Lucifer’s Banker by Bradley C. Birkenfeld (Greenleaf, November, 2016) opens like a James Bond movie, which is no accident. Let’s make one thing clear: this is a true story. As a private banker for Swiss-based UBS, Birkenfeld lived a life a swaggering luxury, including all the usual trappings: Ferraris, babes, ultra-expensive champagne, and money that flowed like water. And just like water, that kind of money could be invisible — quietly, stealthily flowing into offshore accounts, unseen, unscrutinized, and anonymous.
Birkenfeld was one of the willing quarterbacks of offshore banking, secreting enormous sums away into numbered accounts for his super-wealthy clients. Pay taxes on it? Never. Just work with a banker like Birkenfeld, and the IRS will never know it exists. But this is a book about a whistleblower, not just a lifestyle. And as such, it’s a perfect (and suspenseful) chronicle of our time.
Birkenfeld essentially has to turn on his own employers, stricken by a distinctly capitalist morality — part ethics, part self-protection. Scratch that — it’s all ethics, and it’s all self-protection; Birkenfeld has megadoses of both. He’s mortified by the shady dealings happening behind the fortress of UBS. But he’s triggered into full-blown self-preservation mode after discovering that UBS had a plan to throw their own employee to the wolves.
Birkenfeld, a canny survivor if ever there was one, channels his outrage and fighting instinct into an act of total audacity as far as the global banking industry is concerned. He arms himself with shockingly coherent, detailed information and long lists of client names, connects all the dots, and offers it all to the U.S. Department of Justice. And winds up in solitary confinement.
This first-person account of one man’s journey to justice and vindication is a page-turner with a difference: this one man singlehandedly smashes down the walls of Swiss banking. The secrecy surrounding Swiss accounts wasn’t just a byproduct: it was law, legislated by the Swiss government in 1934. And from nearly the beginning, this was megabanking that assumed an intentionally neutral, no-questions-asked, no-names-given stance, no matter the client. Dictators, warlords, industrialists, slavers, politicians, magnates, and — yes — presidential candidates and terrorists alike — all have hidden their largesse thanks to banks like UBS. Which makes the concept of neutrality anything but neutral.
Reading this book is like getting schooled in why the world is so screwed up: power and money. Power may corrupt, but money greases the wheels, buying weapons, elections, and silence. But Birkenfeld just could not stay silent. As he recounts his struggle to be exonerated, it’s clear he was meant to be dispensable; a clerk in an enormous global system — it was assumed he’d just take the fall. But this is not a person who gives up. In the book, it’s when he’s discussing his numerous pushbacks, workarounds and brainstorms that his outsized personality comes out. And we’re glad for it. He may be a David, but it takes a David with a Goliath of an ego to win against this particular system.
Win he does. Due to Birkenfeld’s information, the U.S. Department of Justice recovers billions in tax revenue and fines, and he is awarded the largest sum ever given to a financial whistleblower, a whopping $104 million. At this point, any reader would understand if Birkenfeld wants to bow out, buy a small island, and retire. Or if he wants to just disappear behind the smoke of some fine Cuban cigars. Let’s just say Birkenfeld’s a triple-A kind of guy.
He does retire, and he does seem to love his cigars. But he’s not sitting still. Instead, he writes this book, making waves, pointing fingers that need to be pointed, and now, apparently, also consulting with France and other nations as they go after their own tax evaders. He’s also dedicated to helping other whistleblowers get their stories out — and safely. For a high roller with attitude, he’s doing an incredible lot of good.
For more about Bradley C. Birkenfeld and Lucifer’s Banker, see the author’s website.