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Official: Swiss finance minister meets with US attorney general, charges weighed in bank probe

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WASHINGTON - Amid an ongoing investigation into international banking giant Credit Suisse Group, Attorney General Eric Holder met with Switzerland's finance minister in Washington on Friday.

A U.S. law enforcement official said the meeting with Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf came as the Justice Department weighs criminal charges against Zurich-based Credit Suisse. U.S. authorities are investigating whether the bank helped wealthy American clients evade taxes by keeping money in secret accounts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Credit Suisse said in 2011 that it had been informed of the investigation and would co-operate with U.S. authorities within the limits set by Swiss banking secrecy laws.

An investigation by a Senate subcommittee in February found that the bank, Switzerland's second-largest, provided accounts in that country for more than 22,000 U.S. clients totalling $10 billion to $12 billion. The U.S. government has received only 238 names of U.S. citizens with secret accounts at Credit Suisse, or just 1 per cent of the estimated total, according to a report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Credit Suisse recruited U.S. clients to open Swiss accounts from 2001 through 2008, helped them conceal the accounts from the Internal Revenue Service and enabled misconduct by bank employees, the subcommittee said. The panel has for five years been examining Swiss banks' use of secrecy laws to enable tax evasion by Americans.

The bank stopped providing private banking services outside the U.S. to Americans in 2008.

Credit Suisse spokesman Calvin Mitchell in New York declined to comment Friday.

The Justice Department said in February that it was investigating as many as 14 Swiss financial institutions, "and we won't hesitate to indict if and when circumstances merit." It didn't name the banks.

Charges from U.S. prosecutors could accuse the Swiss banks of failing to properly report deposits they hold belonging to U.S. citizens.

In a related case, the Justice Department threatened Switzerland's largest bank, UBS, with criminal prosecution. UBS entered a deferred prosecution agreement with the department in 2009. It agreed to pay $780 million in fines and turn over 4,400 names of customers suspected of evading U.S. taxes.

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Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.

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