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Now a London-based bank, Standard Chartered Bank, enjoyed a sterling reputation until this week. The bank now faces charges it laundered about a quarter of a trillion dollars of Iranian funds through its U.S. division. In addition to violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, bank executives allegedly lied to investigators, and then tried to cover their tracks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This case raises questions - not just about Standard Chartered's viability, but also about U.S. laws that apply to foreign banks.

INSKEEP: Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The terror attacks of September 11th prompted the U.S. government to keep a closer eye on the flow of foreign funds. Any money passing through the U.S. must comply with increasingly strict rules.

Jeffrey Neiman is a former federal prosecutor.

JEFFREY NEIMAN: The rules are on the books that make it more and more difficult. But the bottom line is you can have all the laws in the world, if people want to launder money, there's always going to be people who can find a way to launder money.

NOGUCHI: What experts say is remarkable about the charges against Standard Chartered Bank is the extent of their efforts to carry out a huge number of transactions over nearly a decade, starting in 2001.

The case, brought by the New York Department of Financial Services, reads like a true crime novel. The bank allegedly set up an elaborate system to send electronic payments through its U.S. division, to and from Iranian banks. To disguise these payments, they stripped or falsified data in wire transfers. The case also cites emails in which bank executives fret about getting caught. They allegedly colluded with consultant Deloitte and Touche to mask violations.

David Stewart heads the financial crimes division for SAS Systems, a technology company that helps banks and regulators prevent fraud.

DAVID STEWART: The big elephant in the room is that banks outside the U.S., during a global financial crisis, find it very tempting to have very profitable business relationships with banks or potentially sanctioned entities or other high-risk individuals that the U.S. government would prefer they not do business with.

NOGUCHI: Such transactions are subject to rules set by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control - also known as OFAC. But Stewart says OFAC and its rules often meet with ridicule.

STEWART: I was just at an Asian bank, and a gentleman who was over compliance jokingly said: We hate you Americans because of OFAC. And he was only half-joking.

NOGUCHI: The charges come after six other European banks have settled or are accused of laundering money - including, most recently, British bank HSBC.

Standard Chartered declined an interview, but in a statement said it strongly rejects the portrayal of facts in the case. It says most of its transactions relating to Iran complied with regulations. Deloitte and Touche denied knowledge of misconduct.

Charles Intriago is president of the Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists. He says regulations have not made it much harder to launder money.

CHARLES INTRIAGO: It's not difficult. There are so many ways to disguise the flow of money.

NOGUCHI: But, Intriago says, every transaction also leaves a digital record - a footprint that is nearly impossible to erase. And Intriago and other investigators say searching electronically for evidence - known as e-discovery - makes sifting through reams of transactions much easier.

Still, Standard Chartered's worst enemy, he says, are the emails executives exchanged acknowledging their deception.

Is it possible to interpret this more than one way?

INTRIAGO: I don't think so.

NOGUCHI: Jimmy Gurule is a former undersecretary at the Treasury Department who oversaw OFAC. He says uncovering schemes is much harder these days because the banks themselves are apparently flouting their own internal rules, as well as those of the U.S. government.

JIMMY GURULE: If it's the banks that are the persons that are involved in the money laundering and the corruption, yeah, it's going to be harder to detect. And why is there reason to believe that other banks, to one extent or another, are not involved in this?

NOGUCHI: Moreover, Gurule notes, no bank executive is in jail for their crimes.

GURULE: We've seen a pattern here of this, I think, rather deferential treatment given to the bank and the bank officials, and I think it's created this environment of impunity. I think these bank officials - hey, why not?

NOGUCHI: In addition to the civil charges brought by New York State, Standard Chartered faces federal criminal investigations.

Jeffrey Neiman, the former prosecutor, says the reason it's so hard to punish a bank is that other factors must be weighed.

NEIMAN: One of the big factors that are looked at is: What are the collateral consequences? And that's always going to be in the back of someone's mind before they authorize the indictment of a bank, which is going to put the bank out of the business, is that: How many jobs are going to be lost? How much money is going to have to find somewhere to go? What's going to happen to the markets? It's reality.

NOGUCHI: Standard Chartered faces state regulators next week. It could get hit with penalties and possibly the loss of its license to operate in the U.S.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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