Oldspeak: “The banking corporation HSBC has escaped indictment for laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda. Despite evidence of wrongdoing, the U.S. Department of Justice has allowed the bank to avoid prosecution and pay a $1.9 billion fine. No top HSBC officials will face charges, either.” -Amy Goodman “When your most elite, most powerful members of the society adopt a strategy of plundering, then they will develop a morality that doesn’t simply permit plundering, but valorizes it. And when that happens, the moral structures of the society will inevitably deteriorate. In the upper classes that leads to polite looting. In the under classes that leads to street looting. -William K. Black This is the nature of Inverted Totalitarian Kleptocracy. Blatant, rampant and repeated, spectacular violations of the law by those in the “inner party” go unpunished. Brutal, unyielding, heavy handed, clinical enforcement of the law for those in the “outer party” and “proles” for the most ridiculously dubious “laws”. HSBC joins an impressive list, Bank Of America, Citigroup, Wachovia, Wells Fargo, all found to be laundering money for illegal foreign organizations. Why is HSBC laundering money for known affiliates of terrorists? How is this organization not guilty of “material support for terrorism”, for which untold Muslims and anti-government activists are disappeared regularly? And no one goes to jail. As long as corporations fiance elected officials, write regulations and the legislation that establishes regulations, madness like this will continue. And get worse.
By Matt Taibbi @ Rolling Stone:
If you’ve ever been arrested on a drug charge, if you’ve ever spent even a day in jail for having a stem of marijuana in your pocket or “drug paraphernalia” in your gym bag, Assistant Attorney General and longtime Bill Clinton pal Lanny Breuer has a message for you: Bite me.
Breuer this week signed off on a settlement deal with the British banking giant HSBC that is the ultimate insult to every ordinary person who’s ever had his life altered by a narcotics charge. Despite the fact that HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act), Breuer and his Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a “record” financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted is about five weeks of income for the bank.
The banks’ laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space. Breuer admitted that drug dealers would sometimes come to HSBC’s Mexican branches and “deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows.”
This bears repeating: in order to more efficiently move as much illegal money as possible into the “legitimate” banking institution HSBC, drug dealers specifically designed boxes to fit through the bank’s teller windows. Tony Montana’s henchmen marching dufflebags of cash into the fictional “American City Bank” in Miami was actually more subtle than what the cartels were doing when they washed their cash through one of Britain’s most storied financial institutions.
Though this was not stated explicitly, the government’s rationale in not pursuing criminal prosecutions against the bank was apparently rooted in concerns that putting executives from a “systemically important institution” in jail for drug laundering would threaten the stability of the financial system. The New York Times put it this way:
Federal and state authorities have chosen not to indict HSBC, the London-based bank, on charges of vast and prolonged money laundering, for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the reasoning here is beyond flawed. When you decide not to prosecute bankers for billion-dollar crimes connected to drug-dealing and terrorism (some of HSBC’s Saudi and Bangladeshi clients had terrorist ties, according to a Senate investigation), it doesn’t protect the banking system, it does exactly the opposite. It terrifies investors and depositors everywhere, leaving them with the clear impression that even the most “reputable” banks may in fact be captured institutions whose senior executives are in the employ of (this can’t be repeated often enough) murderersand terrorists. Even more shocking, the Justice Department’s response to learning about all of this was to do exactly the same thing that the HSBC executives did in the first place to get themselves in trouble – they took money to look the other way.
And not only did they sell out to drug dealers, they sold out cheap. You’ll hear bragging this week by the Obama administration that they wrested a record penalty from HSBC, but it’s a joke. Some of the penalties involved will literally make you laugh out loud. This is from Breuer’s announcement:
As a result of the government’s investigation, HSBC has . . . “clawed back” deferred compensation bonuses given to some of its most senior U.S. anti-money laundering and compliance officers, and agreed to partially defer bonus compensation for its most senior officials during the five-year period of the deferred prosecution agreement.
Wow. So the executives who spent a decade laundering billions of dollars will have to partially defer their bonuses during the five-year deferred prosecution agreement? Are you fucking kidding me? That’s the punishment? The government’s negotiators couldn’t hold firm on forcing HSBC officials to completely wait to receive their ill-gotten bonuses? They had to settle on making them “partially” wait? Every honest prosecutor in America has to be puking his guts out at such bargaining tactics. What was the Justice Department’s opening offer – asking executives to restrict their Caribbean vacation time to nine weeks a year?
So you might ask, what’s the appropriate financial penalty for a bank in HSBC’s position? Exactly how much money should one extract from a firm that has been shamelessly profiting from business with criminals for years and years? Remember, we’re talking about a company that has admitted to a smorgasbord of serious banking crimes. If you’re the prosecutor, you’ve got this bank by the balls. So how much money should you take?
How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they’ve ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby’s auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don’t think twice. And then throw them in jail.
Sound harsh? It does, doesn’t it? The only problem is, that’s exactly what the government does just about every day to ordinary people involved in ordinary drug cases.
It’d be interesting, for instance, to ask the residents of Tenaha, Texas what they think about the HSBC settlement. That’s the town where local police routinely pulled over (mostly black) motorists and, whenever they found cash, offered motorists a choice: They could either allow police to seize the money, or face drug and money laundering charges.
Or we could ask Anthony Smelley, the Indiana resident who won $50,000 in a car accident settlement and was carrying about $17K of that in cash in his car when he got pulled over. Cops searched his car and had drug dogs sniff around: The dogs alerted twice. No drugs were found, but police took the money anyway. Even after Smelley produced documentation proving where he got the money from, Putnam County officials tried to keep the money on the grounds that he could have used the cash to buy drugs in the future.
Seriously, that happened. It happens all the time, and even Lanny Breuer’s own Justice Deparment gets into the act. In 2010 alone, U.S. Attorneys’ offices deposited nearly $1.8 billion into government accounts as a result of forfeiture cases, most of them drug cases. You can see the Justice Department’s own statistics right here:
If you get pulled over in America with cash and the government even thinks it’s drug money, that cash is going to be buying your local sheriff or police chief a new Ford Expedition tomorrow afternoon.
And that’s just the icing on the cake. The real prize you get for interacting with a law enforcement officer, if you happen to be connected in any way with drugs, is a preposterous, outsized criminal penalty. Right here in New York, one out of every seven cases that ends up in court is a marijuana case.
Just the other day, while Breuer was announcing his slap on the wrist for the world’s most prolific drug-launderers, I was in arraignment court in Brooklyn watching how they deal with actual people. A public defender explained the absurdity of drug arrests in this city. New York actually has fairly liberal laws about pot – police aren’t supposed to bust you if you possess the drug in private. So how do police work around that to make 50,377 pot-related arrests in a single year, just in this city? Tthat was 2010; the 2009 number was 46,492.)
“What they do is, they stop you on the street and tell you to empty your pockets,” the public defender explained. “Then the instant a pipe or a seed is out of the pocket – boom, it’s ‘public use.’ And you get arrested.”
People spend nights in jail, or worse. In New York, even if they let you off with a misdemeanor and time served, you have to pay $200 and have your DNA extracted – a process that you have to pay for (it costs 50 bucks). But even beyond that, you won’t have search very far for stories of draconian, idiotic sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Just ask Cameron Douglas, the son of Michael Douglas, who got five years in jail for simple possession. His jailers kept him in solitary for 23 hours a day for 11 months and denied him visits with family and friends. Although your typical non-violent drug inmate isn’t the white child of a celebrity, he’s usually a minority user who gets far stiffer sentences than rich white kids would for committing the same crimes – we all remember the crack-versus-coke controversy in which federal and state sentencing guidelines left (predominantly minority) crack users serving sentences up to 100 times harsher than those meted out to the predominantly white users of powdered coke.
The institutional bias in the crack sentencing guidelines was a racist outrage, but this HSBC settlement blows even that away. By eschewing criminal prosecutions of major drug launderers on the grounds (the patently absurd grounds, incidentally) that their prosecution might imperil the world financial system, the government has now formalized the double standard.
They’re now saying that if you’re not an important cog in the global financial system, you can’t get away with anything, not even simple possession. You will be jailed and whatever cash they find on you they’ll seize on the spot, and convert into new cruisers or toys for your local SWAT team, which will be deployed to kick in the doors of houses where more such inessential economic cogs as you live. If you don’t have a systemically important job, in other words, the government’s position is that your assets may be used to finance your own political disenfranchisement.
On the other hand, if you are an important person, and you work for a big international bank, you won’t be prosecuted even if you launder nine billion dollars. Even if you actively collude with the people at the very top of the international narcotics trade, your punishment will be far smaller than that of the person at the very bottom of the world drug pyramid. You will be treated with more deference and sympathy than a junkie passing out on a subway car in Manhattan (using two seats of a subway car is a common prosecutable offense in this city). An international drug trafficker is a criminal and usually a murderer; the drug addict walking the street is one of his victims. But thanks to Breuer, we’re now in the business, officially, of jailing the victims and enabling the criminals.
This is the disgrace to end all disgraces. It doesn’t even make any sense. There is no reason why the Justice Department couldn’t have snatched up everybody at HSBC involved with the trafficking, prosecuted them criminally, and worked with banking regulators to make sure that the bank survived the transition to new management. As it is, HSBC has had to replace virtually all of its senior management. The guilty parties were apparently not so important to the stability of the world economy that they all had to be left at their desks.
So there is absolutely no reason they couldn’t all face criminal penalties. That they are not being prosecuted is cowardice and pure corruption, nothing else. And by approving this settlement, Breuer removed the government’s moral authority to prosecute anyone for any other drug offense. Not that most people didn’t already know that the drug war is a joke, but this makes it official.
By Amy Goodman & Juan Gonzalez @ Democracy Now:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go on to HSBC. The banking giant has escaped indictment for laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda. The bank reportedly supplied a billion dollars to a firm whose founder had ties to al-Qaeda and shipped billions in cash from Mexico to the United States despite warnings the money was coming from drug cartels. Earlier this year, a Senate investigation concluded that HSBC provided a, quote, “gateway for terrorists to gain access to U.S. dollars and the U.S. financial system.”
Despite evidence of wrongdoing, the Justice Department has allowed the bank to avoid prosecution and pay a $1.9 billion fine. No top HSBC officials will face charges. While it’s reportedly the largest penalty ever paid by a bank, the deal has come under wide criticism. Officials reportedly agreed to seek the fine over concerns that criminal charges would have hurt the global financial system.
Loretta Lynch is U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
LORETTA LYNCH: We are here today to announce the filing of criminal charges against HSBC Bank, both its U.S. entity, HSBC U.S., and the parent HSBC group, for its sustained and systemic failure to guard against the corruption of our financial system by drug traffickers and other criminals and for evading U.S. sanctions law. HSBC, as you know, is one of the largest financial institutions in the world, with affiliates and personnel spanning the globe. Yet during the relevant time periods, they failed to comply with the legal requirements incumbent on all U.S. financial institutions to have in place compliance mechanisms and safeguards to guard against being used for money laundering.
HSBC has admitted its guilt to the four-count information filed today, which sets forth two violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, and violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. As part of its resolution of these charges, HSBC has agreed to forfeit $1.256 billion, the largest forfeiture amount ever by a financial institution for a compliance failure.
AMY GOODMAN: That was U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.
Meanwhile, HSBC Group Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said in a statement, quote, “We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them.” He added the bank had, quote, “taken extensive and concerted steps to put in place the highest standards for the future.”
News of HSBC’s fine comes as three low-level traders were arrested in London as part of an international investigation into 16 international banks accused of rigging a key global interest rate used in contracts worth trillions of dollars. The London Interbank Offered Rate, known as Libor, is the average interest rate at which banks can borrow from each other. Some analysts say it defines the cost of money. The benchmark rate sets the borrowing costs of everything from mortgages to student loans to credit card accounts.
Well, for more on the latest bank scandals, we’re joined by Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. His latest book is Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History.
Now, how did Forbes put it, Matt? “What’s a bank got to do to get into some real trouble around here?”
MATT TAIBBI: Exactly, exactly. And what’s amazing about that is that’s Forbes saying that. I mean, universally, the reaction, even in—among the financial press, which is normally very bank-friendly and gives all these guys the benefit of the doubt, the reaction is, is “What do you have to do to get a criminal indictment?” What HSBC has now admitted to is, more or less, the worst behavior that a bank can possibly be guilty of. You know, they violated the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Bank Secrecy Act. And we’re talking about massive amounts of money. It was $9 billion that they failed to supervise properly. These crimes were so obvious that apparently the cartels in Mexico specifically designed boxes to put cash in so that they would fit through the windows of HSBC teller windows. So, it was so out in the open, these crimes, and there’s going to be no criminal prosecution whatsoever, which is incredible.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And emails found where bank officials were instructing officials in Iran and in some other countries at how best to hide their efforts to move money into their system?
MATT TAIBBI: Exactly, yeah, and that’s true at HSBC, and apparently we have a very similar scandal involving another British bank, Standard Chartered, which also paid an enormous fine recently for laundering money for—through Iran. This, again, comes on the heels of the Libor scandal, which has already caught up two major British banks—the Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays. So, you have essentially all of the major British banks now are inveigled in these enormous scandals. We have a couple of arrests, you know, today involving low-level people in the Libor thing, but it doesn’t look like any major players are going to be indicted criminally for any of this.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole argument that the bank is too big to indict because of the threat to the world financial system, most people don’t know that HSBC stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. It’s a British bank that goes back to the early days of British colonialism in Asia.
MATT TAIBBI: Sure.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And is it too big to be indicted?
MATT TAIBBI: The amazing thing about that rationale is that it’s exactly the opposite of the truth. The message that this sends to everybody, when banks commit crimes and nobody is punished for it, is that you can do it again. You know, if there’s no criminal penalty for committing even the most obvious kinds of crimes, that tells everybody, investors all over the world, that the banking system is inherently unsafe. And so, the message is, this is not a move to preserve the banking system at all. In fact, it’s incredibly destructive. It undermines the entire world confidence in the banking system. It’s an incredible decision that, again, is met with surprise even with—by people in the financial community.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the lead regulator for HSBC in the U.S., defended the settlement.
THOMAS CURRY: These actions send a strong message to the bank and to the financial services industry to make compliance with the law a priority to safeguard their institutions from being misused in ways that threaten American lives.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. It seems like a lot of people who are in prison right now—low-level thieves, criminals, drug launderers, people who have been accused of working with al-Qaeda—perhaps could appeal their convictions now and get out of jail.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. Right, yeah, exactly. I was in court yesterday, in criminal court in Brooklyn. I saw somebody come out of—come into court who had just been overnight in jail for walking from one subway car to another in front of a policeman. You can do real time in jail in America for all kinds of ridiculous offenses, for taking up two subway seats in New York City, if you fall asleep in the subway. People go to jail for that all the time in this country, for having a marijuana stem in your pocket. There are 50,000 marijuana possession cases in New York City alone every year. And here we have a bank that laundered $800 million of drug money, and they can’t find a way to put anybody in jail for that. That sends an incredible message not just to the financial sector but to everybody. It’s an obvious, clear double standard, where one set of people gets to break the rules as much as they want and another set of people can’t break any rules at all without going to jail. And I just don’t see how they don’t see this problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Matt, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer outlined some of HSBC’s alleged drug cartel ties.
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL LANNY BREUER: From 2006 to 2010, the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, the Norte del Valle cartel in Colombia and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC Bank USA. These traffickers didn’t have to try very hard. They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in a single day into a single account, using boxes, as Loretta said, designed to fit the precise dimensions of the tellers’ windows in HSBC’s Mexico branches.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matt, this is like Monopoly, the board game, all over again, you know? Get out of jail free, you know.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Instead of $50, you pay $1.9 billion, but you’re still getting out of jail free.
MATT TAIBBI: And this fits in the—in with the pattern of the entire financial crisis. $1.9 billion sounds like a lot of money, and it definitely is. It’s a record settlement. No bank has ever paid this much money before. But it’s about two months’ worth of profits for HSBC. It’s not going to cripple this bank. It’s not even going to hurt them that badly for this year. It fits in line with the Goldman Sachs settlement in the Abacas case, which was hailed at the time as a record settlement. It was $575 million. But that was about 1/20th of what they got just through the AIG bailout. So, this is not a lot of money for these people. It sounds like a lot of money to the layperson, but for the crimes they committed, getting away with just money—and it’s not even their own money, it’s not their personal money, it’s the shareholders’ money—it’s incredible. It really—it literally is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, the way that big banks these days can borrow money from the U.S. Fed for no interest—
MATT TAIBBI: For free.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For free.
MATT TAIBBI: Free.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Basically, they can just take money from the government and pay the government back.
AMY GOODMAN: What does the Justice Department, what does the Obama administration, gain by not actually holding HSBC accountable?
MATT TAIBBI: You know, I think—I’ve asked myself that question numerous times. I really believe—and I think a lot of people believe this—that the Obama administration sincerely accepts the rationale that to aggressively prosecute crimes committed by this small group of too-big-to-fail banks would undermine confidence in the global financial system and that they therefore have to give them a pass on all sorts of things, because we are teetering on the edge of a problem, and if any one of them were to fall out, it would cause a domino effect of losses and catastrophes like the Lehman Brothers business. And I think they’re genuinely afraid of that. And so, that’s the only legitimate explanation that you can possibly assign to this situation, because, as we know, Wall Street abandoned the Obama administration this year when it came to funding in the election. They heavily supported Mitt Romney and didn’t give Obama much money at all.