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HSBC Helped Clients Hide Millions, News Report Says

Banking giant HSBC's Swiss operation hid millions of dollars for everyone from arms dealers to celebrities, said a news report based on leaked documents.

"The leaked files, based on the inner workings of HSBC's Swiss private banking arm, relate to accounts holding more than $100 billion," the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said in its story. "They provide a rare glimpse inside the super-secret Swiss banking system — one the public has never seen before."

The story, which was based on documents a former HSBC employee gave to French tax authorities in 2007, was also published by the BBC and the Guardian in Britain and Le Monde in France.

Among the main findings: The clients of HSBC Private Bank's Swiss unit included arms traffickers and those trading in blood diamonds; current and former politicians from Britain, Russia, Ukraine and India held accounts at the bank; the bank assured clients it would not disclose details of accounts to national authorities; and discussed measures to avoid paying taxes in their home countries.

Franco Morra, chief executive of HSBC's Swiss bank, said the unit "began a radical transformation in 2008 to prevent its services from being used to evade taxes or launder money."

The data cover more than $100 billion from more than 100,000 clients in 203 countries. Most of the data in the story dates from 1988 to 2007.

NPR's Jim Zarroli says: "The document release comes at a time when the secretive Swiss banking industry has been under investigation by the United States and other countries for helping its wealthy clients conceal their assets."

In late 2012, the bank was fined $1.9 billion by the U.S. for money laundering.