Feb 10

Bank That Laundered Drug Money Revealed to Be Doing Worse

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

It seems that since 2010, the US Department of Justice has known that one of the largest banks in Europe has been sheltering money for dictators and arms dealers, among others:

Banking Giant HSBC Sheltered Murky Cash Linked to Dictators and Arms Dealers

By Gerard Ryle, Will Fitzgibbon, Mar Cabra, Rigoberto Carvajal, Marina Walker Guevara, Martha M. Hamilton and Tom Stites, February 8, 2015, The International Consortium of Investigative Jouranlists

Team of journalists from 45 countries unearths secret bank accounts maintained for criminals, traffickers, tax dodgers, politicians and celebrities

Secret documents reveal that global banking giant HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channeled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws.

The leaked files, based on the inner workings of HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm, relate to accounts holding more than $100 billion. They provide a rare glimpse inside the super-secret Swiss banking system – one the public has never seen before. [..]

These disclosures shine a light on the intersection of international crime and legitimate business, and they dramatically expand what’s known about potentially illegal or unethical behavior in recent years at HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks.

The leaked account records show some clients making trips to Geneva to withdraw large wads of cash, sometimes in used notes. The files also document huge sums of money controlled by dealers in diamonds who are known to have operated in war zones and sold gemstones to finance insurgencies that caused untold deaths.

These are some of the key findings the journalists found:


HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) continued to offer services to clients who had been unfavorably named by the United Nations, in court documents and in the media as connected to arms trafficking, blood diamonds and bribery.

   HSBC served those close to discredited regimes such as that of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, former Tunisian president Ben Ali and current Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.

   Clients who held HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland include former and current politicians from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kenya, Romania, India, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Lebanon, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Paraguay, Djibouti, Senegal, Philippines and Algeria.

   The bank repeatedly reassured clients that it would not disclose details of accounts to national authorities, even if evidence suggested that the accounts were undeclared to tax authorities in the client’s home country. Bank employees also discussed with clients a range of measures that would ultimately allow clients to avoid paying taxes in their home countries. This included holding accounts in the name of offshore companies to avoid the European Savings Directive, a 2005 Europe-wide rule aimed at tackling tax evasion through the exchange of bank information.

If this seems all too familiar, that’s because it is. HSBC was fined $1.6 billion in June of 2013 after it reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice which resolved charges it enabled Latin American drug cartels to launder billions of dollars

HSBC was accused of failing to monitor more than $670 billion in wire transfers and more than $9.4 billion in purchases of U.S. currency from HSBC Mexico, allowing for money laundering, prosecutors said. The bank also violated U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, Libya, Sudan, Burma and Cuba, according to a criminal information filed in the case. [..]

Under a deferred prosecution agreement, the U.S. allows a target to avoid charges by meeting certain conditions — including the payment of fines or penalties — and by committing to specific reforms.

US government faces pressure after biggest leak in banking history

So just what was the Department of Justice and the IRS doing with this information about the bank and its clients? Apparently not much.

Confronted by the Guardian’s evidence, HSBC admitted wrongdoing by its Geneva-based subsidiary. “We acknowledge and are accountable for past compliance and control failures,” the bank said in a statement. The Swiss arm, the statement said, had not been fully integrated into HSBC after its purchase in 1999, allowing “significantly lower” standards of compliance and due diligence to persist. [..]

The 2012 settlement was overseen by Loretta Lynch, who was then US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Lynch is currently Barack Obama’s current nominee for attorney general.

At the time, the HSBC settlement was heavily criticised by both Republicans and Democrats for allowing the bank to escape criminal indictments and keep the charter which enables it to operate in the US. Lynch and other senior DoJ officials defended the deal, pointing out it committed HSBC to a five-year plan to stamp out money laundering and other illicit practices, an ongoing process that is being overseen by an independent, court-appointed monitor. [..]

The DoJ was under pressure to go beyond financial penalties – to bring criminal charges against HSBC or its bankers – in July 2012, after the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations published its crushing 330-page report documenting how the bank’s lax anti-money laundering controls had been exploited by drug traffickers. [..]

The settlement proved controversial because it stopped short of criminally indicting the bank or its executives; lawmakers from both parties complained it revealed some Wall Street institutions were considered “too big to jail”. [..]

HSBC is now just over two years into its reform plan, and has been deemed to be complying with the terms of the settlement. However the court-appointed monitor, Michael Cherkasky, who oversees a team of banking investigators who review HSBC’s changes, has expressed some concern over the pace of reform. Cherkasky’s most recent assessment of HSBC’s ongoing efforts to clean up its act has once again concluded it could do better, according a recent report in the Wall Street Journal which cited people familiar with its findings.

CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired The Swiss Leaks a report by Bill Whitaker that examined “HSBC’s business dealings with a collection of international outlaws.”

Transcript can be read here

The sickening part of this is the US Justice Department was well aware of this when they settled the HSBC’s drug laundering case in 2013. Also. HSBC is one of the institutions that is refusing to handle the money of legitimate marijuana businesses.

Nice going, Eric.

Mar 13

Why Wasn’t the Death Penalty Warranted?

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

Once again Sen. Elizabeth Warren demonstrated why the voters of Massachusetts sent her to the Senate when in a Senate Banking Committee hearing about money laundering, she questioned why British bank HSBC is still doing business in the U.S., with no criminal charges filed against it, despite confessing to what one regulator called “egregious” money laundering violations

Her comments came just a day after the attorney general of the United States confessed that some banks are so big and important that they are essentially above the law. His Justice Department’s failure to bring any criminal charges against HSBC or its employees is Exhibit A of that problem.

(..} Warren grilled officials from the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency about why HSBC, which recently paid $1.9 billion to settle money laundering charges, wasn’t criminally prosecuted and shut down in the U.S. Nor were any individuals from HSBC charged with any crimes, despite the bank confessing to laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and rogue regimes like Iran and Libya over several years.

Defenders of the Justice Department say that a criminal conviction could have been a death penalty for the bank, causing widespread damage to the economy. Warren wanted to know why the death penalty wasn’t warranted in this case.

“They did it over and over and over again across a period of years. And they were caught doing it, warned not to do it and kept right on doing it, and evidently making profits doing it,”

“How many billions of dollars do you have to launder for drug lords and how many economic sanctions do you have to violate before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution like this?”

“You sit in Treasury and you try to enforce these laws, and I’ve read all of your testimony and you tell me how vigorously you want to enforce these laws, but you have no opinion on when it is that a bank should be shut down for money laundering?”

“If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re gonna go to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life,” Warren said. “But evidently if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your bed at night — every single individual associated with this. And I think that’s fundamentally wrong.”

As staunch an opponent of the death penalty as I am, I would have voted for it and watched the “execution” of HSBC with glee.

Dec 19

Now They Are “Too Big To Jail”

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

Last summer it was revealed that one of the world’s largest banks based, HSBC, base in Britain, had been laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and skirting US government bans against financial transactions with Iran and other countries that aid Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In a stunning move during a hearing before the  Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chief compliance officer, David Bagley, took the blame and resigned.

Last week the federal government and New York State announced a settlement with HSBC:

In a filing in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, federal prosecutors said the bank had agreed to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement and to forfeit $1.25 billion. The four-count criminal information filed in the court charged HSBC with failure to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program, to conduct due diligence on its foreign correspondent affiliates, and for violating sanctions and the Trading With the Enemy Act.

“HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight – and worse – that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries,” Lanny A. Breuer, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement. [..]

HSBC, based in Britain, has also agreed to pay the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, one of the bank’s central regulators, an additional $500 million as part of a civil penalty. The Federal Reserve will be paid a $165 million civil penalty. [..]

HSBC also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Manhattan district attorney’s office. As part of that agreement, HSBC admitted that it violated New York State law.

Just like the mortgage and banking fraud that was uncovered during the financial crisis, there will be no criminal charges. The fines that were levied are tantamount to about five weeks of income for the bank. Contributing editor for the Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi points out the outrageous incongruity of this settlement:

If you’ve ever been arrested on a drug charge, if you’ve ever spent even a day in jail for having a stem of marijuana in your pocket or “drug paraphernalia” in your gym bag, Assistant Attorney General and longtime Bill Clinton pal Lanny Breuer has a message for you: Bite me. [..]

The banks’ laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space. Breuer admitted that drug dealers would sometimes come to HSBC’s Mexican branches and “deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows.”

This bears repeating: in order to more efficiently move as much illegal money as possible into the “legitimate” banking institution HSBC, drug dealers specifically designed boxes to fit through the bank’s teller windows. [..]

Though this was not stated explicitly, the government’s rationale in not pursuing criminal prosecutions against the bank was apparently rooted in concerns that putting executives from a “systemically important institution” in jail for drug laundering would threaten the stability of the financial system. The New York Times put it this way:

   Federal and state authorities have chosen not to indict HSBC, the London-based bank, on charges of vast and prolonged money laundering, for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system. [..]

So there is absolutely no reason they couldn’t all face criminal penalties. That they are not being prosecuted is cowardice and pure corruption, nothing else. And by approving this settlement, Breuer removed the government’s moral authority to prosecute anyone for any other drug offense. Not that most people didn’t already know that the drug war is a joke, but this makes it official.

Apparently this settlement has garnered some bipartisan concerns from Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Charles Grassley. In separate statements released from their offices, they criticized the Justice Department for not sending a stronger message to the banking industry. Sen. Grassley said it best:

   The Department has not prosecuted a single employee of HSBC-no executives, no directors, no AML compliance staff members, no one. By allowing these individuals to walk away without any real punishment, the Department is declaring that crime actually does pay. Functionally, HSBC has quite literally purchased a get-out-of-jail-free card for its employees for the price of $1.92 billion dollars.

   There is no doubt that the Department has “missed a rare chance to send an unmistakable signal about the threat posed by financial institutions willing to assist drug lords and terror groups in moving their money.” One international banking expert went as far as to argue that, despite the “astonishing amount of criminal behavior” from HSBC employees, the DPA is no more than a “parking ticket.”

But, as David Dayen at FDL News notes there are crickets from certain key senators:

Matt Stoller makes a very good point here: where is Patrick Leahy on this? He has made no public statement on the HSBC case, despite being the co-author of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, which was supposed to deliver funds toward prosecuting fraudulent big bank activity (it never actually did). Grassley, a co-author, has spoken out. Why not Leahy?

Matt Taibbi sat down with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez at Democracy Now to discuss the settlement:

Transcript can be read here

Now, not only are the banks “too big to fail“, they are “too big to jail.


Jul 19

HSBC: Money Laundering for Drug Dealers & Terrorists

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

As if rate fixing wasn’t bad enough, HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, has been caught laundering money for Mexico, Iran and Syria:

The bank failed to monitor a staggering £38trillion of money moving across borders from places that could have posed a risk, including the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. The failures stretched to dealings with Saudi Arabian bank Al Rajhi, which was linked to the financing of terrorism following 9/11.

HSBC’s American arm, HBUS, initially severed all ties with Al Rajhi. But it later agreed to supply the Saudi bank with US banknotes after it threatened to pull all of its business with HSBC worldwide.

According to the report, HBUS also accepted £9.6billion in cash over two years from subsidiaries without checking where the money came from.

In one instance, Mexican and US authorities warned HSBC that £4.5billion sent to the US from its Mexican subsidiary ‘could reach that volume only if they included illegal drug proceeds’. [..]

The Senate probe also examined banking HSBC did in Saudi Arabia with Al Rajhi Bank, which the report said has links to financing terrorism.

Evidence of those links emerged after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Senate report said, citing U.S. government reports, criminal and civil legal proceedings and media reports. [..]

Some of the money that moved through HSBC was tied to Iran, the report said, which would violate U.S. prohibitions on transactions tied to it and other sanctioned countries.

To conceal the transactions, HSBC affiliates used a method called ‘stripping,’ where references to Iran are deleted from records. HSBC affiliates also characterized the transactions as transfers between banks without disclosing the tie to Iran in what the Senate report called a ‘cover payment.’ [..]

So just how embarrassing is this? Obviously enough that HSBC’s chief compliance officer, David Bagley tendered his resignation during his Senate hearing testimony:

David Bagley, the head of compliance for the British bank since 2002, broke from his prepared testimony to tell the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that “now is the appropriate time for me and for the bank for someone new to serve as the head of group compliance.”

They don’t need no stinking regulation, that might hurt those “job creators.”