Liechtenstein has launched a preliminary investigation against a man at the center of an international tax evasion scandal, prosecutors said Wednesday, as pressure grew from major countries demanding to know if their citizens have been hiding wealth in the small Alpine principality.
Heinrich Kieber is suspected of stealing sensitive customer data from his former employer, the Liechtenstein bank LGT Treuhand, and selling it to German investigators, officials said.
The Liechtenstein government said in a statement that Kieber and other unidentified suspects were being investigated for allegedly leaking company secrets to a foreign entity and that requests for legal assistance had been sent to authorities in the German cities of Bochum and Munich.
Prosecutors said Kieber's current whereabouts were not known.
The German government said last week that its intelligence service paid an informant as much as euro5 million (US$7.3 million) for a list of account holders. Authorities in Liechtenstein have condemned the purchase of confidential data.
The list of 1,400 customer names, contained on DVDs that LGT Treuhand says were copied by Kieber in 2002, have sparked a wide-ranging tax evasion probe across Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.
German prosecutors say their investigation has so far netted 163 people and led to the recovery of more than euro27 million (US$40 million) in tax revenue.
French Budget Minister Eric Woerth said British authorities gave France a list that names around 200 French taxpayers and that French tax authorities are now looking into the case. He refused to identify any of those named.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said it has started "enforcement action" involving more than 100 American taxpayers to ensure proper income reporting and tax payment connected with accounts in Liechtenstein.
"It should be clear from recent events that there is no safe hiding place for the proceeds of tax avoidance and evasion," IRS Acting Commissioner Linda Stiff said in a statement. "Anyone with hidden income and gains would be well-advised to make a prompt and complete disclosure to the Internal Revenue Service."
The Australian Taxation Office said it was working with authorities from other countries _ including Britain, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden and the U.S. _ on the Liechtenstein case.
Commissioner Michael D'Ascenzo said the office has already begun 20 audits concerning possible Australian investments in the principality.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declined to go into details at a news conference Wednesday, but said, "Tax laws of the country are there to be adhered to it; doesn't matter where you are, doesn't matter what your occupation is, that's your first obligation."
New Zealand's Inland Revenue Department said Wednesday it was trying to entice any New Zealanders who may also be involved to come forward.
Commissioner of Inland Revenue Robert Russell warned that taxpayers' assumptions that Inland Revenue may not be able to obtain information from other states "are no longer safe in today's environment of international cooperation."