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Glenn Greenwald: Woman Imprisoned for Life for Minor Drug Offense; Banking Giant Immune to Justice for Massive Drug Laundering

Justice is dead in America.

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Needless to say, these are the kinds of crimes for which ordinary and powerless people are prosecuted and imprisoned with the greatest aggression possible. If you're Muslim and your conduct gets anywhere near helping a terrorist group, even by accident,  you're going to prison for a long, long time. In fact, powerless, obscure, low-level employees are  routinely sentenced to long prison terms for engaging in relatively petty money laundering schemes, unrelated to terrorism, and on a scale that is a tiny fraction of what HSBC and its senior officials are alleged to have done.

But not HSBC. On Tuesday, not only did the US Justice Department announce that HSBC would not be criminally prosecuted, but  outright claimed that the reason is that they are too important, too instrumental to subject them to such disruptions. In other words, shielding them from the system of criminal sanction to which the rest of us are subject is not for their good, but for our common good. We should not be angry, but grateful, for the extraordinary gift bestowed on the global banking giant:

"US authorities defended their decision not to prosecute HSBC for accepting the tainted money of rogue states and drug lords on Tuesday, insisting that a $1.9bn fine for a litany of offences was preferable to the 'collateral consequences' of taking the bank to court. . . .

"Announcing the record fine at a press conference in New York, assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer said that despite HSBC"s 'blatant failure' to implement anti-money laundering controls and its wilful flouting of US sanctions, the consequences of a criminal prosecution would have been dire.

"Had the US authorities decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking licence in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilised.

"HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, said it was 'profoundly sorry' for what it called 'past mistakes' that allowed terrorists and narcotics traffickers to move billions around the financial system and circumvent US banking laws. . . .

"As part of the deal, HSBC has undertaken a five-year agreement with the US department of justice under which it will install an independent monitor to assess reformed internal controls. The bank's top executives will defer part of their bonuses for the whole of the five-year period, while bonuses have been clawed back from a number of former and current executives, including those in the US directly involved at the time.

"John Coffee, a professor of law at Columbia Law School in New York, said the fine was consistent with how US regulators have been treating bank infractions in recent years. 'These days they rarely sue individuals in any meaningful way when the entity will settle. This is largely a function of resource constraints, but also risk aversion, and a willingness to take the course of least resistance,' he said."

DOJ officials touted the $1.9 billion fine HSBC would pay, the largest ever for such a case. As the Guardian's Nils Pratley  noted, "the sum represents about four weeks' earnings given the bank's pre-tax profits of $21.9bn last year." Unsurprisingly, "the steady upward progress of HSBC's share price since the scandal exploded in July was unaffected on Tuesday morning."

The New York Times Editors  this morning announced: "It is a dark day for the rule of law." There is, said the NYT editors, "no doubt that the wrongdoing at HSBC was serious and pervasive." But the bank is simply too big, too powerful, too important to prosecute.

 
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