5 Outrageous Revelations from Matt Taibbi's Takedown on HSBC's Drug Money Laundering

Matt Taibbi’s most recent Rolling Stone article unpacks one of last year’s most shocking bank cases in our era of “Too Big to Jail.” In December, HSBC was punished with a $1.9 billion settlement on drug laundering charges, the largest in American history, yet only five weeks worth of profits for the world’s third largest bank.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Lanny Breuer was uncharacteristically candid when explaining why he refused to pursue criminal charges: “HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized."

People were rightfully outraged when not a single HSBC banker went to jail for a decades’ worth of federal crimes, including money-laundering linked to drug cartels, terrorists and oppressive regimes. Taibbi dove deep into HSBC’s case and history, revealing that the bank’s crimes were even worst than we thought. Here are five shockers from his article:

1. By HSBC’s December settlement, the bank had already received two cease-and-desist letters.

First, in 2003, the Federal Reserve sent a cease-and-desist letter to HSBC demanding the bank take strict precaution not to do business with criminals and terrorists. The letter came after revelations that HSBC had opened accounts for shady characters like Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi, one of the “20 early financiers of Al Qaeda.”

Essentially, the Feds caught HSBC engaged in criminal activity and told the bank to stop. But they didn’t. After the first cease-and-desist letter, the bank received dozens of warnings from the OCC, which they continued to ignore.

The second cease-and-desist order came in 2010, after the OCC determined HSBC’s money-laundering controls to be weak. Instead of prosecuting the bank after it had ignored countless warnings, the OCC gave HSBC a second chance.

Taibbi compares the leniency given to HSBC compared to victims of the outrageous “three-strikes” rule: “Three-time losers doing life in California prisons for street felonies might be surprised to learn that the no-jail settlement Lanny Breuer worked out for HSBC was already the bank's third strike.”

2. HSBC covered its tracks when helping oppressive regimes avoid sanctions

Taibbi reports that HSBC used a technique called “stripping” to avoid detection when they did business with countries under U.S. sanction. In particular, HSBC sought to increase its profits by laundering cash for Iran. The author quotes a memo from HSBC’s Middle East subsidiary, HBME:

"It is anticipated that Iran will become a source of increasing income for the group going forward," the memo says, "and if we are to achieve this goal we must adopt a positive stance when encountering difficulties."

To do this, the “bank would remove references to Iran in wire transactions to and from the United States, often putting themselves in place of the actual client name to avoid triggering OFAC alerts,” explains Taibbi.

Taibbi further reports that there is evidence linking HSBC to a slew of other sanctioned countries like, Sudan, Cuba, Burma and North Korea.

3. HSBC ran offshore branches designed specifically for money laundering

In what Taibbi calls the “pinnacle innovation in the history of sleazy banking practices,” HSBC created a so-called “Cayman islands” branch in Mexico that let customers sidestep routine screening when opening accounts. The writer says clients “barely had to submit a real name and address, much less explain the legitimate origins of their deposits.” A 2002 audit revealed that 41 percent of accounts didn’t have complete client information.

When it turned out that American companies used these accounts to sell aircraft to drug cartels, HSBC Mexico finally shutout some of the “Cayman islands branch” clients—but not all of them. Taibbi notes that, “As late as 2012, when HSBC executives were being dragged before the U.S. Senate, the bank still had 20,000 such accounts worth some $670 million.”

4. HSBC did direct business with “the worst trafficking organizations imaginable.”

A part of a major narcotics investigation, federal agents discovered a ton of evidence that implicated HSBC in widespread money laundering. For example, Taibbi reports the bank “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.” And the dealers HSBC did business with were some of the most violent in the world.

Former federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky told Rolling Stone HSBC worked for Colombia's Norte del Valle and Mexico's Sinaloa cartels — “groups that don't just commit murder on a mass scale but are known for beheadings, torture videos and other atrocities, none of which happens without money launderers.”

Barofsky says he once put a Notre del Valle cartel member behind bars for 10 years on money laundering charges far smaller than what HSBC was involved with.

5. An entire HSBC department was tasked with quickly clearing suspicious behavior

After the OCC sent HSBC its second cease-and-desist letter, the bank hired a bunch of unqualified workers to “investigate” suspicious alerts. In reality, the Delaware-based department was tasked with clearing out skeletons from HSBC’s closet. Taibbi quotes damning emails from HSBC bosses pressuring workers to clear as many alerts as possible, and praising the entire Delaware office when it erased 60 suspicious transactions in a week. 

Taibbi interviewed one of these “investigators,” Everett Stern, who described laughably low criteria for clearing an alert.

"Basically, if a company had a website, you could clear them," he told Rolling Stone.

Stern found a slew of suspicious transactions that he was hired to scrub away, including exchanges tied to Hezbollah, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. He decided to turn whistleblower and alert the FBI.

After that, Lanny Breur slapped HSBC with a deferred prosecution agreement.

"I thought, 'All that, for nothing?' " Stern told Rolling Stone. "I couldn't believe it."

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