Ex-Credit Suisse banker says took lead from bosses in Bulgarian cocaine-cash case

By Stephanie Nebehay

BELLINZONA, Switzerland, Feb 9 (Reuters) - A former Credit Suisse banker testifying in a cocaine money laundering trial on Wednesday said she had followed the instructions of her bosses in doing business with associates of a Bulgarian customer after he was shot dead in Sofia.

In the first criminal trial of a major bank in Switzerland, Credit Suisse CSGN.S and its former employee face charges of allowing an alleged Bulgarian cocaine trafficking gang to launder millions of euros, some of it stuffed into suitcases.

The former employee, who cannot be named under Swiss privacy laws, has denied wrongdoing.

Credit Suisse has rejected all the allegations and said it is convinced its former employee is innocent and it plans to "defend itself vigorously in court."

The indictment runs to more than 500 pages, and centres on relationships that Credit Suisse and its ex-employee had with former Bulgarian wrestler Evelin Banev and multiple associates, two of whom are charged in the case.

Swiss prosecutors are focusing on the movement of money earned allegedly trafficking cocaine between Latin American countries, including Venezuela, and Europe.

On Wednesday, judges quizzed the former banker, asking how the bank had responded after a customer involved in the alleged gang was shot dead as he left a restaurant with his wife in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2005.

"Within our capability, we tried to clarify the situation," the former banker told the Federal Criminal Court in the first day of testimony.

"I didn't know how to act in such a situation," she said. "There were many internal discussions (about this scandal) which I was not always present at because of my lower-ranking level."

Swiss prosecutors allege that the country's second-largest bank and the former relationship manager did not do enough to prevent the alleged drug traffickers from hiding and laundering cash between 2004 and 2008, despite indications the funds could be of criminal origin.

The former banker told the court she was a novice with rudimentary financial education. She denied responsibility or wrongdoing and said she had followed the instructions of her bosses.

"Most of these matters were decided at a higher level above me, I was not involved in it," she said. "And afterwards I was informed of their decisions and I was informed of the guidelines or instructions that I should follow."

Although some of the activity happened too long ago to prosecute under Swiss law, the presiding judge has decided that anything since Feb 7, 2007 could be considered for the trial.

The former banker was separately asked by tribunal president Stephan Zenger about property deals she had helped to organise at the time in Bulgaria.

Asked by the judge about a 2006 bank chart, displayed during the hearing, showing Credit Suisse's "Home for You" real estate projects in Bulgaria and about a column marked "total extra cash received", she said this referred to payments made using non-declared funds.

She said such practice was normal at the time.

The Swiss court also alleges the former relationship manager, who left Credit Suisse in 2010, helped to conceal the criminal origins of money by carrying out more than 146 million Swiss francs in transactions, including moving 43 million francs in cash.

Prosecutors are seeking around 42.4 million Swiss francs ($46 million) in compensation from Credit Suisse.

Credit Suisse disputes the illegal origin of the money, a source familiar with its thinking has told Reuters, saying the alleged traffickers operated legitimate businesses in construction, leasing and hotels.

On Wednesday, the former employee said the bank had done all it could to verify the legitimacy of the customers' money by going to Bulgaria and visiting offices and real estate projects.

"What we were able to see, the business was there. The shops, the real estate projects," she said. "And until today these buildings, these real estate projects are there."

The Swiss prosecutors are also seeking the confiscation of cash found in the safe of one defendant, as well as confiscation of further assets at Credit Suisse which they allege relate to the gang.

Banev, who does not face charges in Switzerland, was convicted of drug trafficking in Italy in 2017 and then in Bulgaria in 2018 for money laundering.

He vanished, but was arrested in September in Ukraine.

Bulgarian prosecutors are seeking his extradition to face charges of setting up an organised criminal group for alleged money laundering, while Romania is seeking him for setting up a group for alleged drug trafficking, Interpol's red list of wanted persons shows.

Banev's legal representative had no immediate comment.

Alongside the bank and its former employee, two alleged gang members and a former Julius Baer banker are also facing charges.

A lawyer for one of the alleged gang members facing charges in the trial declined to comment. A lawyer for the other alleged gang member did not respond to resquests for comment. Lawyers for the former Julius Baer employee also did not respond to requests for comment.

($1 = 0.9235 Swiss francs)
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; editing by John O'Donnell and Jane Merriman

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