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U.S. asks Liechtenstein for data in tax evasion probe

ZURICH/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors have asked Liechtenstein to hand over data on foundations and other financial vehicles as part of their investigation into tax evasion by wealthy Americans.

Roughly 20 Liechtenstein-based fiduciary firms have been given a Friday deadline to tell U.S. officials how many Americans maintained financial ties in the principality, Katja Gey, head of Liechtenstein's office for international tax matters, said on Wednesday.

Liechtenstein, with similar secrecy laws to larger neighbor Switzerland, has long prospered by offering secretive foundations and trusts through firms known as fiduciaries.

It was removed from a global blacklist of uncooperative tax havens in 2009, having agreed to help to hunt down tax dodgers after leaked data in 2008 showed hundreds of wealthy Germans had hidden assets in the tiny country.

Gey did not disclose the period that the United States is investigating, but Swiss media have reported that it is from 2008 onwards.

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on Wednesday on the information requests.

It is up to the fiduciaries - the identities of which have not been disclosed - to decide whether to hand over the data, Gey said.

SWISS BANK INVESTIGATION

From Americans coming forward during a tax amnesty, the United States has received information about how Swiss banks and Liechtenstein collaborated to hide undeclared funds held by wealthy Americans, Swiss newspapers Tages-Anzeiger and Neue Zuercher Zeitung reported on Wednesday.

Swiss banks have long worked closely with Liechtenstein, traditionally known as a provider of foundations and other vehicles that have been used to hide undeclared funds.

The move by the United States represents a new line of attack in a long-running investigation into more than a dozen Swiss banks, including Credit Suisse and Julius Baer , alleged to have aided U.S. tax dodgers with hidden accounts.

Switzerland's oldest bank, Wegelin & Co, was fined nearly $58 million this month after it admitted to helping wealthy Americans evade taxes.

The latest tax crackdown comes several years after U.S. authorities extracted an admission of wrongdoing from UBS that was accompanied by the release of thousands of sets of client data plus a $780 million payment by UBS to avert criminal prosecution.

Through information gleaned from UBS and thousands of so-called voluntary disclosures by one-time Swiss banking clients in the United States, officials there were able to mount the second wave of investigation into Swiss banks.

Liechtenstein can sometimes be a gateway for U.S. taxpayers to hide money elsewhere in the world, said Scott Michel, a tax lawyer with Caplin & Drysdale in Washington.

He said the information requests were likely intended to help U.S. officials find not only Americans with ties to Liechtenstein, but also "enablers," such as accountants, lawyers and investment advisers, based in that country "who may have helped Americans hide money."

(Reporting by Katharina Bart in Zurich, with Patrick Temple-West in Washington; Editing by Mark Potter, David Goodman, Kevin Drawbaugh and Alden Bentley)

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