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Wegelin braced for U.S. legal fight as staff charged

ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss private bank Wegelin & Co confirmed on Wednesday three employees had been charged by U.S. authorities for helping U.S. taxpayers hide some $1.2 billion in assets from tax authorities.

Wegelin said it had prepared its legal assessment of the matter ahead of the expected proceedings.

"Although U.S. law has some scope for interpretation in this case, Wegelin & Co is certain that Swiss law was not broken at any point ... The accused employees worked for the bank within the borders of Switzerland," Wegelin said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

Founded in 1741 and one of Switzerland's oldest private banks, Wegelin has ended all dealings with U.S. clients.

The office of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney said on Tuesday that the indictment charges the bankers with trying to "capture business lost by UBS AG and another large international Swiss bank in the wake of widespread news reports that the Internal Revenue Service was investigating UBS" in 2008 and 2009.

If convicted, the bankers face a maximum prison term of five years under the conspiracy charge.

U.S. authorities, who suspect tens of thousands of Americans have been using Swiss banks to avoid paying billions of dollars in tax, are investigating scores of Swiss banks and international banks with Swiss operations.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting criminal probes of 11 banks which are also either Swiss, or global with major Swiss operations.

The investigations, an outgrowth of scrutiny of UBS, are focused on Credit Suisse AG and Basler Kantonalbank among others.

In 2009, UBS paid $780 million to settle Justice Department criminal charges that it helped thousands of U.S. clients hide $20 billion.

Swiss authorities want a global civil settlement with U.S. authorities in which the entire Swiss banking industry would pay a fine.

(Reporting by Katie Reid; Editing by David Hulmes)

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