UBS verdict still months away in 4.5 bln euro French tax case

PARIS, March 24 (Reuters) - French judges are set to rule in September on Swiss bank UBS’s delayed appeal against a hefty fine for allegedly helping wealthy clients stash undeclared assets offshore.

UBS is looking to overturn a 2019 French court ruling in which it was found guilty of soliciting clients illegally at sporting events and parties in France, and of laundering the proceeds of tax evasion.

It was hit at the time with a record 4.5 billion euros ($5.32 billion) in penalties as a result, including a 3.7 billion euros fine and 800 million euros in civil damages.

Judges said on Wednesday they would rule on June 28 on constitutional matters connected to the case, which could potentially see other decisions postponed. The ruling on UBS’s appeal is for now set for Sept. 27, after the case was delayed by the pandemic.

Prosecutors are still seeking a fine of at least 2 billion euros, with lawyers for the French state saying they wanted 1 billion euros in damages and interest payments followed hearings that began on March 8.

Lawyers for UBS argued in the appeals trial that despite whistleblowers coming forward, investigators had never found clear evidence of systematic attempts to canvass French customers by UBS commercial specialists, including at client events like cocktail parties and hunts.

“UBS is far from the only one to hold these,” UBS lawyer Herve Temime told the court, adding that people who attended the more than 200 events under examination had not said they witnessed specific attempts by UBS executives to win business illegally.

UBS has set aside only 450 million euros to cover sanctions in the case.

The bank has said that any fine should be based on the amount of unpaid taxes and not on the total funds parked by clients in Switzerland, with lawyers on Wednesday arguing that the state’s demand for damages was unreasonable.

Fines in Europe for tax-related and other offences have historically been lower than in the United States, with the UBS case marking an exception that has been closely watched by other banks.

Swiss rival Credit Suisse is under investigation over whether it helped some 2,650 Belgians hide their accounts from tax authorities.

Credit Suisse says it has strictly complied with all applicable laws. ($1 = 0.8451 euros) (Reporting by Sarah White;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)