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Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Jail

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In the summer of 2010, 25-year-old Everett Stern was just out of business school, fighting a mild case of wanderlust and looking for a job but also for adventure. His dream was to be a CIA agent, battling bad guys and snatching up Middle Eastern terrorists. He applied to the agency's clandestine service, had an interview even, but just before graduation, the bespectacled, youthfully exuberant Stern was turned down.

He was crushed, but then he found an online job posting that piqued his interest. HSBC, a major international bank, was looking for people to help with its anti-money-laundering program. "I thought this was exactly what I wanted to do," he says. "It sounded so exciting."

Stern went up to HSBC's offices in New Castle, Delaware, for an interview, and that October, just days after the OCC issued the second Don't Do It Again letter, he started work as part of HSBC's "expanded" anti­money-laundering program.

From the outset, Stern knew there was something weird about his job. "I had to go to the library to take out books on money-laundering," Stern says now, laughing. "That's how bad it was." There were no training courses or seminars on money-laundering­ – what it was, how to detect it. His work mainly consisted of looking up the names of unsavory characters on the Internet and then running them through the bank's internal systems to see if they popped up on any account names anywhere.

Even weirder, nobody seemed to care if anybody was doing any actual work. The Delaware office was mostly empty for a long while, just a giant unpainted room with a few hastily arranged cubicles and only a dozen or so people in it, and nobody really watching any of the workers. Stern and a fellow co-worker­ would routinely finish all their work by 10:30 in the morning, then spend a few hours throwing rocks into a quarry located behind the bank offices. Then they would go back to their cubicles and hang out until 3 p.m. or so, or until it was at least plausible that they'd put in a real workday. "If we asked for any more work," Stern says, "they got angry."

Stern earned a starting salary of $54,900.

Soon enough, though, out of boredom and also maybe a little bit of patriotism, Stern started to sift through some of the backlogged alerts and tried to make sense of them. Almost immediately, he found a series of deeply concerning transactions. There was an exchange company wiring large sums of money to untraceable destinations in the Middle East. A Saudi fruit company was sending millions, Stern found with a simple Internet search, to a high-ranking figure in the Yemeni wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Stern even learned that HSBC was allowing millions of dollars to be moved from the Karaiba chain of super­markets in Africa to a firm called Tajco, run by the Tajideen brothers, who had been singled out by the Treasury Department as major financiers of Hezbollah.

Every time Stern brought one of these discoveries to his bosses, they rolled their eyes at him, if not worse. When he alerted his boss that a shipping company with ties to Iran was doing a lot of business with the bank, he blew up. "You called me over for this?" the boss snapped.

Soon after, the empty office started to fill up. What HSBC did in the way of hiring new staff was actually pretty clever. It liqui­dated its credit-card-collections unit and moved the bulk of the employees over to the anti-money-laundering department. Again, without really training anyone at all, it put hundreds of loud, gum-chewing, mostly uneducated, occasionally rowdy call-center workers on a new gig, turning them into money-laundering investigators.

Stern says his co-workers not only sucked at their jobs, they didn't even know what their jobs were. "You could walk into that building today," he says, "and ask anyone there what money­laundering is – and I guarantee you, no one will know."

When something fishy pops up in connection with a bank account, the bank generates an alert. An alert can be birthed by almost anything, from someone wiring $9,999 (to keep under the $10K reporting level) to someone wiring large sums in round numbers to someone else opening an account with a phony-sounding name or address.

When an alert gets generated, the bank is supposed to promptly investigate the matter. If the bank doesn't clear the alert, it creates a "Suspicious Activity Report," which is handed over to the Treasury Department to be investigated.

Stern then found himself in the middle of a perverse sort-of anti­compliance mechanism. HSBC had "complied" with the government's Don't Do It Again, Again order by hiring hundreds of bodies whom it turned into an army for whitewashing suspicious transactions. Remember, the complaint against HSBC was not so much that it had specifically allowed terrorist or drug money through, but that it had allowed suspicious accounts to pile up without being checked.

The boss at Stern's Delaware office gave his new team goals: Everyone was to try to clear 72 alerts a week. For those of you keeping score at home, that's nearly two alerts investigated and cleared every hour. According to Stern, almost any kind of information was good enough to clear an alert. "Basically, if a company had a website, you could clear them," he says.

Soon enough, HSBC's compliance executives were circulating cheery e-mails. "Great job by some Delaware professionals in the early part of the week," wrote Stern's boss on June 30th, 2011. The e-mail was subject-lined, "The 60-plus crowd," signifying accolades to employees who had cleared more than 60 suspicious transactions that week.

After trying in vain to convince his bosses to at least let him do his job and look for money-laundering, Stern decided to turn whistle-blower, telling the FBI and other agencies what was going on at the bank. He left work at HSBC in 2011, fully expecting that the government would drop the hammer on his former employers.

By that time, numerous agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, had crawled all the way up HSBC's backside, among other things examining it as part of a major international narcotics investigation. In one four-year period between 2006 and 2009, an astonishing $200 trillion in wire transfers (including from high-risk countries like Mexico) went through without any monitoring at all. The bank also failed to do due diligence on the purchase of an incredible $9 billion in physical U.S. dollars from Mexico and played a key role in the so-called Black Market Peso Exchange, which allowed drug cartels in both Mexico and Colombia to convert U.S. dollars from drug sales into pesos to be used back home. Drug agents discovered that dealers in Mexico were building special cash boxes to fit the precise dimensions of HSBC teller windows.

Former bailout inspector and federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky, who has helped secure numerous foreign money-laundering indictments, points out that the people HSBC was doing business with, like Colombia's Norte del Valle and Mexico's Sinaloa cartels, were "the worst trafficking organizations imaginable" – groups that don't just commit murder on a mass scale but are known for beheadings, torture videos ("the new thing now," he says) and other atrocities, none of which happens without money launderers. It's for this reason, Barofsky says, that drug prosecutors are not shy about dropping heavy prison sentences on launderers. "Frankly, our view of money-laundering was that it was on par with, and as significant as, the traffickers themselves," he says.

Barofsky was involved in the first extradition of a Colombian national (Pablo Trujillo, a member of the same cartel that HSBC moved money for) on money­laundering charges. "That guy got 10 years," says Barofsky. "HSBC was doing the same thing, only on a much larger scale than my schmuck was doing."

Clearly, HSBC had violated the 2010 Don't Do It Again, Again order. Everett Stern saw it with his own eyes; so did the OCC and the U.S. Senate, whose Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations decided to target the company for a yearlong investigation into global money-laundering. The bank itself, in response to the Senate investigation, acknowledged that it had "sometimes failed to meet the standards that regulators and customers expect." It would later go on to say that it was even "profoundly sorry."

A few days after Thanksgiving 2012, Stern heard that the Justice Department was about to announce a settlement. Since he'd left HSBC the year before,­ he'd had a rough time. Going public with his allegations had left him emotionally and financially devastated. He'd been unable to find a job, and at one point even applied for welfare. But now that the feds were finally about to drop the hammer on HSBC, he figured he'd have the satisfaction of knowing that his sacrifice had been worthwhile.

So he went to New York and sat in a hotel room, waiting for reporters to call for his comments. When he heard the news that the "punishment" Breuer had announced was a deferred prosecution agreement – a Don't Do It Again, Again, Again agreement, if you will – he was flabbergasted.

"I thought, 'All that, for nothing?' " he says. "I couldn't believe it."

The writer Ambrose Bierce once said there's only one thing in the world worse than a clarinet: two clarinets. In the same vein, there's only one thing worse than a totally corrupt bank: many corrupt banks.

If the HSBC deal showed how much dastardly crap the state could tolerate from one bank, Breuer was back a week later to show that the government would go just as easy on banks that team up with other banks to perpetrate even bigger scandals. On December 19th, 2012, he announced that the Justice Department was essentially letting Swiss banking giant UBS off the hook for its part in what is likely the biggest financial scam of all time.

The so-called LIBOR scandal, which is at the heart of the UBS settlement, makes Enron look like a parking violation. Many of the world's biggest banks, including Switzerland's UBS, Britain's Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland, got together and secretly conspired to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, which measures the rate at which banks lend to each other. Many, if not most, interest rates are pegged to LIBOR. The prices of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial products are tied to LIBOR, everything from commercial loans to credit cards to mortgages to municipal bonds to swaps and currencies.

If you can imagine executives at Ford, GM, Mitsubishi, BMW and Mercedes getting together every morning to fix the prices of aluminum and stainless steel, you have a rough idea of what the LIBOR scandal is like, except that in the car-company analogy, you'd be dealing with absurdly smaller numbers. These are the world's biggest banks getting together every morning to essentially fix the price of money. Low LIBOR rates are an indicator that banks are strong and healthy. These banks were faking the results of their daily physicals. In banking terms, they were juicing.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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