The woman who knew too much

UBS-whistleblower asks people to take their responsibility in order to better the world

14 FEBRUARY 2016 | Jan Verdonk

When she joined UBS in 1999 Stéphanie Gibaud already had an interesting career. Up to that point she had worked for TransManche Link, a construction consortium responsible for building the channel tunnel between the United Kingdom and France, football club RC Lens and the embassy of the United States of America. For UBS she had to develop partnerships with luxury brands and to organise client events in France. But when Gibaud discovered UBS had encouraged tax evasion and money laundering practices, her career took an unexpected and unpleasant twist. I talked to her about her life as a whistleblower, the current Western political system and its most important problems.

When Bradley Birkenfeld blew the whistle in the United States in 2007 on banks that had enabled tax evasion by American taxpayers, a massive fraud investigation was started against the Swiss bank UBS and other banks. In June 2008 Stephanie Gibaud got a request from her manager at the French branch of the bank, who asked her to delete the content of her hard drive as the office of the general director in Paris was searched. The hard drive contained, among others, the names of clients and client advisors. When Gibaud refused to do this, her manager repeated the request. In the following months she was harassed, excluded and discriminated. A war between UBS and Gibaud had started.

Gibaud now is one of the world’s best-known whistleblowers of the banking sector. She blew the whistle on her former employer when she realised UBS was encouraging tax evasion and money laudering practices. This decision changed her life drastically. She now became a strong advocate of the whistleblower cause, appearing for all kinds of commissions to speak about the mechanism of tax evasion. Recently she won six percent of the votes in regional French elections for the France Arise Party of Nicolas Dupont Aignan, in the region of Île-de-France. It could be the start of an interesting political life. But what does Gibaud think about the current political system in France and the West? What dangers does she discern and what solutions?

Dear Stéphanie! What do you consider to be the biggest threat for today’s Western society and why?

“In my view, one of the biggest threats is corruption, because it has reached a level – namely in France where I live – which is incredibly high. When corruption is the rule, how can democracy be possible and how can citizens be respected? Corruption is nurtured thanks to a small number of men and women who have deliberately taken most of the citizens hostage of their wrong-doings.”

Let’s first zoom in at the mechanism behind the problem you describe. What are the pillars of the financial system you want to change fundamentally?

“We have often repeated that the success of the offshore banking depends on secrecy. Secrecy means that information is hidden from most of the citizens. Secrecy means opacity and opacity creates impunity.”

You were recently a candidate at the recent regional elections in France. You might expect a lack of trust in this political process from someone who blew the whistle on UBS. Could you explain on what your faith in our Western – and particularly the French – democratic system is based?

“Political leaders live on another planet. They are totally disconnected from the citizens, from the people. They do not understand their concerns. How can they be legitimate when discussing unemployment and precarity for example ? They have never experienced what it means to be made redundant, to lose one’s job and not to be able to feed one’s family. As far as whistleblowers are concerned, if our political leaders were understanding that it is a must to protect whistleblowers, the general interest would prevail. Unfortunately, political leaders walk hand in hand with lobbyings, not with their people. In the US, one would say ‘Wall Street versus Main Street’, that’s as simple as that.

Our democratic system is a pyramid. The people we vote for are on the top of it. Politicians are paid to defend the citizens who have allowed them to govern. However, we acknowledge that these politicians vote for laws which are against the interests of these citizens – like business secrecy, mass surveillance etcetera. Private interests prevail over the general interest because politicians are the ‘muppets’ of the lobbyings. The people we vote for are not the ones who make the decisions, they obey to the powerful lobbyings that surround them. Having citizens entering all the levels of the political arena is of utmost importance.”

So what could we do to improve our Western democratic system?

“We would live in real democracies if the general interest was prevailing. As far as tax evasion is concerned, for example, the bankers still are protected. The clients who have cheated as well. The whistleblowers i.e. the ones who have put some light on this dark business are the ones who have been or will go to jail – Rudolf Elmer in Switzerland, Bradley Birkenfeld in the USA, Herve Falciani in Spain and potentially Antoine Deltour in Luxembourg. How democratic is this sytem? Citizens who blow the whistle are treated like guilty ones while the real offenders are not sentenced. What’s fair and honest is not recognized while what’s legal is not in the interest of most of the citizens.”

Just suppose – for arguments sake – that you would be in a position to change things? What would your priorities be?

“First of all I would protect whistleblowers with a French law but also a European law. Anyone who has information of general interest must be protected, not exposed. Second, bank managers and CEO’s must be indicted with prison sentences and huge fees or nothing will ever change. Third, one must stop the incestuous marriages between politicians – political parties as well -, bankers and supervisory authorities. This is of utmost importance.”

If you have experienced practices of tax evasion and laudering of tax fraud as you did, and you decide not to be a conformist, is it then possible to not become a marxist?

“Our fight is not about political ideology, it is about citizenship. Power to the people. Isn’t this what democraties are supposed to be? Napoleon once said it nicely: “When a government depends on bankers for money, the latter – and not the members of the government – controls the situation because the hand that gives is above the hand that receives (…). Money has no homeland, financial people do not have any patriotism and have no decency. Their only purpose is the economic gain.”

Communication

As a specialist in communication and public relations, Gibaud had to construct ‘positive faces’ for the employers she worked for. However, after becoming a whistleblower her role has changed. She now is occupied painting a ‘real face’ of a sector that is sometimes very hard to understand for the man on the streets. How does she do that?

You are a specialist in public relations. In your role as Event and Communication Manager for UBS you were one of the constructors of a ‘positive face’. Now you are helping to construct a ‘real face’ of the sector you have worked in. What is your strategy and how hard is it to reach a public that for the most part is not familiar with the complicated vocabulary of the financial sector?

“We have realized that everyone is lost because everything is extremely complicated. The system is complicated, the wording also is. This complexity of terminology and hierarchies hides opacity. We thus try to explain quietly and with words understood by all that if the wealthiest individuals and multinationals do not pay taxes, the structure of our social craddle cannot stand. This is even truer during a ‘so-called crisis’ where the middle-class, while losing their jobs and lacking incomes, is the one who has to pay higher taxes to pay a debt it has not created.”

What resources does the financial sector have to reconstruct a ‘positive face’ and to prevent new law restrictions?

“The banks always are a few steps ahead of laws thanks to their closeness to the politicians, to the supervisory authorities and also thanks to their extremely powerful lobbyings, namely in Brussels. The banks do not provide information, the banks communicate. If you spend some time studying the advertising campaigns of each stakeholder of the banking industry, they all rely on the same words: confidence, trust, experience, confidentiality, expertise etcetera. The banking industry is the most profitable and most dangerous industry. As long as banking secrecy goes on, offshore banking continues its ‘business as usual’ and thus the most criminal industry ever. To show a positive face, Switzerland had to get involved in the process of international exchange of information. However, we all know very well that it is for communication purposes. Business continues a different way, but it still is extremely profitable.”

Could you explain if the problem of the financial sector is a ‘people-problem’ or more a ‘structure-problem’?

“Everything is being handled by human beings. Behind laws are people. Behind banks are people. Behind what you call the ‘structure-problem’ are human beings too. There is no political will to move on. There definitely have been changes thanks to all the whistleblowers who have paid – and still pay – a high price for truth with their courage. However, if the banking industry was willing to be a charity for the citizens of the world, one would definitely be informed!”

Human kind has some major flaws. For example, he can be extremely greedy. What structures should be created to prevent these flaws from dominating industries and politics?

“We are about to reach a new area, the one where citizens will be empowered. It won’t be a pyramid where only the top and rich ones decide for the others. Everyone will be in charge. There are some examples in Spain but also in India that definitely work; cities where the human being is at the center of the city. By the way, isn’t this the Latin definition of politics ‘managing the heart of the city?”

Suppose neoliberalism was accepted as a religion. Where would we have to search for the dangerous extremists?

“Neoliberalism already is a religion, isn’t it ?”

Neoliberalism and gamification of the financial sector

Gibaud has experienced how it is to work in a financial sector that has an extremely competitive character. As a result of this, people take risks that are often amoral. What does Stephanie think about this? And what does she think about the way employees in the financial world are educated? Isn’t the neoliberal influence on it too huge?

Educational policies are often shaped by neoliberal thinkers. What do you think about this influence on education?

“Since the 1970s, the highest cuts in budgets are in education. We can wonder why countries decide to under-educate their citizens. Classrooms are overpacked, there are no replacements when teachers are on sick leave, teachers spend half of their time begging pupils to listen to them instead of teaching pupils 100% of the time. My grand-parents were school heads, they were respected in their classrooms because they were empowered to be respected. Nobody would have dared to argue the teacher, not to mention about insulting a teacher – who embodied education and knowledge. Pupils were respectful because there were rules. But respect seems to be out of fashion these days, because rules are not respected by the ones who manage the companies, the ones at the top of the pyramid: the VW, UBS, HSBC, Luxleaks, SNCF, NSA, Mediator, Fifa, Banque Pasche etcetera. Scandals embody the neoliberal economy. I believe that the example must come from the top. And we all acknowledge that unfortunately the top swims from one scandal to another and is rarely indicted for their wrong-doings. How would they then be willing to focus on education for the citizens?”

The financial sector is experiencing a proces of gamification, in which incentives and rewards are added to achieve higher levels or engagement and to stimulate – sometimes dangerous – innovation. What can be done to prevent this gamification in culminating into further moral and ethical problems?

“The financial sector will never turn ethic if it is not differently implemented. There are clean players, who are quite new, who know the best how the system works. They decide to invest in sustainable energy for example. But the rewards are always for the same players. If you read Euromoney, the same banks are rewarded, year after year, even if they are indicted and/or pay huge fees for the scandals they are in.

The financial sector seems to be a sector – maybe partially because of the gamification – of conformists who apparently accept an amoral system. To what extent can this culture of conformists be changed from the outside?

“As long as money and power manage everything, nothing will ever change inside the banks. I also believe that banks should be public ownership. As long as you have banks that are financed by the taxes of the citizens when they are on the verge of collapsing, but that distribute fat bonuses to its top managers when profitable anyway, nothing will ever change. One mutualizes the debt while one does not share profits. Why is that legal? Why do our politicians continue playing that game against the interest of their own countries and citizens?”

The future

Gibaud is part of a large group of whistleblowers that is trying to change the world. What could be done to attract more people to join this group? And what does Gibaud think about the future? Does she see light at the end of the tunnel?

What possibilities do you see to gamificate the whistleblower culture, in order to attract more people to decide to blow the whistle? Or what other opportunities do you see to make whistleblowing more attractive?

“More and more people will blow the whistle because people cannot stand covering scandals and corruption anymore. This has gone too far. However, it takes time because there still are no laws to protect the ones who stand for truth. Multinational companies and banks do as if their interests are getting cleaner, more transparent, but this only is communication. Their interest is to make big money and compete, whatever the price is. Whisteblowing will be attractive the day Julian Assange is relieved, the day Ed Snowden could safely live in the US, the day Chelsea Manning is released and standing with courage is not perceived by our democracies as unrealibility but normality.”

In the context of a globalising world, could you explain what can be done to prevent tax evasion in your opinion?

“As long as there is a single tax paradise on this planet, tax evasion will still prevail. We have acknowledged that the game has changed with Switzerland these past years, and the so-called international exchange of information is to be implemented. But what about the dozens of other tax paradises? Why aren’t there any pressures by our governments to make them play a fair game with us all? Who benefits from this crime? In France, we still have what’s called the ‘Ministry of Finance lock’, which means that the Minister of Finance himself is the one who decides whether somebody will be under investigation, indicted according to the taxes he was supposed to pay. What happens then when the Minister of Finances himself is the one who cheats? This was the case with Mr. Cahuzac, our ex-Finance Minister in France, who has definitely denied any tax evasion issues but who then had to acknowledge of his personal wrongdoings. His trial started last Monday in Paris and the court decided to postpone it until September 2016. If France was a real democracy – and it is labelled in the international scene as the ‘country of human rights’ – this ‘lock’ would have been unlocked, at least when this scandal was made public three years ago. What is interesting is that Mr. Cahuzac’s non-declared wealth was managed out of the UBS Geneva offices.”

Now you are mentioning this relation between a politician and a bank, in an earlier interview with Buenos Aires Herald you have also pointed at the close relations between bankers and politicians. What do you think about this in general? Isn’t this a conflict of interests, and what should be done about it?

“It definitely is a conflict of interest, I call it an incestuous marriage. The laws should ensure it is impossible for a bank to sponsor a political party because the children and spouses of politicians work for those banks. We have the case with UBS, of course in France but in other countries all over the world.”

How do you see the world twenty to thirty years from now?

“We are the resistants, we are paving the way for our children and the future generations to live better than we do. Hopefully the majority of the people will quickly follow suit and within this timeframe, citizens will be in charge.”

Did you ever regret your decision to blow the whistle, if you consider everything you have been through since then?

“I cannot regret to be honest or to stand up for my values. I cannot regret either to have done what my grandparents would definitely have advised me to do. As a mother, it was of utmost importance to follow the values I was raised with. The price really is high, thanks for mentioning it. However, what is tough is the price my children pay for my courage and my daily fight. I nevertheless have raised them as I myself have been raised and it is what it is. Future will for sure tell them that I was the one who was right to stand up and fight. And this is – hopefully! – how they will raise their own kids. Transmission from a generation to another is something I am very tethered to.

Lincoln had said: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong”.”

Are there any questions that I should have asked you, but didn’t? And what would be your answer to them?

“In the US, there is this importance sentence ‘I fight for my country’. J.F. Kennedy is the one who had declared to ‘his fellow Americans': “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. In France, and probably all over Europe, things are not perceived that way. On the old continent, one waits to be told to do things – thus the importance of powerful management and very powerful top politicians we experience and suffer from.

Citizens seem to start thinking out of the box: Is what I do good for me, for my children, for my country – or do I behave as if I had no brain, no value? Where is my free will ?

I like this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.” If everyone was responsible, we would definitely live in a better world.”

For those interested in Gibaud’s case, here are some interesting sources: