If this news story does not prove that banks are effectively above the law, I don’t know what does. The Guardian, in an account yet to be picked up anywhere in the US media (per Google News as of this posting, hat tip readers May S and Swedish Lex) reports that Wachovia was at the heart of one of the world’s biggest money laundering operations, moving $378.4 billion into dollar-based accounts from Mexican casas de cambio, which are currency exchange firms. While these transfers took place over a period of years, the article notes that it equals 1/3 of Mexican GDP. And the resolution?
Criminal proceedings were brought against Wachovia, though not against any individual, but the case never came to court. In March 2010, Wachovia settled the biggest action brought under the US bank secrecy act, through the US district court in Miami. Now that the year’s “deferred prosecution” has expired, the bank is in effect in the clear. It paid federal authorities $110m in forfeiture, for allowing transactions later proved to be connected to drug smuggling, and incurred a $50m fine for failing to monitor cash used to ship 22 tons of cocaine.
The operation may have started sooner, but the Wachovia admitted in the settlement that as of 2004 it had reason to address the procedures used for these transfers and chose not to. Martin Woods, a London-based employee and former member of the Metropolitan drug squad, had been hired as a senior anti-money laundering officer and started tightening up the activities within his reach. In 2006, he identified a number of obviously problematic transactions coming out of the casas:
Woods discussed the matter with Wachovia’s global head of anti-money laundering for correspondent banking….He then undertook what banks call a “look back” at previous transactions and saw fit to submit a series of SARs, or suspicious activity reports, to the authorities in the UK and his superiors in Charlotte, urging the blocking of named parties and large series of sequentially numbered traveller’s cheques from Mexico. He issued a number of SARs in 2006, of which 50 related to the casas de cambio in Mexico. To his amazement, the response from Wachovia’s Miami office, the centre for Latin American business, was anything but supportive – he felt it was quite the reverse.
As it turned out, however, Woods was on the right track. Wachovia’s business in Mexico was coming under closer and closer scrutiny by US federal law enforcement. Wachovia was issued with a number of subpoenas for information on its Mexican operation. Woods has subsequently been informed that Wachovia had six or seven thousand subpoenas. He says this was “An absurd number. So at what point does someone at the highest level not get the feeling that something is very, very wrong?”
In April and May 2007, Wachovia – as a result of increasing interest and pressure from the US attorney’s office – began to close its relationship with some of the casas de cambio. But rather than launch an internal investigation into Woods’s alerts over Mexico, Woods claims Wachovia hung its own money-laundering expert out to dry….
Later in 2007, after the investigation of Wachovia was reported in the US financial media, the bank decided to end its remaining relationships with the Mexican casas de cambio globally. By this time, Woods says, he found his personal situation within the bank untenable…
On 16 June Woods was told by Wachovia’s head of compliance that his latest SAR need not have been filed, that he had no legal requirement to investigate an overseas case and no right of access to documents held overseas from Britain, even if they were held by Wachovia…
Late in 2007, Woods attended a function at Scotland Yard where colleagues from the US were being entertained. There, he sought out a representative of the Drug Enforcement Administration and told him about the casas de cambio, the SARs and his employer’s reaction. The Federal Reserve and officials of the office of comptroller of currency in Washington DC then “spent a lot of time examining the SARs” that had been sent by Woods to Charlotte from London.
The article recounts how the DEA, the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service and the US attorney’s office in southern Florida were taking a hard look at wire transfers out of Mexico and found that they wound up at the correspondent bank account of the casas at Wachovia were supervised by its Miami branch. From the Guardian:
“On numerous occasions,” say the court papers, “monies were deposited into a CDC by a drug-trafficking organisation. Using false identities, the CDC then wired that money through its Wachovia correspondent bank accounts for the purchase of airplanes for drug-trafficking organisations.” The court settlement of 2010 would detail that “nearly $13m went through correspondent bank accounts at Wachovia for the purchase of aircraft to be used in the illegal narcotics trade. From these aircraft, more than 20,000kg of cocaine were seized.”
The story provides a great deal more detail about the money laundering operations and the investigation. It is an excellent job of reporting and I urge you to read it in full. It is very clear the US put a lot of resources into the investigation. So why did Wachovia get off so easy?
At the height of the 2008 banking crisis, Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”…
[Paul] Mazur [lead infiltrator of the Medellin drug operation] said that “a lot of the law enforcement people were disappointed to see a settlement” between the administration and Wachovia. “But I know there were external circumstances that worked to Wachovia’s benefit, not least that the US banking system was on the edge of collapse.”
I suspect you never imagined “too big to fail” and “too big to jail” were this intimately connected.