Patriotism is for the Little People

June 14th, 2012 by Phil Mattera

ING’s “Your Number” ad campaign touts the financial services company’s ability to help customers figure out how much they need to save for retirement.  We’ve just learned that ING’s own number is $619 million, the amount it had to pay to settle charges of having violated federal law by systematically concealing its prohibited transactions with Iran and Cuba.

The penalty agreed to by Netherlands-based ING is the largest in a series of cases in which major banks have been accused of doing business with countries targeted by U.S. economic sanctions. One of those banks is JPMorgan Chase, whose CEO Jamie Dimon just appeared before Congress to explain billions of dollars in trading losses and was treated with deference by most members of the Senate Banking Committee. It was just ten months ago that JPMorgan paid $88 million to resolve civil charges related to thousands of prohibited funds transfers for Iranian and Cuban parties.

JPMorgan got off a lot cheaper than some European banks, which were hit with criminal as well as civil charges. Apart from ING, Lloyds Banking Group paid $350 million in 2009, Credit Suisse paid $536 million that same year, and Barclays paid $298 million in 2010. Yet even those amounts did not cause much pain for the large institutions. In fact, they were undoubtedly happy to pay the penalties as part of arrangements that allowed them to avoid more serious legal consequences. They all were granted deferred prosecution deals under which they avoided a formal criminal conviction by vowing to clean up their act. A frustrated federal judge in the Barclays case called the settlement a “sweetheart deal” but approved it nonetheless.

The most comprehensive U.S. economic sanctions currently in force are aimed at Cuba, Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Sudan and Syria. More limited sanctions regimes apply to various other countries such as North Korea and Somalia. The Cuban sanctions, which date back to 1962, were adopted under the rubric of the World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act. More recent restrictions are based primarily on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1976.

Starting in the George W. Bush Administration, attention was directed from countries as a whole to designated individuals and organizations from those countries and others deemed to be acting against U.S. interests, including alleged terrorists and terrorist financiers. These parties are included in a list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons maintained by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC), which enforces the civil provisions of the sanctions laws.

Violations of these laws did not begin with the recent bank cases. In 2002 the Corporate Crime Reporter obtained documents from OFAC revealing previously unreported enforcement actions against companies such as Boeing, Citigroup, General Electric, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. The agency had brought 115 cases over a four-year period. Over the past decade, OFAC has been more open about its enforcement actions, but fewer U.S. companies are being targeted.

The reason is not that American firms have gotten more ethical, but rather because many of them have in effect been allowed to sidestep the law. In December 2010 the New York Times revealed that the Treasury Department has been granting licenses to many large companies to sell goods to Iran under an exceedingly broad interpretation of the agricultural and humanitarian exemptions. Among the products that sneaked in under those loopholes were cigarettes and chewing gum.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom or efficacy of economic sanctions, the way in which large companies have related to them says a lot about corporate power. It’s clear that, whenever possible, they will put their commercial interests ahead of strict compliance with the law and adherence to the foreign policy objectives of their own government and those of its allies. When individuals collaborate with enemy nations they risk indefinite detention. When corporations do so, they receive affordable fines while avoiding serious legal consequences. Even admitted violators such as ING, Credit Suisse, Lloyds and Barclays do not end up on OFAC’s blacklist.

The late real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley once said that paying taxes is only for the little people; apparently, patriotism falls into the same category.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.