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French lawmakers quiz ex-HSBC employee who leaked client data

Herve Falciani, an ex-HSBC employee wanted in Switzerland on charges of stealing data on bank accounts, speaks to the media after a French p
Herve Falciani, an ex-HSBC employee wanted in Switzerland on charges of stealing data on bank accounts, speaks to the media after a French p

By Lionel Laurent

PARIS (Reuters) - A former HSBC employee wanted in Switzerland for leaking the details of tens of thousands of bank accounts gave evidence on Tuesday to French lawmakers trying to tighten rules against tax evasion.

Herve Falciani spent four hours describing ways he said the bank helped its clients sidestep taxes using various loopholes and exemptions under national laws, according to two Socialist deputies who met with him in closed session.

"Mr Falciani told us some extremely interesting things," said one of the deputies, Yann Galut. "He indicated to us ... various examples of dysfunction that we will now examine."

Galut and fellow National Assembly deputy Christian Eckert said they would use Falciani's information to help draft a new law to fight tax evasion.

"He said there were entire (bank) departments ... dedicated to staying one step ahead of the law and that we were not well-equipped enough," said Galut, praising Falciani as a whistleblower who revealed tax evasion on an "industrial" scale.

An HSBC spokesman said the bank could not comment on the hearing itself, as it had not been officially informed.

"In general, Mr. Falciani has made many statements but the only proven fact remains that he stole confidential data from the bank in 2008, a criminal offence under Swiss law," the spokesman said. "HSBC complies with the law in all the territories in which it operates."

Governments are cracking down on tax avoidance in the wake of the financial crisis, raising the pressure on countries such as Switzerland whose laws on client confidentiality make it easier for foreigners to hide wealth from the tax man.

French President Francois Hollande is under particular pressure to act after his budget minister resigned over an undeclared Swiss bank account in March.

Falciani caused a furor in 2010 when bank client data ended up in the hands of tax authorities in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries that later used it to try to recover billions of euros in lost taxes.

HSBC and Switzerland's UBS are now under investigation in France over whether they unlawfully sold products designed to avoid tax.

Falciani was in France after taking refuge in Spain from Swiss authorities seeking his extradition. He avoided being sent back to Switzerland when Spanish authorities ruled that the charges he faced were not considered crimes under Spanish law.

Galut said Falciani was cooperating with the French authorities and France's judiciary would go "right to the end" in its probe of HSBC.

Falciani, who has Italian and French citizenship, only gave a brief statement to reporters as he left the National Assembly building.

"The veil is only just beginning to lift," he said, sporting a goatee beard and patterned shirt. He said he had faced threats since leaking the bank account data, without elaborating.

(Reporting by Lionel Laurent; editing by Christian Plumb and Tom Pfeiffer)

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