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Part 2: Feeding the UBS obsession with North American wealth.
"I’d say, 'Do you want to go to Wimbledon, have lunch and see the match? Do you want to come to Oktoberfest and drink some beer and look at hot girls? Whatever you want to do.' I would go to the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the Bangkok Film Festival.”
He cultivated contacts among event organizers so he could swing VIP treatment for himself and his clients. "I just generally spent money the way I saw fit," he said. "I wouldn’t go out and buy somebody a Rolex, but I mean, if I spent $500 for a lunch I could justify it."
Birkenfeld got paid, too: A starting salary of 180,000 Swiss francs (just over $170,000) plus an American-style bonus, which in his best year, he said, put him at one million Swiss francs in total compensation (about $946,000). When home from the road, Birkenfeld drove a BMW M5 and split time between a plush apartment in Geneva and a chalet in the shadow of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps.
Life was arguably sweeter for Birkenfeld than for his fellow cross-border bankers at UBS. Most serviced between 200 and 300 accounts, each account averaging about one million Swiss francs, Birkenfeld said, whereas he got by with a fraction of that — about 20 U.S. clients and 20 more in other countries.
He was able to carry a lighter load because he had a golden goose: a single client with accounts totaling $200 million who more than made up the slack. A billionaire Orange County, Calif., real estate mogul named Igor Olenicoff would be Birkenfeld’s biggest client, and later his nemesis.
Michael Bronner, a New York-based investigative journalist, previously worked for the weekday edition of CBS News/60 Minutes. He has been a freelance contributor to Vanity Fair since 2005. A screenwriter, producer and director, he was also a co-producer on the Universal Pictures/Working Title feature film “Green Zone” about Iraq and an associate producer on the Oscar-nominated “United 93.”