Swiss open money-laundering Russian tax probe

Swiss prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into suspected money-laundering after a U.S. investor claimed that Russian tax officials used Swiss bank accounts to engage in fraud.

The probe was launched March 7 after Switzerland's Money Laundering Reporting Office received a complaint from a law firm on behalf of the London-based Hermitage Capital Management, the federal prosecutors' office said Friday.

Hermitage claims the husband of a former Moscow tax official used bank accounts at Credit Suisse to make million-dollar property purchases after she approved a fraudulent $230 million tax return for three of Hermitage's subsidiaries. Their ownership documents had earlier been seized by officials at Russia's Interior Ministry, who used them to register their own people as owners and directors before filing the fraudulent tax claim, according to William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage, an investment company.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office declined Friday to confirm whether any Swiss accounts had been frozen or provide further details on the case, citing the investigation.

Officials at Russia's embassy in the Swiss capital of Bern couldn't be reached for comment Friday, but the Kremlin has previously claimed that the Interior Ministry officials were tricked by outsiders.

Browder, who was barred from Russia in 2005 for unspecified reasons, has been waging a campaign against corruption in Russia for years. He accuses Russian authorities of being responsible for the death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after being charged with tax evasion linked to the Hermitage fraud.

The American-born investor says Hermitage has compiled extensive evidence linking expensive property purchases via Swiss bank accounts to Olga Stepanova, who headed Moscow's district tax office No. 28 until this January.

"We've done a very detailed forensic investigation where we learned that Olga Stepanova, her husband, had a number of accounts at Credit Suisse in Zurich," Browder said.

Copies of bank account statements and property registration papers provided to The Associated Press show Stepanova's husband, an employee of a small construction firm, wired money through Credit Suisse accounts to build an $8 million luxury house west of Moscow, and buy a vacation home in Montenegro and multi-million dollar properties on the Palm Jumeriah in Dubai in the name of his 85-year-old mother.

Credit Suisse said it couldn't comment "on any potential client relationships." But a spokesman said the bank would take any allegations of possible wrongdoing very seriously.

"Credit Suisse complies with all applicable laws and regulations including those relating to anti-money laundering," said Alex Biscaro. "We are confident that we have a sound control framework with the necessary internal policies."

Magnitsky died of pancreatitis that was left untreated in Russian custody. The case is being scrutinized as a barometer of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's commitment to the rule of law.