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Monday, Aug 30, 2010, 9:07 am

Playing ball with UBS: Obama, Swiss Tax Havens and the IRS

By Pete Karman
As is my habit, I was avidly reading the business page when I came across this headline:
UBS? Hadn’t I read those initials in another story of a different sort just a day or so ago? Sure, UBS, or Union Banque Suisse. It’s one of those reclusive repositories where the really rich stash their spondulicks away from busybody tax collectors, divorce lawyers and such.
The story referred to earlier attempts by Uncle Sam to get the names of UBS’s American clients. Now Washington was backing off. “The statement by the I.R.S,” said the NY Times, “puts to rest a serious headache for UBS, the world’s largest private bank, and for Switzerland over offshore private banking services that enabled wealthy Americans to avoid taxes.” Phew, I felt relieved. Then I remembered that I didn't have a Swiss bank account.
I recalled that there was another story the same week mentioning UBS. What was it? Then, it came to me. It was raining on Martha’s Vineyard so the vacationing President Obama had to play basketball in the gym at the Oak Bluffs school because all the outdoor courts were being pelted. He went to shoot hoops with a couple of his buddies. One of them was Robert Wolf, a bond guy who must be sharp, having risen to the job of CEO of UBS Americas.
Later in the week, with the sun back out, Obama played golf at Mink Meadows. Along with the president, the foursome included Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York City and a zillionaire financial news mogul, Vernon Jordan, the wealthy director of the Lazard global banking group and a longtime intimate of presidents, and, again, Robert Wolf of UBS. The stock market cheerleaders at CNBC were making jokes about the president having a new pal on Wall Street.
I assume that when our president gets together with the gods of finance, apart from the usual manly banter, sports talk and the occasional blue joke, the talk is about restoring the economy, putting the jobless back to work, and other serious and uplifting matters. I can't imagine that the conversation would drift to something like getting the I.R.S. to go soft on a company headed by a BOB (buddy of Barack). Even thinking such a thought would make me all but one of those crazy conspiracy theorists. You know, they’re the nuts who believe that when people of wealth and power meet in private, they sometimes advance their own selfish interests rather than strive for the common good.
No, I’m sure that the two stories about UBS are purely coincidental. And I'm sure that President Obama, Mr. Wolf, and all those folks in Washington and on Wall Street want you to be sure, too.

This post originally appeared on Peter Karman's blog, The Karman Turn.

Pete Karman began working in journalism in 1957 at the awful New York Daily Mirror, where he wrote the first review of Bob Dylan for a New York paper. He lost that job after illegally traveling to Cuba (the rag failed shortly after he got the boot). Karman has reported and edited for various trade and trade union blats and worked as a copywriter. He was happy being a flack for Air France, but not as happy as being an on-and-off In These Times editor and contributor since 1977.

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