She is the figurehead in the tax dispute against UBS. But now Stéphanie Gibaud is turning against her own government. She was manipulated by the authorities.
She says: “I lost everything as a result of my deployment: my health, my well-paid job and even custody of my children. I now live on social security – I even had to sell my house.”
When the highest court in France delivers its verdict in the UBS tax dispute on November 15th, the biggest loser will already be clear: it is the 58-year-old whistleblower Stéphanie Gibaud. The former UBS marketing employee served as a figurehead for the authorities – she became a prominent face in the fight against tax evasion. What should also be financially worthwhile for the state: In the last round of court proceedings so far, UBS was sentenced to a hefty fine of 1.8 billion euros.
In the conflict against the powerful UBS, Gibaud may emerge as the winner. But the far greater enemy for her today is the French state, explains the embittered whistleblower in an interview with “NZZ am Sonntag”. “Looking back, I have to realize that I was manipulated by the Treasury officials.” Forced to cooperate by the authorities, she had to hand over highly confidential customer data.
Gibaud says she trusted the state at the time because they were sworn officials. She also hoped that the cooperation would provide protection because the conflict with UBS had plunged her into a psychological crisis. Today, however, her perspective has fundamentally changed: “It took me years to find out how the French state staged its attacks against UBS in order to destabilize the bank.”
How is it that Stéphanie Gibaud, after betraying UBS, is now taking the field against the French authorities? That is not a contradiction: “I have always acted out of a sense of duty and would like to emphasize that I have never broken any rules or violated regulations.”
Dubious deletion of data
One thing is certain: Gibaud never sought her role in the middle of a gigantic legal dispute involving billions. It all started on a Wednesday morning in June 2008, when the boss suddenly burst into her office on Boulevard Haussmann and announced that she had to destroy all customer lists immediately. As deputy head of marketing, Gibaud was responsible for organizing exclusive customer events. For each event she had a list of participants and the responsible advisors.
The hectic situation at UBS was triggered by the Bradley Birkenfeld case. The banker had been arrested in the USA just days before. Birkenfeld disclosed customer data and in return was awarded a reward of $104 million.
Gibaud refused to delete the lists – especially since the instruction and the subsequent warnings were never written, but always verbal: “I didn’t want to do anything forbidden. Because the authorities could have punished me for getting rid of important documents.” In fact, five former work colleagues, including the country manager, were later convicted in court.
What followed was a protracted conflict with UBS. When Gibaud noticed that someone had accessed her computer without permission to delete documents, she reported this to the labor inspectorate. In 2012 she lost her job at the bank. She went to the labor court to order UBS to pay her compensation of 30,000 euros.
But why were the French tax investigators suddenly interested in the customer data that had not been deleted? Stéphanie Gibaud says she doesn’t know. “To this day I have no explanation as to how the information about my case got to the Ministry of Finance.” It came as a complete surprise to her when police officers called her in for questioning. She has bad memories of the day because the interview lasted nine hours.
Gibaud received 4,500 euros from the state
“I was forced to cooperate for more than a year. Although the authorities were able to benefit from me in the investigation against UBS, they did not provide me with the necessary protection or compensation.” Gibaud ultimately went to the Paris administrative court to gain status as a “collaboratrice du service public”. Although she was right there, the compensation was limited to a meager 4,500 euros.
Stéphanie Gibaud is convinced that under normal circumstances her case would have quietly disappeared into the files. The fact that it still exploded like a bomb in public was due to the scandal surrounding the socialist budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac. Of all people, the top treasurer who was supposed to fight tax fraud was exposed in March 2013 as having a black account at UBS in Geneva.
The outrage in France was enormous. Above all, the government of François Hollande now urgently needed to demonstrate success against tax evasion. Gibaud’s list of offshore clients (French people who had a UBS account in Switzerland) came in handy. And suddenly the former bank employee was a sought-after key witness: she not only reported on her experiences on television talk shows, but also before the French National Assembly, the German Bundestag and the European Parliament. Meanwhile, UBS had to make a huge bail payment of 1.1 billion euros because of suspected money laundering and tax evasion.
Today, however, Gibaud speaks of a “farce” and “hypocrisy”: “The authority’s fight against tax evasion was a pure masquerade. The government staged a spectacular attack on UBS, using me as a whistleblower. But she tried to keep the real grievances under a lid.”
“With the campaign against UBS, the government wanted to keep its own scandals surrounding the party’s illegal financing at bay.”
What the heated public didn’t know at the time: Treasurer Cahuzac had not used the secret UBS account as a private individual, but as a politician. It was only years later in court that the fallen minister revealed that he had hidden large payments from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in the account. The bribe was used for the political election campaign. To cover this up, Cahuzac had to serve as a scapegoat. “With the campaign against UBS, the government wanted to keep its own scandals surrounding the party’s illegal financing at bay,” Gibaud is convinced.
As a result of the tax dispute, UBS had to disclose the names of 40,000 accounts to the French tax authorities. But to date the state has not exposed any tax evaders. The reason, according to the whistleblower, is that there are high-profile officials among them. “Cahuzac was by no means the only one – UBS counted many politicians among its customers.”
Stéphanie Gibaud also had to personally experience how quickly the state’s commitment to combating tax fraud weakened again. She was the first French woman ever to be granted official whistleblower status based on a newly introduced law. The assessment takes into account, for example, that her name was mentioned no less than 50 times in the appeal court’s judgment against UBS. The whistleblower law also stipulates that those affected should be compensated for their efforts – which the administrative court confirmed in summer 2022.
Minister stops compensation
Nevertheless, Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister himself, vetoed it. In September, the appeal court granted the appeal because the law only applies to cases after 2017. The decision is scandalous and she feels betrayed by the authorities, protests Gibaud. “The courts have supported my behavior without exception – UBS’s defamation lawsuit against me was also rejected. And yet the state treats me like a leper.”
Yasmine Motarjemi, from French-speaking Switzerland, sees Stéphanie Gibaud’s experiences as typical of a large number of whistleblowers. “The worst thing for those affected is the isolation and exclusion from the professional world. This leads to enormous psychological pressure that can easily break a person.”
Motarjemi herself had fought against the Nestlé management for 17 years because, as the person responsible for food safety, she uncovered grievances and was then bullied and fired. At the beginning of the year, the Vaud cantonal court awarded Motarjemi compensation that partially covers the loss of earnings and legal costs – so, unlike Gibaud, she does not come away empty-handed.
“The fact that the French state is completely abandoning its first official whistleblower is a fatal signal,” criticizes Motarjemi. “All those people who could prevent undesirable developments and thereby benefit society will be deterred from taking such a step in the future.”
Stéphanie Gibaud says she wants to use her experience to help advise other whistleblowers. But first she has to digest her own case, which will come to an end with the verdict against UBS next week. “Although I’m a free person on the outside, I still feel like I’m in a prison – without a social life, without money and without work.”
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