Archive for the ‘Money laundering’ Category

Jack Lew’s Citigroup Baggage

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

LewFor the past four years, the presence of Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury has been a blight on the Obama Administration.

In keeping with his weak performance as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Geithner has allowed Wall Street culprits to enjoy lavish assistance from taxpayers as they avoid any serious consequences for having brought on the financial crisis from which the country is still trying to recover.

Now that Geithner is departing, Obama had a chance to take Treasury in a new direction. His choice of White House chief of staff Jack Lew for the post is not a good sign. As a deficit hawk, Lew will reinforce the president’s regrettable inclination to take seriously the wrong-headed notion that the country has a spending problem.

Yet perhaps even more troubling is Lew’s background, particularly the fact that he is a veteran of one of the leading financial-sector miscreants: Citigroup. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for presidents to turn to Wall Street for their Treasury secretaries. Ronald Reagan brought in Don Regan from Merrill Lynch; Bill Clinton got Robert Rubin from Goldman Sachs; and George W. Bush turned to Goldman again when he chose Hank Paulson to be his third Treasury head. The difference is that Lew is the first Wall Street veteran to be chosen for Treasury since the financial meltdown of 2008 exposed the pernicious behavior of the giant banks.

While Lew is not a Wall Street lifer and is not coming straight from the private sector, his time at the bank (2006-2009) was not long ago. Moreover, he was personally involved in some of Citi’s dubious practices. In 2010 the Huffington Post reported that when Lew served as chief financial officer of Citi’s Alternative Investments operation his portfolio included investments put together by hedge fund manager John Paulson that made a killing by correctly betting that the housing market would tank. This was the same Paulson who helped Goldman Sachs put together a similar notorious deal that led to SEC charges and a $550 million settlement.

Actually, Lew’s dealings with Paulson are just the beginning of why it wrong for Obama to be selecting a veteran of Citigroup to such an important position in his administration. It is well known that Citi was bailed out by the federal government to the tune of $45 billion while also getting loss protection for some $300 billion in toxic assets. What some may have forgotten is the absolutely abysmal track record of Citi before and after the bailout, including the following:

It was the merger of Citibank and Travelers Group—technically illegal when it was announced in 1998—that played a key role in bringing about the disastrous policy of financial deregulation.

Citi gave a boost to predatory lending and subprime mortgages when it purchased Associates First Capital. In 2001 Citi had to pay $215 million to settle charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission in connection with Associates’ abusive practices.

In the wake of revelations that it helped Enron conceal its massive accounting fraud, Citi had to pay $2 billion to settle lawsuits brought by Enron investors. It later paid another $2.65 billion to settle lawsuits brought by investors in WorldCom, another perpetrator of accounting fraud, alleging that Citi failed to perform due diligence when underwriting the company’s bonds.

In 2010 the SEC announced that Citi would pay a $75 million penalty to settle allegations that it misled investors about its exposure to subprime mortgage-related assets. The following year, Citi paid $285 million to the SEC to settle charges that it defrauded investors in a $1 billion collateralized debt obligation tied to the U.S. housing market.

The settlement amount in the latter SEC case, which was far below the $700 million in losses suffered by the defrauded investors, was roundly criticized by the federal judge, Jed Rakoff, who was overseeing the case. Judge Rakoff also challenged the SEC’s willingness to let Citi get off without admitting guilt in the matter, calling the deal “neither reasonable, nor fair, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.” He rejected the settlement, but the SEC filed an appeal, which is not yet fully resolved.

Citi was one of five large mortgage servicers that in February 2012 consented to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and state attorneys general to resolve allegations of loan servicing and foreclosure abuses. That same month, U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan announced that Citi would pay $158 million to settle charges that its mortgage unit fraudulently misled the federal government into insuring thousands of risky home loans. In August 2012 Citi agreed to pay $590 million to settle lawsuits charging that it deceived investors by concealing the extent of its exposure to toxic subprime debt. And just this month, Citi was one of ten major lenders that agreed to pay a total of $8.5 billion to resolve claims of foreclosure abuses.

Lew, of course, was not personally responsible for all these offenses, but his association with this rogue bank is strong enough to disqualify him from a top economic policy position.

Note: This history draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Citigroup, which was just posted here.

The 2012 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Monopoly_Go_Directly_To_Jail-T-linkCorporate crime has been with us for a long time, but 2012 may be remembered as the year in which billion-dollar fines and settlements related to those offenses started to become commonplace. Over the past 12 months, more than half a dozen companies have had to accede to ten-figure penalties (along with plenty of nine-figure cases) to resolve allegations ranging from money laundering and interest-rate manipulation to environmental crimes and illegal marketing of prescription drugs.

The still-unresolved question is whether even these heftier penalties are punitive enough, given that corporate misconduct shows no sign of abating. To help in the consideration of that issue, here is an overview of the year’s corporate misconduct.

BRIBERY. The most notorious corporate bribery scandal of the year involves Wal-Mart, which apart from its unabashed union-busting has tried to cultivate a squeaky clean image. A major investigation by the New York Times in April showed that top executives at the giant retailer thwarted and ultimately shelved an internal probe of extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials as part of an effort to increase Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico. A recent follow-up report by the Times provides amazing new details.

Wal-Mart is not alone in its behavior. This year, drug giant Pfizer had to pay $60 million to resolve federal charges related to bribing of doctors, hospital administrators and government regulators in Europe and Asia. Tyco International paid $27 million to resolve bribery charges against several of its subsidiaries. Avon Products is reported to be in discussions with the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve a bribery probe.

MONEY LAUNDERING AND ECONOMIC SANCTIONS. In June the U.S. Justice Department announced that Dutch bank ING would pay $619 million to resolve allegations that it had violated U.S. economic sanctions against countries such as Iran and Cuba. The following month, a U.S. Senate report charged that banking giant HSBC had for years looked the other way as its far-flung operations were being used for money laundering by drug traffickers and potential terrorist financiers. In August, the British bank Standard Chartered agreed to pay $340 million to settle New York State charges that it laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in tainted money for Iran and lied to regulators about its actions; this month it agreed to pay another $327 million to settle related federal charges. Recently, HSBC reached a $1.9 billion money-laundering settlement with federal authorities.

INTEREST-RATE MANIPULATION.  This was the year in which it became clear that giant banks have routinely manipulated the key LIBOR interest rate index to their advantage. In June, Barclays agreed to pay about $450 million to settle charges brought over this issue by U.S. and UK regulators. UBS just agreed to pay $1.5 billion to U.S., UK and Swiss authorities and have one of its subsidiaries plead guilty to a criminal fraud charge in connection with LIBOR manipulation.

DISCRIMINATORY LENDING. In July, it was announced that Wells Fargo would pay $175 million to settle allegations that the bank discriminated against black and Latino borrowers in making home mortgage loans.

DECEIVING INVESTORS. In August, Citigroup agreed to pay $590 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it failed to disclose its full exposure to toxic subprime mortgage debt in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. The following month, Bank of America said it would pay $2.4 billion to settle an investor class-action suit charging that it made false and misleading statements during its acquisition of Merrill Lynch during the crisis. In November, JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse agreed to pay a total of $417 million to settle SEC charges of deception in the sale of mortgage securities to investors.

DEBT-COLLECTION ABUSES. In October, American Express agreed to pay $112 million to settle charges of abusive debt-collection practices, improper late fees and deceptive marketing of its credit cards.

DEFRAUDING GOVERNMENT. In March, the Justice Department announced that Lockheed Martin would pay $15.9 million to settle allegations that it overcharged the federal government for tools used in military aircraft programs. In October, Bank of America was charged by federal prosecutors with defrauding government-backed mortgage agencies by cranking out faulty loans in the period leading to the financial crisis.

PRICE-FIXING. European antitrust regulators recently imposed the equivalent of nearly $2 billion in fines on electronics companies such as Panasonic, LG, Samsung and Philips for conspiring to fix the prices of television and computer displays. Earlier in the year, the Taiwanese company AU Optronics was fined $500 million by a U.S. court for similar behavior.

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIMES. This year saw a legal milestone in the prosecution of BP for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling accident that killed 11 workers and spilled a vast quantity of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The company pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges and was hit with $4.5 billion in criminal fines and other penalties. BP was also temporarily barred from getting new federal contracts.

ILLEGAL MARKETING. In July the U.S. Justice Department announced that British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline would pay a total of $3 billion to settle criminal and civil charges such as the allegation that it illegally marketed its antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin for unapproved and possibly unsafe purposes. The marketing included kickbacks to doctors and other health professionals. The settlement also covered charges relating to the failure to report safety data and overcharging federal healthcare programs. In May, Abbott Laboratories agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle illegal marketing charges.

COVERING UP SAFETY PROBLEMS. In April, Johnson & Johnson was ordered by a federal judge to pay $1.2 billion after a jury found that the company had concealed safety problems associated with its anti-psychotic drug Risperdal. Toyota was recently fined $17 million by the U.S. Transportation Department for failing to notify regulators about a spate of cases in which floor mats in Lexus SUVs were sliding out of position and interfering with gas pedals.

EXAGGERATING FUEL EFFICIENCY. In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that Hyundai and Kia had overstated the fuel economy ratings of many of the vehicles they had sold over the past two years.

UNSANITARY PRODUCTION. An outbreak of meningitis earlier this year was tied to tainted steroid syringes produced by specialty pharmacies New England Compounding Center and Ameridose that had a history of operating in an unsanitary manner.

FATAL WORKFORCE ACCIDENTS. The Bangladeshi garment factory where a November fire killed more than 100 workers (who had been locked in by their bosses) turned out to be a supplier for Western companies such as Wal-Mart, which is notorious for squeezing contractors to such an extent that they have no choice but to make impossible demands on their employees and force them to work under dangerous conditions.

UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES. Wal-Mart also creates harsh conditions for its domestic workforce. When a new campaign called OUR Walmart announced plans for peaceful job actions on the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, the company ignored the issues they were raising and tried to get the National Labor Relations Board to block the protests. Other companies that employed anti-union tactics such as lockouts and excessive concessionary demands during the year included Lockheed Martin and Caterpillar.

TAX DODGING. While it is often not technically criminal, tax dodging by large companies frequently bends the law almost beyond recognition. For example, in April an exposé in the New York Times showed how Apple avoids billions of dollars in tax liabilities through elaborate accounting gimmicks such as the “Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich,” which involves artificially routing profits through various tax haven countries.

FORCED LABOR. In November, global retailer IKEA was revealed to have made use of prison labor in East Germany in the 1980s.

Note: For fuller dossiers on a number of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets. The latest additions to the rap sheet inventory are drug giants AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly.

Regulators Draw Flak Meant for Corporate Perps

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

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.