Regulators Draw Flak Meant for Corporate Perps

August 9th, 2012 by Phil Mattera

When a mobster or street criminal declares “I was framed” and expresses disdain for police and prosecutors, we dismiss it as part of their sociopathic tendencies. Yet when corporate transgressors do essentially the same thing by criticizing government regulators, they are taken much more seriously. All too often, business perps succeed in portraying themselves as the victims.

This charade is being played out yet again amid the current wave of scandals involving major U.S. and British banks. In the latest case, Britain’s Standard Chartered has been accused by New York State banking regulator Benjamin Lawsky of scheming with the Iranian government to launder billions of dollars in funds that might have been used to support terrorist activists.

Rather than being outraged by the fact a major financial institution may very well have provided substantial material support to a regime that the governments of the United States and other western countries spend so much time vilifying, most of the criticism seems to be aimed at Lawsky.

Some of this criticism, not surprisingly, is coming from Standard Chartered itself, which insists that 99.9 percent of its dealings with Iranian parties were legitimate and that it was already cooperating with other regulatory agencies in investigating the matter. Those other agencies, including the Federal Reserve and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, seem to be siding with Standard Chartered. An article in the New York Times served as a conduit for allegations by unnamed federal officials seeking that Lawsky’s case was seriously flawed.

The accusations against Standard Chartered are hardly unprecedented. Only two months ago, the Justice Department announced that the Netherlands-based ING Bank had agreed to pay $619 million to settle charges of having violated federal law by systematically concealing prohibited transactions with Iran and Cuba. Last month, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report of more than 300 pages on the poor record of the British bank HSBC in avoiding money-laundering transactions linked to terrorism and drug dealing.

The unfriendly response to the Lawsky allegations is not just a matter of the usual tension between federal and New York State regulators when it comes to financial sector investigations. Disapproving comments have also come from officials in Britain, with one member of parliament making the ridiculous suggestion that anti-British bias was involved.

There’s something much larger at stake. We’re in the midst of an ongoing corporate crime wave, with major banks among the most prominent perpetrators. As the Times points out, large corporations are on track to pay as much as $8 billion this year to resolve allegations of defrauding the federal government, a record amount and more than twice the amount from last year.

We should be focusing our criticisms on the companies involved in these and other cases that have not yet reached the settlement stage—not the regulators and prosecutors trying to control the corporate misconduct.

If there is any criticism to be made of regulators, it is that too few of them resemble Lawsky. They are more likely to treat corporations with kid gloves, given that too many of them either come from the private sector or end up there after their stint in government. Or else they simply fail to take decisive action. In the other major financial scandal of the day—the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index by Barclays and other major banks—regulators such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York knew of the abuses years ago and were slow to do anything. The inaction was brazenly used by former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond as a way of spreading the blame for the rate-rigging.

No discussion of regulation would be complete without mentioning the problem that many of the rules are too weak to begin with. The individual most responsible for this during the Obama Administration—Cass Sunstein—recently announced that he will be leaving the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to return to academia. An indication of the damage inflicted by Sunstein can be gauged by the fact that both the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bemoaned his departure. Hopefully, Sunstein’s successor will make it harder for corporate malefactors to ply their trade.

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