Spanish court to question Santander, BNP bankers in HSBC tax probe

By Angus Berwick and Jesús Aguado
FILE PHOTO: The logo on the building of HSBC's London headquarters appears through the early morning mist in London's Canary Wharf financial district, Britain March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Russell Boyce/File Photo

By Angus Berwick and Jesús Aguado

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's High Court is to question seven current and former Banco Santander bankers, including a current non-executive board member, as part of a probe triggered by leaks of tax information from HSBC's Swiss private bank.

The court said in a ruling published on Wednesday it had decided to summon the bankers after analysing documents provided by Santander and French bank BNP Paribas over the past year, as well as reports from Bank of Spain inspectors.

These documents and reports revealed funds were moved between Santander, BNP and HSBC, hidden from tax authorities, which could constitute money laundering, Judge Jose de la Mata said in the ruling on Wednesday.

Three current and former bankers from BNP Paribas's Spanish unit would also be summoned to the hearings which are set to begin on June 12, he added.

Santander, the euro zone's largest bank by market value, said in a statement it had complied with the law at all time and had actively cooperated with the court by providing all the documentation and information requested.

Representatives for BNP Paribas Spain declined to comment, while the bankers named could not immediately be reached.

The Spanish investigation is one of many by national tax authorities as a result of the leak in 2008 of client data belonging to HSBC's private bank by Herve Falciani, a former IT employee at the bank. France, Austria, Belgium and Argentina have launched their own investigations.

Falciani, a French citizen, has said he is a whistleblower trying to help governments track down citizens who used Swiss accounts to evade tax. In 2015 a Swiss court sentenced him, in his absence, to five years in prison for aggravated industrial espionage.

The High Court said it will question Ignacio Benjumea Cabeza de Vaca, former head of Santander's analysis and resolution committee and a current non-executive board member; Jose Manuel Araluce Larraz, former head of compliance; and five other current and former senior compliance officials at the Spanish bank.

Reuters was not immediately able to contact Benjumea Cabeza de Vaca, while Araluce Larraz did not reply to a message via LinkedIn.

The court also said it will question Jose Andres Fernandez Espejel, former head of compliance at BNP Paribas Spain, and two other senior compliance officials. Fernandez Espejel did not reply to a Linkedin message sent by Reuters.

Under the Spanish legal system people can be named as formal suspects until a more detailed investigation is carried out.

Between 2005 and 2008, HSBC's Swiss private bank channelled almost 74 million euros ($81 million) through Santander to pay clients at other banks, according to the court ruling. The transfers had stopped by 2010, after the banks began to request identification from people making and receiving transfers.

(Editing by Julien Toyer, Alexander Smith and David Evans)

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