Warning signs of the instability of the global financial system abounded in the months leading up to the 2008 Lehman Brothers crash. Among these early signs were the astounding revelations about UBS, the world’s largest private bank, by Stephanie Gibaud, who was employee at the bank’s French division. Gibaud refused instructions given to her and other employees to delete all their company files. In doing so, she helped reveal a vast web of corruption and fraud linking UBS to a shadowy tax evasion scheme. More than 15 years later, Gibaud has endured harassment, professional ostracization, lawsuits, and threats. She joins The Chris Hedges Report to speak on her ordeal and the extent of corruption in the international banking system.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley
Post-Production: Adam Coley, Kayla Rivara
Chris Hedges: Stephanie Gibaud in June, 2008, was ordered by one of her managers at the UBS Bank in Paris, to destroy all her computer files that related to customers with offshore accounts in Switzerland. The order came in the wake of the 2007 American banker, Bradley Birkenfeld’s disclosure of client information to the US Department of Justice, which suggested that UBS was facilitating massive tax evasion schemes for its American clients, which ultimately led to a penalty of $780 million. Swiss banks have long been havens for those seeking to avoid taxes. In 2014, for example, Credit Suisse, which would also plead guilty to sheltering money for its clients so they could avoid paying taxes, had to pay $2.6 billion in penalties.
Gibaud, however, was the only bank employee at UBS who refused to delete her files. She protested to UBS management and French regulators. Her documents would eventually help to identify 38,000 offshore bank accounts amounting to $12 billion. UBS responded by trying to fire her as part of a mass redundancy of 100 employees during the 2008 financial crisis. The French Ministry of Work intervened, but her life at UBS became excruciating. She suffered harassment and discrimination along with social and professional isolation. She endured constant anxiety and depression. UBS fired her finally in 2012. She was sued for defamation by the bank after writing her book, The Woman Who Knew Too Much, part of a series of lawsuits that plague her to this day.
She requested compensation totaling 3.5 million euros and the judge gave her 4,500 euros, which barely covered her legal fees. UBS was eventually forced to pay a record fine in 2019 of $4.9 billion, but Gibaud found herself financially ruined and blacklisted from the financial sector where she had spent her career. The French legal system does not compensate whistleblowers, unlike the US. The Commodities Future Trading Commission, for example, recently awarded an anonymous whistleblower around $200 million for providing information about Deutsche Bank’s manipulation of the LIBOR benchmark. Birkenfeld, who exposed UBS’s offshore accounts for American clients, was handed a check from the US Treasury for $104 million, minus taxes. Gibaud is currently battling in the French courts to become the first legally recognized whistleblower, which could pave the way for greater protection and compensation.
Joining me from France to discuss global banking, fraud, the fate of whistleblowers, and her case, is Stephanie Gibaud, author of The Woman Who Knew Too Much and Whistleblowers: The Man Hunt.
Let’s go back to UBS, to the culture which you knew well because it sets the stage for what happened. You were working with some of the wealthiest, most high-profile clients at the bank, but describe what you did, and describe the culture.
Stephanie Gibaud: Thanks for your invitation, Chris. Good afternoon to you and to everyone. At UBS I was in charge of marketing and communication. I was hired in Paris in 1999, so almost 25 years ago when the bank was opening in France, because as you know, UBS is a Swiss bank. It used to mean Union Banks of Switzerland. They opened in France at the same time as they opened in Spain because the Swiss were anticipating that both France and Spain would follow suit with the Italian government, headed by Berlusconi by that time, who had done his Codice Fiscale, which means that Italy allowed all their citizens who had offshore accounts to bring them back without penalties.
So I was hired by the French subsidiary and I was here to promote the image of the bank. And the budgets I had were quite important. And I was managing VIP events such as VIP tickets for the football World Cup, for the rugby World Cup, for tennis tournaments. I was in charge of having private concerts for the clients, and fashion shows for the clients, and everything was really tailor-made because the clients UBS deals with are the wealthiest people on the planet who can buy everything. The only thing that they cannot buy is emotion. So if you offer them a concert with a very famous star, then they can have a drink or have dinner with this person and it creates lots of emotion. Another example is if you have a Ferrari, you are not allowed to drive on the Maranello circuit in Italy, but with UBS you can because of the partnership with the brand. These are a couple of examples I’m giving you.
My job was somehow to travel all over the country and develop partnerships, visit places, and find ideas to entertain the clients and prospects, which means trying and finding new clients. And this is what I’ve done for almost 10 years, from 1999 until 2008. And 2008 was like the year where my life stopped because as you said earlier, I was asked to delete the content of my archives on my computer and my boss had asked me to delete the names of all the clients who had been invited to those events for 10 years.
Chris Hedges: What was the purpose of the events? Were they events to recruit them to invest more money? Was it a reward? Was it to make them feel like part of a family? What was the purpose?
Stephanie Gibaud: It’s the three of them. In retail marketing, if you sell a bottle of water or a bottle of whatever, it could be one shot, and if a client drinks a bottle in a hotel or at a restaurant and he never comes back to this brand, it’s not a big deal. But in wealth management, you work on the wealth of the families from one generation to another. So you have a long-term perspective which means that your clients must trust you. The notion of confidence between the bank, the name of the bank, and the name of the banker is of utmost importance. It’s extremely important to understand that and to understand that once you have a client who is extremely wealthy, his contacts, his families, and his partners all are very wealthy, and they can bring them to the bank as well.
If my job as a marketing person is to offer them top-notch events, tailor-made events according to whether they like tennis, opera, or whatever, football, rugby, or golf, if you are able to target them on what they love, they will think that the service of the bank, in terms of handling their wealth, will be the same.
You must know very well who your clients are. So the purpose of those events, it’s at a huge stake. It’s not only to entertain and to have fun. This is one side, and this is somehow what one can see from outside, but it’s really making sure that the client trusts you. Because when you are very wealthy, you don’t have one bank, you have several banks. You share your wealth with different financial players. So it’s important for the banks to play better than others. UBS has always been renowned as the best bank in the world and the oldest wealth manager on earth. They are about 200-250 years old. Everyone who’s wealthy knows UBS. The knowledge of the bank is really, really high. So the stakes of these events are entertaining people, but it’s being very close to them and very confident in the relationship to make sure that they will introduce the banker to the families and to their partners, and develop more business.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about 2008. First of all, when you were asked to delete your files, did you have a good sense – You’d been in the system, been in the bank a long time – Of the amorality of the bank? Because of course, these were offshore accounts so they didn’t have to pay taxes. The wealthy French investors didn’t pay taxes like the wealthy American investors. Or did that come as a shock? And then explain briefly why you did not delete your files.
Stephanie Gibaud: What happens is that… It’s extremely complicated, so I will try to make it simple. I had never received any training at UBS regarding offshore accounts, offshore banking, money laundering, about tax evasion. I had never heard those words, believe it or not, but I’m telling you the truth: I have never heard about that. You had a department working on financial optimization but I am not a banker and I was not working with those people so I had no idea what it could be about.
Secondly, I was working with the president, I was working with the general manager, because they’re the ones who signed my budgets. And they had always told me that UBS in France referred to the French authorities – Which is Banque de France, Bank of France, the equivalent of the SEC in the United States, Autorité des marchés financiers, L’Autorité de contrôle prudentiel, this is the equivalent of the SEC – And that UBS France respects all the rules.
Why would I ever have questioned the word of my general manager and of my presidents? They are the ones I was working with all the time. And when I was asked to delete those files in the summer of 2008, I could not understand why there was a problem with the content of my files. I thought that they wanted to get rid of me. In France, I’ve given lots of interviews where I was telling the journalist, but it’s as if your publisher was asking you to delete all the press articles, or all the videos, or all the interviews you had done in your career. You would wonder why. It wouldn’t make sense. So for me, it was the same. I was like, why are they asking me to get rid of my archives and my computer files?
So somehow I pulled a string. I started asking questions. And what happened back in 2008 – So it was before the big financial crisis we had – Is that in the US, your country, UBS was going under lots of stress. Let me remind you of two things: First, you had the subprime crisis. And UBS was the bank, the non-American bank, the most involved in this subprime crisis. This was UBS Investment Bank. Then, all of a sudden, we heard about the Madoff story, Madoff, who was also an American person who had created this Ponzi scheme and who made lots of clients lose money. I can’t remember the figure. Isn’t it $62 billion? And we heard from the media that UBS in Luxembourg was the one managing the fund which was another shock. And this was the asset management bank.
But UBS’s third pillar is the wealth management pillar, which is the oldest one, which has helped to develop the reputation of the bank worldwide. And because of Bradley Birkenfeld, we all heard the news by that time, we were opening the newspaper in the offices, and we all heard, we all read, totally flabbergasted that this American guy who was working for UBS in Geneva was helping his American clients cheat on taxes. That when he was going through customs he was hiding diamonds for his clients in toothpaste. It’s a James Bond movie. And you are like, what is that? What is the bank I’m working in? It’s like the Titanic but it’s not one iceberg, it’s three icebergs at the same time. At the same time, we’re all very busy. At UBS you’re busy 500% of your time. So as I was going from one place to another, I did not pay attention to all that until I realized that something was not right anymore.
A bank like UBS is a bit like a submarine. To give you an image, everything has partitions so that somehow you never know what your neighbor in the office on your left, in front of you, on your right, or even your colleague, you don’t know what they do on a daily basis. There are no exchanges between people. And somehow because of this compartmentalized structure, I understood that these schemes were possible. I would never have imagined what the most powerful bank in the world was doing worldwide, what somehow Birkenfeld was declaring it was doing. For me and for many people, Birkenfeld was someone who was a bit strange. Why would you declare that you helped your clients cheat taxes? It’s very strange.
And somehow at the beginning, we all thought that it was an American story until the media did their work. Sometimes they do it better than others but all the news was about UBS. In the US but in Europe as well because of the subprime crisis, because of Madoff, because of the financial crisis as well, and because of Birkenfeld. Before Birkenfeld, nobody had heard on an international scale talking about tax evasion and the way he was explaining it.
So what happened? Because UBS is a big structure and is able to defend itself and is able to be surrounded by very good advisors, UBS has changed all its procedures. And somehow because of the Birkenfeld story, we in France – But the same in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, the US, Belgium, Germany, Israel, in Argentina – Everywhere where UBS had offices, all the procedures changed. One day I received a document saying that Swiss bankers could not meet their clients in the Paris office anymore and I understood that I could not talk to my Geneva colleagues anymore. That was forbidden but because it was extremely structured, you never had the full picture, only the top knows. And this –
Chris Hedges: I want to stop there. I want to stop there because I want to make sure we get everything in, what they’ve done to you afterward. So you don’t destroy your documents, you give your documents to French regulators. Those documents are used to uncover fraud. They try and fire you.
Talk about the three years you spent – Because I remember you saying that in some ways you’ve never even recovered from that daily social isolation, harassment, and discrimination – Talk about those three years, and then let’s go into what they have done to you since because they have not let up. Even up to last week, they have not let up in terms of using their legal resources to make your life miserable. And then of course you’ve been blacklisted. You can’t work within the financial sector at all.
Stephanie Gibaud: Well, many whistleblowers may use the same words as the one I’m going to use: You killed the messenger. You don’t talk about the message of the messenger. So at UBS, I all of a sudden became a black sheep. I was the one to be eliminated because I started asking lots of questions. And in a bank like UBS, you do not ask questions. You have to comply with the rules, the rules of the bank, even if they are illegal.
So I suffered terribly. I was supposed to be made redundant in 2009 but the Minister of Work said that I had to stay within the bank. As a mother of two kids, I was suffering a depression. I could not even look for jobs somewhere else. I was really low. I was in a state of weakness. I was crying all the time. So as you said, I was harassed and isolated. I remember entering the cafeteria and colleagues when I was entering, all of them were leaving. Or if I was having a coffee on my own, when someone was entering, he or she was leaving. It’s a state where all of a sudden it’s as if you were not a human being anymore. It’s as if you were, I don’t know –
Chris Hedges: A leper.
Stephanie Gibaud: – Yes. You see that instructions are being given to people that if you dare approach her, your future will be the same, which means no future. So the culture of fear, the culture of distrust is everywhere in the world. We can see that in many multinational companies. And all the ones who have tried to speak up in any multinational companies, not only in banks, have suffered the same fate: You are the black sheep.
So I suffered terribly. I had to stop working, I was on medication, and I had to raise my kids. They were quite young at that time. It’s been extremely difficult. And I would’ve thought, because everyone knew me at the bank, somehow I had fun working compared to the others who are bankers or financial advisors, or you have all the controlling accounting departments, which are totally different from my mission. So everyone knew me. Everyone always needed an umbrella, or golf tees, or a cap, because UBS was sponsoring all of these… America’s Cup, regattas, et cetera. I always had someone in my office asking for something. I had a very social job, a very nice position. And all of a sudden you don’t travel anymore. You are not allowed to see anybody. You are not allowed to send an email to your colleagues to inform them of the program of the week or the newsletter, et cetera.
So what is the core of your life, what is the core of your job, is taken away from you. So instead of dying as you would die with a bullet in your head or with cancer, you die little by little, step by step. Your identity is being taken away from you. Your job is being taken away from you. You do not attend the meetings anymore because you’re not invited anymore. You do not travel anymore, although you were traveling all the time. And little by little you are the shadow of yourself. It’s terrifying.
Chris Hedges: Stephanie, I want to stop there. First of all, I don’t believe any of the major bank figures who orchestrated the tax fraud, although UBS had to pay fines, their careers were not only not disrupted, but many of them were promoted. Am I correct?
Stephanie Gibaud: Absolutely, absolutely true.
Chris Hedges: And then I want to talk about what they’ve done to you since. So eventually they fire you from the bank. And then you have spent – And go all the way up to last week because you were in court last week – They have used the legal apparatus to relentlessly go after you. And you don’t have the resources to pay these lawyers. So it’s been financially draining, emotionally draining. Even though you win most of the cases. That’s not the point. The point is to keep you tied up in court and keep you harassed.
Stephanie Gibaud: The message sent is to set an example. It’s to show others that somehow they are subjects not to talk, subjects not to discuss, subjects not to even think of. Because when people talk about tax evasion, whether they are politicians, whether they are NGOs, whether they’re journalists, they talk about something extremely vague. When you name, you don’t name a tax paradise. We don’t know who’s behind it. We don’t say which country.
But here in France, I’m talking about a bank and I’m talking about people. And I’m talking about an experience I’ve had for 13 years. So I was extremely precise in what I did. And this is why the French administration was able to fine UBS, as you explained in the introduction, with the biggest fine ever, a couple of years back. And you would think that this would lead to promoting the work of the ones who stand up and who say no, I don’t want to be part of that. I don’t want to be someone deleting files. I don’t want to be someone being made guilty of the accomplice of that. I filed a complaint against UBS when I understood that my job – Which was not only an entertaining job – Was helping rich clients evade taxes. Because Swiss bankers were not allowed to be on our territory, I should have been protected by the French state. I was put at risk by my company.
Chris Hedges: Well, there was also… We are running out of time, but there was also a series of disturbing incidents in your personal life. You were being followed. At one point they broke into your apartment. We don’t know who. These are dark forces. It’s not only the legal harassment but there was a very clear physical harassment that one can suppose or suspect came from UBS.
Stephanie Gibaud: From UBS, or some policemen have advised me, from services. I will give you an example. My dog was poisoned in our Paris apartment an evening when my son and I were having dinner outside in France. When we came back to the apartment, we found our dog laying in one of the corridors. All the lights in the apartment were on. Nothing was stolen, no drawers open, nothing was missing except our dog was laying in one of the corridors and all the lights were on.
The police went home. They called all our neighbors. Nobody has seen anyone, nobody has heard anything. But the weirdest thing is that we don’t even know how they entered because our door was not broken, nor were the windows. And so some policemen came to me and said burglars don’t do these things. It must be people who are very well trained. And we have ideas of who could have done that. So because of that, I had to write to the Prime Minister, I had to write to the head of the police in France. And we tried to understand what could have happened. And guess what, Chris? No answer.
Chris Hedges: Let’s close with last week. You were in court again last week. What happened?
Stephanie Gibaud: What you have to understand is that I’ve been at court versus UBS for 13 years. But this past six years I’ve also been in court versus the French administration. What we didn’t have time to say is that as of 2011, the French customs, which are part of the Ministry of Finances, have asked me to work for them and give them very confidential information regarding the UBS clients, namely because I didn’t delete my files. I worked with these people for more than a year in a weakened state.
As I told you, I was extremely stressed with the situation at UBS. So they knew I was working on very sensible information and that I was the mother of two children. And that working with them was, for me, it was obvious that they would protect me because they are sworn officers. And somehow after I’d given them all that they wanted about the clients, the processes, et cetera, they threw me out. They never did anything for me. So I took them to court and I won. I won. And I was given the title of collaborator of the public service. So as a collaborator, you’re supposed to be paid for your work. And also you’re supposed to be protected. And they have since refused to pay me. So I had to take them to court again last year and I won another time which was very good because the judge said the Ministry of Finances has to pay Mrs. Gibaud for what she’s done for your administration.
It’s the first time in this period of 13 years that they appealed the case. And last week, they won. The judge said that the Ministry of Finances was right, that when they argued that my information was not precise enough, they already had my information. The information I had provided was before 2017 and they haven’t used it since, so I would never get any reward for what I have done. And this is the worst because I had always thought that my enemy was UBS. When I say enemy, the entity I was fighting was UBS. But somehow, is UBS my enemy or is it the French state that used my information that somehow abused the fact that I was in a weakened state to get all the information and then put me aside, while at the same time I was given the status of whistleblower.
And whistleblowers in France are supposed to be protected. And I was also given the title of collaborator of the public service which is also supposed to be protected and rewarded. And a judge who’s a woman – Because this is what it is in this banking world of men and the Ministry of Finances is also lots of men, whom I’ve seen them – And I was like, is it because I’m a woman that this happens to me? Because we see all these international cases with all these men who either turned out to be extremely rich or who have lots of support. Here in Europe, we can think of Legilux. You had two French guys going to court in Luxembourg. And you had NGOs and media, and politicians left and right-wing supporting them. With me, there’s absolutely nobody. And this is terrible.
I am wondering what is going to happen in the next weeks because nobody knows who are those tax cheaters. Out of the list of 40,000 offshore clients, two stories have been public in France and I will name one of them for your auditors to understand. We had the minister of budget called Jérôme Cahuzac, and François Hollande’s presidency who was saying he was fighting tax evasion. However, it happened that Mr. Cahuzac had an offshore account with UBS in Geneva. And guess what? It was a couple of millions of euros or Swiss francs, which were bribes, bribes from big pharma, namely from Pfizer, which helped to finance political parties in France.
When you hear what I’m saying, it is so sensible that no one, nobody, not even investigative journalists has dared touch this information yet. It’s absolutely crazy because I’m asking for help and nobody is here. There’s absolutely nobody. My state, France, the so-called country of human rights, said it protects whistleblowers, it protects people who are persecuted as persons, not only as a whistleblower, but as a mother, as a woman. I wrote to François Hollande several times saying, we have two guys; One is American, one is Australian, one is Assange, and the other is Snowden, who have disclosed information regarding the fact that our country was being listened to. And you do not protect them and you don’t want to offer them asylum? But isn’t this very hypocritical?” And there are no answers.
And with all these laws that somehow protect whistleblowers, what sign is France showing everyone? Because there is something extremely tricky in my case. This is not normal. And what do you do once you have a file like mine? The only answer we can have is that I cannot handle the case anymore. Now it has to be in the hands of the French citizens. Because who is going to be a whistleblower after that? Who is going to be willing to help the French state? Who is going to believe that we are a country of human rights, welcoming persecuted people with what they’ve done to Assange and to Snowden, refusing protection?
It’s very sad. I am in a state of shock because somehow I do not know how things are going to be in the future. This is the culture of lies. We know it. We know it with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks celebrated its 17th anniversary yesterday and Assange is still in jail in England. But we know that wars are being made out of lies.
But my story, it’s another big lie. It’s a tyranny somewhere. I don’t even have the words because it’s not a question of justice. We all have to question what is ethical within the justice, with a judgment like the one I received last week. In France when a judge pronounces a judgment, it is in the name of the people of France. And I declare to a French journalist, is this judgment in the name of the French people? So somehow in my name or is it in the name of the tax cheaters, which are so powerful that somehow they bribe our politicians, and they bribe all the ones ruling our country? It’s absolutely terrifying.
Chris Hedges: Great, we’re going to stop there. That was Stephanie Gibaud, author of The Woman Who Knew Too Much, as well as Whistleblowers: The Man Hunt. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.