Global Investigations Review - The law and practice of international investigations

GIR 100 2019

Schellenberg Wittmer

25 October 2019

Schellenberg Wittmer may be a Swiss firm but it works on corporate crime cases from all over the world.

The firm

Following the merger of Schellenberg & Haissly and Brunschwig Wittmer back in 2000, Schellenberg Wittmer has developed into one of Switzerland’s largest business law firms, boasting over 140 lawyers based in Zurich and Geneva. It also has an office in Singapore.

The white-collar practice has been around since Schellenberg Wittmer’s inception, having been developed by partners Vincent Jeanneret and the head of the firm’s white-collar and compliance practice in Geneva, Paul Gully-Hart.

Schellenberg Wittmer prides itself for being one of the first large Swiss firms to maintain a team of specialised criminal defence lawyers. When it launched the practice, it was the first large firm to have its own in-house criminal defence team at a time when white-collar work was typically handled by smaller boutiques.

Schellenberg Wittmer made a foray into investigations work in the late 2000s, when the firm set up its corporate investigations group. Benjamin Borsodi, co-head of the firm’s internal corporate investigations practice, originally joined the Geneva office in 2002. Over the past two years he has done investigations work related to Guatemala, Brazil, Italy and Israel.

Peter Burckhardt, a former state prosecutor in Berne, leads the dispute resolution group, as well as the white-collar crime and internal corporate investigations teams in Zurich.

Borsodi, Gully-Hart, Burckhardt and Jeanneret are among seven of the firm’s attorneys listed in Who’s Who Legal: Investigations. All four of them are also listed on Who’s Who Legal: Business Crime Defence, as is a fifth Schellenberg Wittmer lawyer (Roland Ryser).

The firm expanded its investigations practice in 2016 with the addition of Louis Burrus from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, where he had been part of the team advising world football’s embattled governing body Fifa.

Clara Poglia was included in GIR’s 100 Women in Investigations in 2018 and promoted to the partnership in January 2019. George Ayoub was also promoted to partner at the same time.

Recent events

The firm continues to act for Swiss bank Credit Suisse in various matters. A former employee of the bank, Patrice Lescaudron, was accused of diverting assets from the accounts of the former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The criminal proceedings in Geneva lasted two years. The court confirmed that Credit Suisse was a plaintiff and so entitled to the entirety of the US$130 million in damages. Lescaudron has appealed the case following his five-year prison sentence.

Schellenberg Wittmer is also working for the bank in the so-called “Israeli Desk Investigation”, conducting its internal investigations over alleged fraud. Proceedings have been brought by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority, the US Department of Justice, Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York State Department of Financial Services over allegations that Credit Suisse helped US citizens living in Israel or with Israeli citizenship to evade taxes.

The firm also represented commodities trader Gunvor Group, which in October 2019 resolved an investigation into allegations of corruption, where Gunvor agreed to pay the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) close to 94 million Swiss francs for failing to stop an employee from paying off officials to secure oil supplies in the Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast between 2008 and 2011.

Schellenberg Wittmer also represents the Czech Republic in a case in which the state is an injured party regarding allegations of fraud during the privatisation of a state-owned company at the end of the 1990s. This is part of an investigation by Swiss prosecutors into alleged fraud with the privatisation of the coal mining industry in North Bohemia.

Network

The firm is based between Zurich and Geneva, and has an affiliate office in Singapore where it advises local clients on doing business in Switzerland.

Clients

The firm represents Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht as well as UBS and Credit Suisse, two of Switzerland’s largest banks. It also acts for car manufacturer Volkswagen.

Track record

The firm acted as lead counsel to Credit Suisse in an offshore tax evasion investigation launched by US authorities in 2011. The case resulted in settlements in 2014 where Credit Suisse agreed to pay $3 billion to authorities and to be overseen by several monitors.

The firm assisted EFG bank in its participation in the 2013 Swiss bank programme, which allowed certain Swiss banks to pay a fine and enter into a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) to resolve allegations that they helped US citizens evade tax. The firm conducted an internal investigation for the bank and negotiated proceedings for the 2015 US$30 million NPA with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The firm also represented the bank in Swiss proceedings brought by the bank’s clients who objected to the disclosures made by the bank to the DOJ. 

The firm represented Odebrecht and Braskem when they faced prosecution from the Swiss Office of the Attorney General. The company faced a massive criminal investigation, and in 2016 reached a landmark trilateral agreement with Swiss, Brazilian and US authorities concerning bribery charges. In December 2016, the companies entered into a combined settlement, agreeing to pay at least US$3.5 billion to authorities in the US, Brazil and Switzerland.

GIR has previously reported that Schellenberg Wittmer has represented senior individuals in the investigation by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York into corruption at Fifa.

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