U.S. Officials Hope HSBC Penalty Sends A Message

One of Britain's largest banks has agreed to pay $1.9 billion to settle money laundering charges brought by U.S. officials. HSBC acknowledged that it transferred money for Mexican drug cartels and for countries such as Iran that are under international sanctions.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. It is the biggest penalty ever paid by a bank to the U.S. government. HSBC, a British company, will hand over $1.9 billion to settle a money laundering case. The Justice Department says HSBC violated the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading With The Enemy Act by doing business with the likes of Iran.

In a moment, we'll hear from a former Treasury official about whether the punishment in this case really fits the crime, but first, details from NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: U.S. officials called HSBC's conduct egregious and said the huge penalty leveled against the bank would send a message to other global financial institutions. Lanny Breuer heads the Justice Department's criminal division.

LANNY BREUER: The record of dysfunction that prevailed in HSBC for many years was simply astonishing. Today, HSBC is paying a heavy price for its conduct.

ZARROLI: U.S. officials say the bank allowed itself to be used by Mexican drug cartels that wanted to launder illegal profits. One drug baron was heard on tape in 2008 boasting that HSBC's Mexican subsidiary was the place to go to launder money. U.S. officials also say that HSBC allowed countries such as Iran, Cuba and Libya to do business in the United States, evading economic sanctions.

Treasury Department undersecretary David Cohen said the bank turned a blind eye to what was happening.

DAVID COHEN: In all, HSBC's wholly inadequate anti-money laundering practices and procedures left dangerous gaps that international drug dealers and other criminals readily abused.

ZARROLI: As part of the settlement HSBC has agreed to overhaul its compliance department. In exchange, the government agreed to defer prosecution indefinitely and it stopped short of charging any individuals at the bank with criminal conduct. At a press conference, the Justice Department's Lanny Breuer was repeatedly questioned about whether the settlement went far enough.

Breuer noted that the $1.9 billion settlement was the largest ever paid by a bank.

BREUER: It's a fiction to suggest that this isn't a very robust result. We've gone after the cartels. We've gone after the traffickers. And in this particular case, we have held a financial institution absolutely accountable.

ZARROLI: But Breuer also acknowledged that U.S. officials had weighed the size and importance of HSBC in deciding how to resolve the case. He noted that a more severe penalty, such as revoking the bank's license to operate in the U.S., would have had reverberations throughout the economy costing thousands of jobs.

BREUER: And if you look at what's an appropriate resolution, you look at the underlying conduct, clearly very, very serious. You look at the cooperation, clearly excellent. And you look at the collateral consequences, so it's certainly a factor.

ZARROLI: For its part, HSBC said it was determined to turn over a new leaf. In a statement, its chief executive said the bank is profoundly sorry for its mistakes. HSBC, he said, is a fundamentally different organization from the one that made those mistakes. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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