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Foiling a Good Walk

[NB: Check the byline, thanks! /~Rayne]

Don’t be surprised if Donald Trump decides to spend even more time at his golf courses between now and 2020. He should be worried if the courses will remain a part of the Trump organization let alone how much more time he can spend golfing in his lifetime.

At two points during the House Oversight Committee hearing this past Wednesday, Trump’s golf courses came up.

When Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked Michael Cohen about the “catch-and-kill” program by which Trump avoided being publicly exposed by his extra marital sexual partners, Cohen explained why he ended up financing the payment to Stormy Daniels (Miss Clifford).

Transcript (01:45:13) —

Cohen: Well, going back into the story as I stated when we — Allen Weisselberg and I — left the office and went to his office to make the determination on how the money was going to be wired to the IOLA, the interest on the lawyer’s account for Keith Davidson in California, I had asked Allen to use his money. I didn’t want to use mine. He said he couldn’t. We then decided how else we could do it and he asked me whether or not I know anybody that wants to have a party at one of his clubs that could pay me instead or somebody who may have wanted to become a member of one of the golf clubs. And I also don’t have anybody that was interested in that. And it got to the point where it was down to the wire. It was either we — somebody — wire the funds and purchase the life rights to the story from Miss Clifford or it was going to end up being sold to television and that would have embarrassed the president and it would have interfered with the election.

In his response, Cohen shares three different methods used to launder money, two of which would have gone through a Trump golf course. In a previous post examining profiteering and money laundering through a golf club, these same methods were mentioned as possibilities. A new member’s initiation fee could easily match the amount needed to pay off Miss Cliffords as could charges or fees for a single event held at a Trump course.

Given Cohen’s inability to say how many ‘catch-and-kill’ stories Trump or his organization had to pay off, it’s reasonable to suspect golf courses have been used this way to launder hush money let alone launder money for other purposes.

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortes asked Cohen about the property value of a Trump golf course after noting the exceptionally sweet deal Trump org received when developing the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, New York.

Transcript (04:50:13) —

Ocasio-Cortes: Thank you very much. The last thing here. The Trump golf organization currently has a golf course in my home borough of the Bronx and Queens. In fact, the Washington Post reported on the Trump links Bronx course in an article titled, ‘Taxpayers Built this Golf Course and Trump Reaps the Rewards’. Many learned that taxpayers spent $127 million to build Trump links in a, quote, generous deal allowing President Trump to keep almost every dollar that flows in on a golf course built with public funds. And this doesn’t seem to be the only time the president has benefited at the expense of the public. Mr. Cohen, I want to ask you about your assertion that the president may have improperly devalued his assets to avoid paying taxes. According to an August 21st 2016 report by the Washington Post, while the president claimed in financial disclosure forms that the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, was worth more than $50 million, he had reported otherwise to local tax authorities thaAt the course was worth, quote, no more than $5 million. Mr. Cohen, do you know whether this specific report is accurate?

Cohen: It’s identical to what he did at Trump National Golf Club at Briarcliff Manor.

Briarcliff offers a good example of Trump org’s treatment of municipal regulations as well as state and local laws. The course management damaged the local storm sewage system with unauthorized modifications, causing damage to residents’ and Ossining’s property. Goodwill was further damaged by years of fighting local tax assessments:

Nowhere has the conflict between the tax assessments on Trump’s properties and his claims of soaring value been more apparent than in Ossining, New York, where his lawyers argued to the city assessor that his Westchester County golf club was worth $1.4 million in 2015, less than a tenth of its appraised value. On the financial disclosure statement candidates are required to file, he valued it at more than $50 million. The city assessor’s office, which valued the property at $15 million, did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump and his organization fought the valuations of all Trump courses in Florida over the last handful of years as well as Mar-a-Lago and several small non-golf estates. The value of the Jupiter course, reported as $50 million on financial disclosure forms furnished to the government, was estimated by Palm Beach County at $19.7 million. But Trump org sued Palm Beach for a fifth time disputing the county’s valuation, electing to pay taxes on a property worth $5 million less than the county’s estimate.

Trump org also appealed its tax bill for the Trump National Doral Golf Club; they’ve tried for each of the last five years to shave its tax liability with Miami-Dade county. They weren’t sucessful.

Briarcliff and the Florida golf clubs aren’t the only courses for which Trump’s organization claimed lower property values in order to avoid tax obligations.

Trump National Golf Course in Hudson Valley, New York, was assessed at $6 million; the organization claims the property is only worth $2 million. The Trump organization doesn’t own the real estate, operating instead as a lessee. It’s not clear if ownership factors into Trump org’s argument against paying higher taxes; the municipality charges the lessee, however.

The Bedminster course was used to claim a $39.1 million federal tax deduction in 2005 relying on a land conservation rule, and a deduction as farmland because the course kept a small number of goats on the premises.

The Los Angeles course may be the most confusing to make sense of its value. Trump said it was worth $264 million when it opened in 2006, claimed it was worth at least $50 million on federal financial disclosure filings, but only $10 million when filing property taxes in 2008.

While the average business makes a reasonable effort to reduce its tax burden, the Trump organization made it a pattern of habit, particularly with its golf course businesses. It’s odd that each course’s asset valuation established by a local municipality was questioned multiple years in a row, even when the municipality had already gone out of its way to provide unusual benefits to the Trump organization (ex. a long-term lease of county-owned property adjoining the West Palm Beach airport while allowing the course to contest the value the county assigned to the real estate).

The pattern of behavior was tightly entwined with asset inflation for other purposes. One reason was for bank loans, elevating the amount the Trump organization could borrow. Cohen testified that he knew Deustche Bank had received these arbitrary numbers.

Rep. William Clay (D-MO) asked about specific Trump organization financial statements from 2011, 2012, and 2013 Cohen had in his possession pertaining to Trump and his organization, with regard specifically to manipulation of asset values.

Transcript (01:48: ) —

Clay: Thank you…can you explain why you had these financial statements and what you used them for?

Cohen: These were used by me for two purposes. One was discussing with media, whether Forbes or other magazines, to demonstrate Mr. Trump’s significant net worth. That was one function. Another was when we were dealing later on with insurance companies. We would provide them with copies so that they would understand that the premium on the individuals’ capabilities to pay would be reduced.

It’s not clear whether Cohen meant individuals singular or plural. The proliferation of disparities between asset valuations reported by media, by members of the Trump family and organization, and by different government entities now makes more sense — the confusion allows easy misrepresentation of value for insurance purposes.

Transcript (04:43.46) —

Ocasio-Cortes: Okay, thank you. Secondly, I want to ask a little bit about your conversation with my colleague from Missouri about asset inflation. To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?

Cohen: Yes.

Mr. Trump’s federal financial disclosure statements need to be audited for false statements if they were completed using manipulated asset data.

The House Oversight Committee now has testimony and evidence suggesting further investigation into bank and insurance fraud by Trump and the Trump organization is warranted.

But it isn’t the House Oversight Committee alone which should now investigate insurance fraud. While insurance in the U.S. must comply with federal law, it’s regulated at state level. Insurance commissioners and state attorneys general in each state where the Trump organization owns, operates, and insures businesses including golf courses should now review Trump’s insurers and policies. How did insurers write policies for Trump organization for so long given the disparities between property values established by municipalities and the asset values published by so many different media outlets?

It’s easy to see there’s a problem with the perception of Trump org’s asset valuations by comparing a few articles written about the golf courses. Outside Florida it’s not well known that Trump org doesn’t own the real estate underneath Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach, Florida. It’s even less well known that Trump org does not own the real estate beneath the Hudson Valley, New York course. Many articles reported, however, that these courses are wholly owned by Trump without any additional detail about what assets are included.

How has this gap in public knowledge been used?

The entire financial industry needs to take a good look at itself and consider how it may have been played. Cohen mentioned media outlets like Forbes coming to him for asset valuations which they published, replicating and dispersing deceit read most often by finance people. Because he appeared to own multiple golf courses in addition to other real estate, the perception of Trump’s wealth wasn’t adequately questioned.

It will hurt not only municipalities if Trump org golf courses were to suddenly cease operations.

This is an open thread.

[US Oil Fund ETF via Google Finance]

The Curious Timing of Kushner’s visit to KSA and the U.S.’ EITI Exit

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — he of the shaky memory and a massive debt in need of refinancing — met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman within the same week the U.S. withdrew from an anti-corruption effort and Saudi Arabia cracked down on corruption. What curious timing.

Let’s look at a short timeline of key events:

Tuesday 24-OCT-2017 — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman helms a three-day business development conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, referred to as “Davos in the desert.” Attendees include large investment banks as well as fund representatives; one of the key topics is the impending IPO for Saudi Aramco.

Wednesday 25-OCT-2017 — Jared Kushner departed for an unpublicized meeting with government officials in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday 25-OCT-2017 — Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker traveled separately from Kushner to participate in bilateral discussions, which included the memorandum of understanding with the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC). The U.S. and Saudi Arabia chair the TFTC while Gulf States form its membership.

Friday 27-OCT-2017 — Reports emerged that at least one Trump campaign team will be indicted on Monday.

Monday 30-OCT-2017 — Jared Kushner met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, discussing strategy until 4:00 am. News reports didn’t indicate when exactly Kushner arrived or when discussions began. (Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopolous were indicted this day, but not Kushner; good thing “excellent guy” Papadopolous as a former Trump campaign “energy and oil consultant” wasn’t involved in Kushner’s work with Saudi Arabia, that we know of.)

Thursday 02-NOV-2017 — U.S. Office of Natural Resources Revenue sent a letter to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a multinational effort to reduce corruption by increasing transparency around payments made by fossil fuel companies to foreign governments. The U.S. had been an implementing member since 2014.

Saturday 04-NOV-2017 — At 7:49 am EDT, Trump tweets,

“Would very much appreciate Saudi Arabia doing their IPO of Aramco with the New York Stock Exchange. Important to the United States!”

Saturday 04-NOV-2017 — (approximately 5:00 pm EDT, midnight Riyadh local time) At least 10 Saudi princes and dozens of government ministers were arrested and detained under what has been reported as an anti-corruption initiative. Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a critic of Trump and a tech industry investor of note, was among those arrested this weekend.

Saturday 04-NOV-2017 — At 11:12 pm EDT Reuters reported Trump said he had spoken with King Salman bin Abdulaziz about listing Saudi Aramco on the NYSE. The IPO is expected to be the largest offering ever.

But wait…there are some much earlier events which should be inserted in this timeline:

Friday 03-FEB-2017 — Using the Congressional Review Act to fast track their effort, Senate passes a joint resolution already approved by the house, disproving the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 13q-1, which implemented Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Section 1504, the bipartisan product of former senator Richard Lugar and Sen. Ben Cardin (now ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee),

“…a public company that qualified as a “resource extraction issuer” would have been required to publicly disclose in an annual report on Form SD information relating to any single “payment” or series of related “payments” made by the issuer, its subsidiaries or controlled entities of $100,000 or more during the fiscal year covered by the Form SD to a “foreign government” or the U.S. Federal government for the “commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals” on a “project”-by-“project” basis. Resource extraction issuers were not required to comply with the rule until their first fiscal year ending on or after September 30, 2018 and their first report on Form SD was not due until 150 days after such fiscal year end.” (source: National Law Review)

Section 1504 and SEC rule 13q-1 enacted the U.S.’ participation in the EITI’s anti-corruption effort.

Monday 13-FEB-2017 — Trump signed the disproving resolution. (Probably just another coincidence that Michael Flynn resigned this day as National Security Adviser.)

From the earliest days of this administration, both the Trump White House and the GOP-led Congress have been ensuring that extractive industries including oil companies will not be accountable for taxes, fees, and other miscellaneous payments (read: dark money donations and bribes, the latter being a bone of contention to Trump) paid to foreign governments.

Some of the immediate beneficiaries are Exxon Mobil, for which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used to work, and the Koch brothers, among U.S. oil companies which claimed additional reporting requirements under Rule 13q-1 would make them less competitive with overseas oil producers.

What’s not yet clear: How is this reduced openness supposed to help track financing of terrorism, which Treasury was supposed to be working on?

What of transparency related to arms deals involving Saudi money or Aramco? What of transactions between U.S. oil companies and other foreign companies involved in deals with Russian fossil fuel firms like Gazprom?

Can Trump, Jared Kushner, their family and minions, and members of Congress profit from this increased lack of transparency?

What happens to the U.S. and global economy when oil prices rise without adequate transparency to the market to explain price increases?

Also not yet clear: what happened to the 19.5% stake in Rosneft sold last year, allegedly bought by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and Glencore (the same Glencore now embroiled in Paradise Papers scandal)? This massive chunk of Russia’s largest oil company has increased in value in tandem with crude oil’s rise, especially since the Saudi crackdown on Saturday. What’s to keep this massive amount of Rosneft shares from being laundered through stock markets as Deutsche Bank did between 2011 and 2015?

It’s all just so curious, the unanswered questions, the odd timing: Aided and abetted by GOP-led Congress, Trump pulls out of an anti-corruption initiative while Treasury Department appears to work on anti-corruption, and Kushner meets on the sly with the Saudi crown prince just days before an anti-corruption crackdown.

Hmm.

Monday: Build That Wall

Poor Ireland. Poor Inishturk. To be forced to consider the onslaught of refugees fleeing political upheaval should one loud-mouthed, bigoted, multi-bankrupt idiot with bad hair win the U.S. presidency. I’m amused at how the Irish in this short film mirror the U.S. albeit in a more placid way. There are some who are ardently against him, some who’d welcome the business, and the rest cover the spread between the extremes though they lean more to the left than the right.

I find it appalling, though, that Trump would install a sea wall *now* after the golf course development has already been established, rather than do his homework upfront before investing in real estate which relies on natural dune formation. This kind of thoughtlessness is completely absurd, and the disgust evident in this film is well merited.

Keep your volume control handy; hearing Trump blathering may set your teeth on edge. Mute for a moment and continue.

Schtuff happens
I couldn’t pull a cogent theme out of the stuff crossing my desk today. I’m just laying it down — you see if you can make any sense out of it.

  • Ramen can get you killed in private prisons (Guardian) — The federal government may have to do more than simply stop using private prisons for federal criminal incarceration. This report by a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona’s school of sociology suggests states’ prisons operated by private industry may be violating prisoners’ civil rights by starving them. Ramen noodles have become a hot commodity for this reason. Not exactly a beacon of morality to the rest of the free world when incarcerated citizens must scrap for ramen noodles to make up for caloric shortfalls.
  • World Anti-Doping Agency may have been attacked by same hackers who poked holes in the DNC (Guardian) — “Fancy Bear” allegedly had a fit of pique and defaced Wada after Russian athletes were banned at Rio. This stuff just doesn’t sound the same as the hacking of NSA-front Equation Group.
  • New Mexico nuclear waste accident among most costly to date (Los Angeles Times) — Substitution of an organic kitty litter product for a mineral product two years ago set off a chemical reaction un an underground waste storage area, contaminating 35% of the surrounding space. Projected clean-up costs are $2 billion — roughly the amount spent on Three Mile Island’s meltdown.
  • Build that wall! Americans blown ashore in Canada by high winds (CBC) — Participants riding flotation devices on the St. Clair River in the annual Port Huron Float Down were pushed by high winds into Sarnia, Ontario. About 1,500 Americans had to be rescued and returned to the U.S. by Canadian police, Coast Guard, and Border Service. Just a test to see if Canada’s ready for the influx of refugees should Trump win in November, right?
  • Paternity test reveals a father’s sperm actually made him an uncle (Independent) — Upon discovering a father’s DNA only matched 10% of his child’s DNA, further genetic ancestry revealed the ‘father’ had an unborn twin whose DNA he had absorbed in the womb. His twin’s DNA matched his child’s. This is not the first time paternity testing has revealed chimerism in humans.

Commute-or-lunch-length reads

  • Walmart is a crime magnet (Bloomberg) — Holy crap. Communities should just plain refuse to permit any more Walmarts until they clean up their act. Bloomberg’s piece is a virtual how-to-fix-your-bullshit task list; Walmart has zero excuses.
  • It’s in your body, what version is it running? (Backchannel) — Before the public adopts anymore wearable or implantable medical devices, they should demand open access to the code running inside them. It’s absurd a patient can’t tell if their pacemaker’s code is jacked up.
  • Dirty laundry at Deutsche Bank (The New Yorker) — This you need to read. Parasitic banking behavior comes in many forms — in this case, Deutsche Bank laundered billions.

There, we’re well on our way this week. Catch you tomorrow!

Monday Morning: Welcome to BVI – Have a Tax-Free Day

Aw, shucks. Spring Break is over just as I find another warm place to visit. The British Virgin Islands expect a balmy daytime high of 84F/29C degrees today with partly cloudy skies.

And a 100% chance of tax havens galore.

Blood’s in the water, though, stay ashore. You may hear a lot in the media today about the Panama Papers leak dump in which the BVI feature prominently. What you won’t hear much about: this is the second leak about tax havens in exactly three years.

Jack-doodly-squat happened after the first one in April 2013.

The UK’s PM David Cameron was pressed in 2013 to do something about BVI’s tax laws. He said he would work with the G8 to tackle tax evasion. Of course, we now know why he sat on his hands; he had highly-rewarding and substantial familial interest in doing nothing but continue his family’s tax avoidance scheme. And yet he still managed to get reelected last year, the corrupt pig fucker.

If governments had felt any pressure at all to do something corrective, there wouldn’t be a second wave of leaks, right? But the 1% have continued to milk profits from businesses, transfer the money offshore, and buy themselves enough politicians and corporate media to ensure things remained nice and cozy.

Color me skeptical that anything will come of investigations into tax shelters which are for the most part legal, thanks to pwned and compromised governance. But the unfolding story sheds new light on older ones.

Like the decade-plus work on tax havens and abusive tax schemes by the U.S. of Permanent Senate Committee on Investigations, which did not slow or stop the offshoring of capital. B-schools continue to teach offshore tax shelters as ‘A Good Thing’, right alongside ‘Taxes Are Bad’ — because the 1% have amassed enough money to make sure legislators and B-schools’ leadership stay bought.

How much do the Panama Papers leak materials overlap with the Swiss Leaks scandal, including India’s investigation into HSBC, money laundering and influence peddling, reaching into the UK and beyond?

Or a more recent story about hacked elections, including Argentina’s. Has laundered money acquired the services necessary to manipulate elections in order to ensure nothing would change in tax laws?

Perhaps the Panama Papers will offer a more cohesive picture of just how badly the 99% are being screwed, if nothing else.

Nothing else, that is, besides the No Confidence vote Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson now faces after the Panama Papers revealed his financial interests in BVI.

It’s actually rather quiet on the technology front as I write this. I’ll add a few snippets later after caffeination.

Weekend Open Thread: You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Boat

We’ve been rather busy around the emptywheel this weekend, but it looks like we need something for conversations about two big topics.

First, the Panama Papers — here’s a short and sweet explainer at The Guardian to get you started. It’s the biggest leak-based, multi-outlet, global journalistic investigation to date. The server where the papers are located is already ready flooded with traffic (or attempts at DDoSing).

You might be interested in watching the story’s impact on world media. Go to Newsmap (turn off technology, sports, entertainment, and health news in the very bottom toolbar if necessary). Then notice how often “Panama Papers” is mentioned. Australia and some of the earliest EU outlets have picked up this story. Watch for the story to roll westward.

Second, the Associated Press announced this weekend its style would henceforth use ‘internet’ (lowercase i) versus Internet (uppercase I) in all cases. Which is all groovy for journalists who write using AP style, but a misrepresentation of the existence of the Internet versus the internet, because the Internet is still very much a thing. In my opinion, this looks more like word guys not understanding the technology they rely on once again. Hello, future shock?

Have at it below. I’ll catch you tomorrow morning as usual.

Wednesday Morning: All the Range from Sublime to Silly

We start with the sublime, welcoming astronaut Scott Kelly back to earth after nearly a year in space — 340 days all told. Wouldn’t you like to know how these first hours and days will feel to Kelly as he regains his earth legs?

And then we have the silly…

Apple’s General Counsel Sewell and FBI Director Comey appeared before House Judiciary Committee
You’d think a Congressional hearing about FBI’s demand to crack open Apple iPhone would be far from silly, but yesterday’s hearing on Apple iPhone encryption…Jim Comey likened the iPhone 5C’s passcode protection to “a guard dog,” told Apple its business model wasn’t public safety, fretted about “warrant-proof spaces” and indulged in a thought exercise by wondering what would happen if Apple engineers were kidnapped and forced to write code.

What. The. Feck.

I think I’ll read about this hearing in French news outlets as it somehow sounds more rational: iPhone verrouillé: le patron du FBI sur le gril face au Congrès américain (iPhone locked: FBI boss grilled by US Congress – Le Monde). Other kickers in Comey’s testimony: an admission that a “mistake was made” (oh, the tell-tale passive voice here) in handling the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, the implication that the NSA couldn’t (wouldn’t?) backdoor the iPhone in question, and that obtaining the code demanded from Apple would set precedent applicable to other cases.

Predictably, Apple’s Bruce Sewell explained that “Building that software tool would not affect just one iPhone. It would weaken the security for all of them.” In other words, FBI’s demand that Apple writes new code to crack the iPhone 5C’s locking mechanism is a direct threat to Apple’s business model, based on secure electronic devices.

Catch the video of the entire hearing on C-SPAN.

Facebook’s Latin American VP arrested after resisting release of WhatsApp data
Here’s another legal precedent, set in another country, where a government made incorrect assumptions about technology. Brazilian law enforcement and courts believed WhatsApp stored data it maintains it doesn’t have, forcing the issue by arresting a Facebook executive though WhatsApp is a separate legal entity in Brazil. Imagine what could happen in Brazil if law enforcement wanted an Apple iPhone 5C unlocked. The executive will be released today, according to recent reports. The underlying case involved the use of WhatsApp messaging by drug traffickers.

USAO-EDNY subpoenaed Citigroup in FIFA bribery, corruption and money laundering allegations
In a financial filing, Citigroup advised it had been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney’s office. HSBC advised last week it had been contacted by U.S. law enforcement about its role. No word yet as to whether JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have been likewise subpoenaed though they were used by FIFA officials. Amazing. We might see banksters perp-walked over a fútbol scandal before we see any prosecuted for events leading to the 2008 financial crisis.

Quick hits

I’m out of here, need to dig out after another winter storm dumped nearly a foot of the fluffy stuff yesterday. I’m open to volunteers, but I don’t expect many snow shovel-armed takers.

Lanny Breuer Covers Up Material Support for Terrorism

I noted last week how prosecutors were claiming they were being extra tough on HSBC for all its money laundering because of the seriousness of the charge they were going to defer: money laundering. Yesterday, with great fanfare, DOJ rolled out their deferred prosecution for money laundering, as if it were a good thing to ratchet up the charges you excuse.

But I was struck even more by how DOJ treated HSBC’s crimes they chose not to indict. Here’s how Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer described HSBC’s crimes:

HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight – and worse – that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries.

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 designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows in HSBC Mexico’s branches.

In total, HSBC Bank USA failed to monitor over $670 billion in wire transfers from HSBC Mexico between 2006 and 2009, and failed to monitor over $9.4 billion in purchases of physical U.S. dollars from HSBC Mexico over that same period.

In addition to this egregious lack of oversight, from the mid-1990s through at least September 2006, HSBC knowingly allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to move through the U.S. financial system on behalf of banks located in countries subject to U.S. sanctions, including Cuba, Iran and Sudan.  On at least one occasion, HSBC instructed a bank in Iran on how to format payment messages so that the transactions would not be blocked or rejected by the United States.

That is, Breuer says HSBC 1) helped Mexican drug cartels launder money and 2) helped Cuban, Iranian, and Sudanese banks avoid US sanctions.

But that’s not all, according to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, that HSBC did. The four main sections of the PSI report on HSBC’s Bank Secrecy Act and money laundering violations pertain to:

  1. Money laundering for Mexican cartels
  2. Helping banks evade sanctions
  3. Processing masses of travelers checks from Hokoriku bank in Japan which had suspicious ties to Russian “businessmen”
  4. Maintaining correspondent accounts with banks that had ties to terrorism, most notably the Al Rajhi bank

One of the things, according to Carl Levin, that HSBC did was help banks involved in terrorist financing get US dollars (that section takes up 53 pages of a 340 page report). And yet, Breuer’s speech did not once mention the word terrorism. The US Attorney’s release used the word “terror” once, though not in conjunction with HSBC. And the Statement of Facts mentions terrorism in conjunction with a description of the laws HSBC violated and in this one paragraph.

In addition to the cooperative steps listed above, HSBC Bank USA has assisted the Government in investigations of certain individuals suspected of money laundering and terrorist financing.

In short, Lanny Breuer and his prosecutors did not mention that this bank they were letting off without prosecution provided a terrorist-connected bank with US dollars for years.

Read more

The New Measure of DOJ Seriousness: The Charges It Defers

In an article on the upcoming HSBC settlement, Reuters seems impressed with the fine the bank may pay for the assistance it gave to drug gangs and terrorists and other crooks by  laundering their money: $1.8 billion. It goes on to talk about “how big a signal” DOJ wants to send with this settlement.

The emphasis, of course, should be on that word “settlement.” One that will likely result in a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, in which no one gets charged, not even for the egregious conduct HSBC engaged in.

Because ultimately, Reuters is measuring this big signal by the seriousness of the criminal charges DOJ doesn’t file.

In regulatory filings, HSBC has said it could face criminal charges. But similar U.S. investigations have culminated in deferred prosecution deals, where law-enforcement agencies delay or forgo prosecuting a company if it admits wrongdoing, pays a fine and agrees to clean up its compliance systems. If the company missteps again, the Justice Department could prosecute.

[snip]

The agreements “have become a mainstay of white collar criminal law enforcement,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in September during an appearance at the New York City Bar Association.

“I’ve heard people criticize them and I’ve heard people praise them. DPAs have had a truly transformative effect on particular companies and, more generally, on corporate culture across the globe.”

If U.S. prosecutors agree to a deferred agreement, they still could wield a powerful legal tool by accusing the bank of laundering money.

That would be a much more serious charge than if prosecutors, in a deferred agreement, charged HSBC with criminal violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, a law that requires banks to maintain programs that root out suspicious transactions.

[snip]

A charge of money laundering would be a rare move by the Justice Department and would send a signal to other big banks that the agency is intent on cracking down on dirty money moving through the U.S. financial system. [my emphasis]

No, seriously. A legitimate report just said that DOJ will send “a signal” based on ratcheting up the seriousness of the crimes it makes disappear with one of Lanny Breuer’s flaccid DPAs. It will send “a signal” with the seriousness of the charges it will effectively excuse.

Heck. If we’re not going to really charge these banksters, why not add on murder or drug trafficking or terrorism charges, or any of the other crimes they abetted? That would really send “a signal” now, wouldn’t it, deferring even more serious charges that real people would do hard time for?

The Senate has already accused HSBC of money laundering. But mere accusations–even with promises to do better–do nothing.

No matter how serious a charge those accusations involve excusing.

Promontory Financial Group Describes a New “Risk-Based” Approach to Anti-Money Laundering

In light of the recent Standard Chartered Bank flap, Saturday’s report that Deutsche Bank is under investigation for similar behavior, and today’s report that RBS (as well as two other banks, one of which is Sumitomo Mitsui) is as well, I want to look at an article on Anti-Money Laundering enforcement a Promontory Financial Group exec, Michael Dawson, published in American Banker just one week before NY’s Superintendent of Financial Services, Benjamin Lawsky, filed an order against SCB alone.

Around the same time Dawson was writing this, remember, his company was involved in a review of SCB’s laundering of Iranian funds that would show a tiny fraction of the total exposure that SCB would ultimately admit to. That is, Dawson’s comments probably provide a glimpse into what PFG was seeing not just in Citibank and Commerzbank enforcement actions, which he discusses, but also in SCB. And it might help to explain why other regulators were so intent on crafting an SCB settlement based on just $14 million in violations rather than $250 billion.

Dawson reports seeing a change in recent AML/BSA enforcement actions, away from a “rules-based approach” toward a “risk-based approach.” He suggests that regulators are demanding not a broad-based examination of the scope of AML violations, but instead more targeted information about who posed the biggest risk laundering money and what they were doing.

Instead of requiring expensive reviews of extended periods of time for a broad range of potential suspicious activity, the latest enforcement actions emphasize a risk-based approach to AML compliance, with several of the actions requiring a risk assessment or enhancements to an existing assessment.

[snip]

The level of specificity required is noteworthy and includes, among other things, detail on the volumes and types of transactions and services by country or geographic location as well as detail on the numbers of customers that typically pose higher BSA/AML risk. The actions also require a more holistic approach, requiring the results of the bank’s Customer Identification Program and Customer Due Diligence program to be integrated in the risk assessment. [my emphasis]

This sounds like the regulators are interested not in discovering how banks are complicit in money laundering, but rather using the banks to get details on key people who money launder and the tactics just those key people (terrorists, cartel kingpins, mean Iranians) use. (Note, I think something similar, but even more significant, happened last year when JPMC got busted for trading with Iran, but no one seems to remember that happened.)

After making these broad statements about the general direction of AML enforcement, Dawson distinguishes between what the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is requiring and what the Fed is. OCC has not only shortened the period which it requires banks to examine problematic behavior, but it has also permitted banks to conduct their own reviews (which seems to have Dawson worried about losing the business of providing such services for banks).

Where the OCC required lookbacks, it asked for risk-based, targeted reviews, rather than comprehensive look-backs that were sometimes found in earlier enforcement actions. The recent actions either specify a shorter look-back period than has been specified in the past or, in the case of the Citibank action, no explicitly specified period, subject to the ability of the regulator to expand the look-back depending on the results of the more limited period.

Also, the OCC actions allowed the institutions to conduct the review themselves and either do not explicitly mention an independent consultant or limit the role of the independent consultant to “supervising and certifying” the look-back.

The OCC, at least, doesn’t sound like it’s doing “smarter” enforcement, but rather doing lax enforcement. Remember, though, that OCC got a newly-confirmed Comptroller during this period, who talked aggressively at the recent Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on HSBC’s egregious AML problems–though that talk partly echoed what Dawson has to say about “flexibility” and a “holistic” approach.

Meanwhile, according to Dawson, the Fed doesn’t seem to be offering quite as much flexibility. Dawson describes the Fed employing this new risk-based approach, but it is still requiring longer reviews (though not all that long, at 16 months) and outside consultants to complete the reviews.

The Fed, in its action against Commerzbank requiring a lookback, also showed some flexibility. Read more

Only Banks Might Want to Review How Criminal Banks Are

The other day, I noted how–days after his department reported that suspected bankster crimes are growing quickly and terrorist financing crimes are going down–Treasury Department fired FinCEN head, Jim Freis. Given some of the reporting describing the firing, which explained that Treasury wanted to focus on things like terrorist financing whereas Fries had been focusing on things like mortgage fraud, I wondered whether Treasury fired Freis, in part, for showing that the emphasis on terrorism resulted in the neglect of bankster crimes.

Today, FinCEN sent out notice of a survey to determine how useful that report and another yearly report–on Tips and Trends–they produce are (note, the email notice says an invitation to the survey is here, but as of 8:15 it is not).

As a subscriber to e-mail updates from the United States Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), FinCEN invites you to participate in a survey assessing the value of two of our recurring publications:  The SAR Activity Review-Trends, Tips & Issues and The SAR Activity Review-By the Numbers.  This invitation has been sent to you in follow up to FinCEN’s prior e-mail notification.  A copy of that notice and this invitation can be found on FinCEN’s official website at http://www.fincen.gov/hotTopics.html

To participate in this completely voluntary survey, please click on the following link: https://svy.cfigroup.com/cgi-bin/qwebcorporate.dll?idx=HWGKEN   Please note that this link will direct you to a website hosted by the CFI Group, which FinCEN has commissioned to conduct this survey.  FinCEN has obtained permission from the Office of Management and Budget through control number 1090-0007 to conduct this survey in accordance with the Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. § 3501-3520) and its implementing regulations (5 C.F.R. Part 1320).

Through the survey, we hope to learn more about your needs and identify opportunities to improve these products.  The results of the survey will be reported to FinCEN only in the aggregate; individual responses will be grouped anonymously along with those of other FinCEN customers.

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