Swiss banker who turned to WikiLeaks admits errors

A Swiss banker who claims to have handed WikiLeaks details of rich tax cheats acknowledged Wednesday that he made mistakes in his effort to expose the world of offshore tax evasion.

Minutes before he was found guilty of coercion and breaking Switzerland's strict bank secrecy laws, Rudolf Elmer said his nine-year campaign against former employer Bank Julius Baer was marred by missteps.

"I made big mistakes, I admit that," he told reporters. "I wouldn't say I'm a hero, but also not that I'm a traitor."

Zurich prosecutors alleged that Elmer stole client data after being fired from his job at the Cayman Islands branch of Julius Baer, and then tried to extort money from the Swiss-based bank and its senior executives. Elmer, 55, claims he was being persecuted by the bank.

"I wouldn't say it was revenge, but I defended myself," he told reporters. "That's human nature."

Elmer said he was also trying to expose a widespread system of tax evasion by rich businesspeople and politicians.

Judge Sebastian Aeppli at Zurich's Regional Court sentenced Elmer to a fine of over 6,000 Swiss francs ($6,260), payable if he offends again in the next two years. But the judge rejected prosecution demands to give Elmer an eight-month prison sentence. The ruling can be appealed.

The case has generated intense interest abroad because of the link to WikiLeaks, and in Switzerland, where bank client privacy has a special place in the national psyche.

Several banks in Switzerland and Liechtenstein have suffered embarrassing data leaks in recent years — some at the hands of disgruntled employees. Foreign tax authorities have seized on the leaks to pressure Switzerland into easing its bank secrecy rules.

In his court appearance Wednesday, Elmer admitted sending threatening messages to some bank officials, but insisted he had done so after the bank fired him from his job as chief operating officer in the Cayman Islands and then intimidated him.

He denied issuing a bomb threat against the bank, but admitted threatening to send details on its exclusive offshore clients to tax authorities in Switzerland, Britain and the United States.

Prosecutors acknowledged the information had allowed authorities to launch at least one tax evasion case.

Elmer was fired in 2002 after refusing to take a lie detector test on the Cayman Islands, where he had worked for the bank for eight years. Prosecutors claimed he spent the next few years moving between Switzerland, the Isle of Man, Germany, Austria and Mauritius. At times he is alleged to have offered to sell stolen data back to Julius Baer, at times he threatened to expose what he described as "unethical or even criminal behavior" by the bank's senior management.

"The more I rose professionally at Julius Baer, the more I became involved in illegal activities that were required of me," he told the court.

The bank has denied wrongdoing.

Anti-corruption experts have questioned whether Elmer isn't simply an angry individual trying to harm his former employer.

"Elmer has been trying to portray himself as a whistleblower for a long time," said Daniel Thelesklaf, head of the Basel Institute on Governance, a think tank.

Still, the case helped spur the discussion in Switzerland about why the country's banks are setting up branches on Caribbean islands if not to help clients exploit tax loopholes, said Thelesklaf.

On Monday, Elmer staged a dramatic ceremony in London, where he handed over two more data CDs to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, claiming the disks contained names of 2,000 wealthy account holders.

"WikiLeaks should examine the CDs very carefully because they can't afford to put forged documents online," said Thelesklaf.

Prosecutors argued Wednesday that Elmer's London WikiLeaks trip was an example of his persistent efforts to illegally distribute confidential information.

In early 2008, a U.S. judge shut WikiLeaks down for two weeks after a complaint by Julius Baer about Elmer, marking the only time that the secrecy-spilling website has been forced offline for a significant amount of time.