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Swiss banks may have destroyed documents

BERN, Dec. 8 (JTA) — A panel probing Swiss banks’ handling of Holocaust-era dormant accounts has found several instances in which individual banks destroyed records pertinent to the investigation.

As a result of these findings, Swiss police have begun a criminal probe that may target the banks involved, JTA has learned.

“At one large commercial bank there were four instances of irregular document destruction that were reported by an audit firm,” according to the panel, formally known as the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons and headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

The long-awaited report, which was issued Monday, did not name the bank.

But because one of the four instances it referred to involved Christoph Meili — a night guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland who in January 1997 made headlines when he rescued sensitive Holocaust-era documents from the bank’s shredder — it was clear which “large commercial bank” the report had in mind.

UBS, along with Credit Suisse, last year agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement of all claims surrounding Switzerland’s handling of Holocaust victims’ assets.

In addition to the Meili case, the report issued by the Volcker Commission detailed three other instances in which UBS had destroyed documents that may have been relevant to the investigation.

The report also singled out another case of document destruction at another bank, the Banque Cantonale Vaudoise.

In addition, the report said there were a “very few instances” in which other banks in Swiss cantons, or states, had destroyed documents.

In the view of the Volcker Commission, each of these cases was illegal.

During the past three years, the commission employed some 650 auditors at a cost of about $300 million to comb through the records of 59 Swiss banks.

Reviewing the overall record of the banks it audited, the commission said in its report that it had found “no evidence of systematic destruction” of records.

But at the same time, the report also said it had “confirmed evidence of questionable and deceitful actions by some individual banks” in handling the accounts of Holocaust victims.

Reacting to the report’s findings regarding those “individual banks,” the Swiss Federal Police have instructed local police officials in Zurich and Lausanne to open criminal probes to see whether any of those banks had violated a 1996 federal decree that sought to block the destruction of pertinent bank records.

“We have started the necessary investigations,” the chief of the federal police told JTA.

(JTA Foreign Editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)

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