At a news conference in London on Monday, Rudolf Elmer, a Swiss bank executive-cum-whistleblower, dramatically handed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange two CDs with information on the offshore Cayman Islands bank accounts of 2,000 corporations and wealthy politicians and businessmen in the U.S., Western Europe, and Asia, who he claims are avoiding taxes.

Elmer, the former head of Caribbean operations for the Swiss bank Julius Baer, previously furnished global tax authorities--including the Internal Revenue Service--with documents from his former employer, in an effort to inform the public about tax evasion. He stands trial this week on charges--among others--of violating Swiss bank secrecy laws, and Julius Baer contends Elmer simply wants to discredit the bank because he's unhappy with how he was fired in 2002. Assange, meanwhile, pledges to vet and then publish Elmer's data--names and all--as soon as possible.

Why is Assange taking up Elmer's cause, and what will the consequences be once this latest trove of data is released?

  • Is Assange Looking for Leverage? wonders John Sexton at Hot Air. He highlights Elmer's claim that he has offshore bank account information for 40 politicians, and notes that Monday's press conference was Assange's first since his arrest in London in early December. Assange, Sexton explains, "has suggested in the past that the charges of rape against him in Sweden are politically motivated. He also continues to say he will fight extradition to face those charges. Brandishing a list like [this] could certainly be seen by some as a threat."
  • Clients and Banks Could Panic, suggests Douglas McIntyre at 24/7 Wall St: "The concern certainly spreads to other Swiss banks and perhaps their counterparts in other countries. Julius Baer accounts may have been used to cheat on taxes. Many wealthy people could face penalties or prosecution if that is so."
  • Prosecutions in U.S. Aren't Likely, reports Marketplace's Jeff Tyler. He explains that the Cayman Islands is working with the U.S. Justice Department to root out illegal banking activity, causing tax havens to shift to Singapore and Macau. He adds that "just because a tax-dodger is publicly exposed doesn't mean the IRS will take legal action."
  • And Data By Itself Isn't Sufficient for Prosecutions, says Mark Hosenball at Reuters. Sources tell Hosenball that "there is no way to be sure from the material supplied to WikiLeaks of the identities of account holders and further investigation would have to be done to confirm the account holders' identity," and to determine whether any account holders were actually engaged in offshore tax evasion.
  • Finance May Be New Focus for WikiLeaks, observe Ravi Somaiya and Julia Werdigier at The New York Times. They note that WikiLeaks also plans on releasing information from the hard drive of an executive at an American bank, thought to be Bank of America.