In Malta, there were calls for an investigation after two former government ministers were shown with Swiss accounts, including one with more than $3 million allegedly undeclared. Similarly, in Montenegro the wife of a former president of Serbia and Montenegro was shown with an undeclared $3.8 million account.

Authorities in Germany, Greece, Finland, Norway and Denmark said they would demand access to more of the data from France.