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Matt Taibbi: You Can Go to Prison for Pot, While Big Banks Get Away With Laundering Drug Cartel Cash

The banking giant HSBC has escaped indictment for laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to al-Qaeda.
 
 
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The banking giant 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. We’re joined by Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi, author of "Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History." "You can do real time in jail in America for all kinds of ridiculous offenses," Taibbi says. "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."

 

Amy Goodman: For more on the latest bank scandals, we’re joined by Taibbi. 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 Forbessaying 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 thatHSBC 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.

 
 
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