It’s official: Big banks are now Too Big to Jail and therefore will never be held accountable, nor their executives jailed, under the Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act:
(Assistant Attorney General Lanny) 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.” …
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) murderers and 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 [bleeping] 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’s worth remembering, particularly for those of us who grew up along with Wachovia Bank here in North Carolina, that that bank, now part of Wells Fargo, settled with the Feds in 2010 for $110 million in forfeiture and a $50 million fine for laundering $378.4 billion — an amount equivalent to a third of Mexico’s GDP at the time. Then as now, no bank executives were charged; indeed, the bank hung its senior anti-money-laundering officer, Martin Woods, out to dry.
I get that there are good reasons (though not, in my personal opinion, a clearly convincing case) to keep, say, marijuana illegal for recreational use. But even if all laws banning marijuana use in the U.S. were scrapped today, the damage, though enormous in some individual cases, would be nowhere near the damage that is being done, right now, by decisions like this, to confidence in the U.S. finance system and, even more importantly, to the rule of law. Lanny Breuer ought to be named somewhere as an unindicted co-conspirator, at the least, and so should his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder. If Congress wants to impeach someone — and the GOP House, at least, certainly does — it could start with Holder without a peep of complaint from me as long as the charges pertained to his overwhelming failure to even try to rein in the banks during his term.