The big U.S. banks have been accused of helping bring about the near destruction of the world financial system. According to an indictment just announced by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the banks also played a role, albeit unwittingly, in a conspiracy involving the proliferation of actual weapons of mass destruction.
Morgenthau (photo) brought a 118-count indictment against Chinese national Li Fang Wei and his metallurgical company LIMMT for conspiring to deceive half a dozen major U.S. banks into transferring funds used in the sale of banned weapons material to the Iranian military. The banks are JP Morgan Chase, Bank of New York Mellon, Citibank, Bank of America, Wachovia and American Express Bank.
The banks themselves were not charged, but it is remarkable how easily they were duped by Li, whose company had been placed on a Treasury Department blacklist in 2006 because of its dealings with the Iranians, which allegedly included the sale of components for long-range missiles capable of delivering WMDs.
Morgenthau’s press release says that “U.S. banks employ sophisticated anti-fraud and anti-money laundering computer systems to detect illegal payments from sanctioned entities and people.” Yet it seems that all Li had to do to circumvent that system was to tell his customers that the English-language name of his firm had changed (he used dubious aliases such as Blue Sky Industry Corporation). In some instances he did not even bother to change his telephone and fax numbers.
Morgenthau went out of his way to exonerate the banks, but he couldn’t resist mentioning that there are “parallels” between the LIMMT case and his office’s ongoing investigation of “stripping,” a practice in which banks remove identifying information from wire transfers to enable clients to avoid restrictions on transactions involving countries under U.S. sanctions. In January, Morgenthau’s office announced that British bank Lloyds TSB would pay $350 million in fines and forfeitures in connection with a deferred prosecution agreement involving the practice. Lloyds was accused of helping Iranian and Sudanese clients circumvent the Treasury blacklist.
Is it possible that by alluding to the Lloyds case Morgenthau was hinting that the banks in the LIMMT matter were not purely innocent parties? After all, there have been numerous other cases in which large banks have been accused of helping shady clients by failing to enforce rules designed to thwart money laundering. For instance, a decade ago Citibank was accused of doing nothing to stop the brother of Mexico’s former president from transferring large sums allegedly linked to drug smuggling and influence peddling. In 2004 Japan ordered the closure of Citi’s private banking operations in that country for violations that included a failure to implement money-laundering prevention procedures. In 2007 the NASD, now the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, fined a securities subsidiary of Bank of America $3 million for violating anti-money laundering rules in failing to collect adequate information on certain high-risk accounts.
The banks may have been the fools in the LIMMT case, but they have often been knaves when it comes to the enforcement of international banking rules that may stand in the way of profit.