Big Banks Are Knee-Deep in the Dirty Money-Laundering Business
Money-laundering issues at U.S. and UK financial firms shed light on role of rich nations and elite banks in the offshore world.
In the summer of 2009, Jennifer Sharkey was moving in select company. As a Manhattan-based vice president at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s Private Wealth Management group, she juggled relationships with 75 "high net worth" clients with assets totaling more than half a billion dollars.
Things changed for her, she claims, after she raised doubts about a "suspect" foreign client who had millions stashed in various accounts at the bank.
The client was making questionable cash transfers and concealing who actually owned certain accounts, according to a lawsuit Sharkey is pursuing in federal court in Manhattan. She also found evidence, her suit claims, that the client had falsified financial statements for one of his companies and that he'd been involved in the "unexplained disappearance" of millions of dollars in merchandise in another venture.
After she warned high-level bank officials that the client might be involved in fraud and money laundering, her suit claims, JPMorgan moved to silence her — pressuring her to stop raising questions about the client, assigning her other clients to junior colleagues and, finally, firing her.
"I was just doing my job," Sharkey said in an interview with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). But for the bank, she said, "it was more important to keep this client than to do the right thing."
JPMorgan denies it retaliated against Sharkey for pushing the bank to exit its relationship with the client — and it denies that the customer was either a foreign client or engaged in suspect activities. The bank says it goes to great lengths to identify and block money laundering, terrorism financing and other illicit transactions.
Sharkey isn't alone, though, in raising concerns about the largest U.S. bank's commitment to fighting the flow of dirty money around the world.
Over the years, JPMorgan Chase and its corporate forebears have been accused of serving as conduits for money controlled by drug smugglers, mobsters and political despots and acting as magnets for "flight capital" from rich tax dodgers from Latin America and other regions. The bank also played a part, lawsuits alleged, in massive tax haven-enabled frauds in the Enron and Madoff scandals.
An examination of JPMorgan's record in policing suspect cash and offshore deals offers a case study of how big banks deal with dirty money and transnational corruption — and a window onto the decades-long history of the banking industry's fraught relationship with the offshore world.
When people think about secret accounts and money laundering, they often imagine the Cayman Islands or some other sultry paradise. But the enablers of cross-border corruption aren't located only in flyspeck island havens, white-collar crime experts say.
Criminals and connivers rely on easy access to banks in the U.S., the UK and other rich nations to hide their assets from investigators and tax collectors and shift moneyin and out of offshore hideaways.
Without this access, their shell games wouldn't be possible.
In 2003, New York prosecutors claimed that an unlicensed money-transfer firm in Manhattan directed $9 billion in wire transactions through three dozen accounts at JPMorgan, moving money around the world for drug dealers and other dodgy characters.
In 2011, the bank paid nearly $90 million to settle regulators' claims that it hadviolated economic sanctions against Iran, Cuba and other countries under U.S. embargoes.
In January, a consent order from JPMorgan's main federal regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, cited the bank for "critical deficiencies" in its anti-money-laundering controls, including inadequate procedures for monitoring transactions at foreign branches.
In the 2003 case, the bank acknowledged it had been "too slow and not forceful enough" in vetting the money-transfer firm, but said it was working to tighten its money laundering safeguards. In the 2011 case, the bank said the sanction violationswere isolated incidents. In the wake of the comptroller's case, the bank told the New York Times that it has been "working hard to fully remediate the issues identified."
Mark Kornblau, a JPMorgan spokesman, declined to answer detailed questions for this story.
In a brief written statement, he told ICIJ that complying with anti-money-laundering rules "is a top priority for us. We have already made progress addressing the issues cited in the consent orders, which contain no allegations of intentional misconduct by the firm or any of its employees."
JPMorgan isn't alone when it comes to taking heat for failing to do enough to stop the flow of suspect cash. Last year U.S. authorities reached settlements with HSBC, Citigroup and UK-headquartered Standard Chartered Bank over alleged money-laundering compliance failures.
HSBC agreed in December to pay more than $1.9 billion to settle an investigation into evidence it shifted cash for rogue nations, terrorists and Mexican drug lords.
U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said a "pervasively polluted" culture at HSBCallowed billions in suspect dollars to flow through the bank. Senate investigators said HSBC ignored warnings from Mexican and U.S. authorities that the gush of money flowing into the bank from Mexico was so large it could only be sustained by the proceeds from narcotics trafficking.
HSBC said in a statement last year that it was "profoundly sorry" for its "past mistakes."
How well major banks screen customers and cash flows is important because, in a digitally connected world, dirty money no longer travels as stacks of bills stuffed into suitcases. It moves by the click of a computer key. This makes big banks crucial gatekeepers in the financial system, giving them the power to cut off the flow of corrupt cash or allow it to roam free.
The offshore system can't be reformed, money laundering experts say, without cooperation and compliance from the banking system's biggest players.
Dennis Lormel, former chief of the FBI's financial crimes program, says compliance watchdogs working on the payroll of big banks strive to do the right thing, but they're often locked in losing battles with bankers who are more concerned about booking deposits and doing deals than making sure the money coming in is clean.
"The business culture usually wins," Lormel says. "The business people take the risks and the compliance people are left to clean up the mess."
JPMorgan and other major banks have increased their risks and rewards in the offshore world by weaving a web of branches and subsidiaries across places that have been tagged as havens for financial secrecy and criminal activity.
Secret records obtained by ICIJ reveal how many of the world's top banks – including UBS and Clariden in Switzerland, ING and ABN Amro in the Netherlandsand Deutsche Bank in Germany – have worked to set up their customers with secrecy-cloaked companies in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands and other offshore locales.
The banks deny wrongdoing.
A 2008 U.S. government report found JPMorgan had 50 subsidiaries in Bermuda, the Bahamas and other places labeled as tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions, tied for 11th highest among the 100 largest U.S. companies.
Since then the bank has expanded its reach in some offshore centers. Its tally of subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands grew from seven in 2007 to 20 at the end of 2012,securities filings show. Over that span its subsidiaries in Mauritius — a tiny isle off Africa's eastern coast that's been called "a Cayman Islands to India" — grew from eight to 14.
While the bank helps move money around the world via its tax haven subsidiaries, JPMorgan's international private banking network attracts large deposits to the U.S. from rich customers in Latin America and other regions. Much of this money isn't reported to tax authorities in the depositors' home countries, according to a study last year by James S. Henry, former chief economist at McKinsey & Company and a board member of Tax Justice Network, an advocacy group that favors tighter regulation of the offshore system.
The study estimates JPMorgan's private banking operations boosted their assets under management from $187 billion in 2005 to $284 billion in late 2010 — ranking it among an elite group of giant private banking institutions whose mission, the report claims, is to "entice the elites of rich and poor countries alike to shelter their wealth tax-free offshore."
JPMorgan Chase is an amalgam of America's two most storied banks. Historian Ron Chernow called the Morgan banking dynasty perhaps "the most formidable financial combine in history." Chase Manhattan traced its roots to 1799 and claimed Aaron Burr, the nation's third vice president, as its founder.
Before the mega-merger that brought the Morgan and Chase empires together at the turn of this century, both played roles in the emergence of tax havens — and in the controversies that grew out of the offshore system's rise.
Chase and Morgan were early players, in the 1960s, in the growth of the Bahamas as an overseas financial center. Chase was one of the banks of choice for Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran, strongmen who looted their countries' treasuries during their decades in power. Relations between Chase officials and the Shah were so close in the 1960s and '70s, Henry says, that Chase Chairman David Rockefeller was essentially "the Shah's private banker."
Chase played a cameo role in an offshore money-laundering thread of the Watergate scandal, serving as a conduit for an illegal $55,000 contribution that American Airlines laundered through a foreign source and funneled into President Nixon's re-election campaign. Federal authorities fined the airline, but apparently took no action against Chase.
In 1973, a mobster turned informer told a congressional committee that Chase and other firms helped him cook up bogus covers for illegal transactions in stolen and counterfeit securities that had been laundered through Switzerland and Belgium and then brought back to the U.S. The witness testified Chase bankers accepted the "flimsiest of proof" as to his identity when they signed off on documents that made his transactions possible.
In another case, the infamous "Pizza Connection" heroin ring used Chase to channel cash overseas, according to an account in The Money Launderers, a book by former U.S. Treasury enforcement official Robert E. Powis. In July 1980, a bagman for the ring entered Chase Manhattan's headquarters with four leather bags stuffed with $550,000 in fives, tens and twenties. The bank accepted the money, counted it, then transferred it to a Swiss account, according to Powis.
In June 1985, the Treasury Department fined Chase and other New York banks for ignoring one of the government's basic safeguards against financial chicanery — the federal Bank Secrecy Act's requirement that banks report any transactions involving $10,000 or more in cash. Chase paid a then-record fine of $360,000, based on 1,442 unreported transactions totaling $853 million.
"Some clerical people did not file reports here and there," a Chase spokesman told The Washington Post at the time. "There was nothing willful about this thing."
Along with handling money involved in drug smuggling and other underworld activities, big U.S. banks have also attracted deposits from Third World elites who want to hide their wealth from tax collectors. For decades, anti-corruption advocates say, U.S. banks have encouraged this process by dispatching armies of private bankers to solicit flight capital from developing nations.
In the 1980s, Antonio Gebauer was J.P. Morgan & Co.'s top man South of the Border, lauded by a Morgan spokesman as "the most highly esteemed banker in Latin America." Gebauer specialized in putting together multi-million-dollar loan deals across the region. He also oversaw covert New York bank accounts for a handful of wealthy Brazilians, among them a great-grandson of the founder of Brazilian Republic.
Brazilian authorities later questioned whether the money was unreported capital. Gebauer's attorney said the accounts had been set up under "the unusual and Byzantine relationships that often exist between bankers and flight capitalists."
The secret deposits might have remained secret if Gebauer hadn't been caught embezzling more than $4 million from his clients' accounts. In 1987, a U.S. judge sentenced him to 3½ years in prison, calling him "a fallen angel of the banking world."
U.S. media touched on the flight capital issue briefly, and the government of Brazil filed a treaty request asking U.S. authorities to subpoena account details from Morgan officials.
The bank won a court decision blocking Brazil's push to get more information. And Gebauer's guilty pleas allowed the House of Morgan to avoid a messy trial that have might revealed "the seamier side" of its Latin American operations, according to Henry's 2003 book on the dark side of global finance, Blood Bankers.
The issue of dark money didn't go away after J.P. Morgan & Co. and Chase Manhattan Corp. merged in late 2000, creating JPMorgan Chase & Co.
In March 2001, a U.S. Senate investigation revealed Chase Manhattan had been among big firms that had provided correspondent accounts to offshore banks involved in criminal activity. Investigators found that Antigua-licensed American International Bank moved $116 million through its account at Chase even as it was engaging in frauds in the U.S. and working hand-in-hand with convicted felons.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, tracking illicit cash became a bigger concern for U.S. authorities. Lormel, the former FBI official, says JPMorgan representatives were among the compliance specialists from various banks who pitched in after Sept. 11 and helped efforts to track terrorists.
"Whatever we wanted, within the limits of the law, the bankers were incredibly helpful," he recalls.
JPMorgan's post-9/11 record wasn't spotless, however.
In January 2003, federal authorities raided a business in Brooklyn called Carnival French Ice Cream, a convenience store with a limited supply of food and sundries and two soft-serve ice cream machines. During their search, investigators found paperwork that led them to conclude that, over a six-year period, the store's proprietor had laundered millions of dollars through a JPMorgan account on its way to Yemen, China and other places.
Some of the money, investigators believed, went to a Yemeni cleric who later pleaded guilty to charges that he had conspired to aid terrorists.
In February 2003, a month after the ice-cream shop raid, investigators for then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau raided an unlicensed money transfer firm, Beacon Hill Services Corp., that maintained dozens of accounts with JPMorgan.
Morgenthau said Beacon Hill was able to wire $9 billion through these accounts because the JPMorgan's compliance unit "fell down on the job," ignoring "numerous red flags for money laundering." A sizeable chunk of the money, he said, came from drug dealers and tax dodgers, and some ended up in the Middle East, possibly in the hands of terrorists.
No criminal charges were filed against JPMorgan in the case.
In the wake of these cases, industry officials argued it wasn't fair to expect banks to catch every questionable transaction amid trillions of dollars in daily cash flows.
JPMorgan's general counsel told The Wall Street Journal: "Think if you're running a railroad, and we say to you, 'We want you to monitor everyone who takes your train and see if their trip is legitimate.' "
Questions about how well JPMorgan monitors its customers persisted over the past decade, coming up in lawsuits and investigations relating to the Enron and Madoff affairs and other scandals.
Investors, insurers and federal authorities accused JPMorgan and Enron Corp. of using "special purpose vehicles" based in tax havens in the UK's Channel Islands as part of a scheme to create disguised loans that allowed Enron to hide its debts and book sham profits. The bank, which denied wrongdoing, shelled out more than $3 billion to settle claims related to Enron's fall.
After the Madoff case broke in 2008, a court-appointed trustee, Irving Picard, invoked Enron in attacking JPMorgan's role in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. JPMorgan turned a blind eye to Madoff's activities, Picard claims, despite its promises to do better after it had been caught "propping up" Enron's frauds.
JPMorgan, Picard asserted, was "at the very center" Madoff's Ponzi scheme. As his primary bank for more than two decades, it "provided the infrastructure for Madoff's deception" and was "uniquely situated to see the likely fraud," the trustee alleged in a lawsuit in federal court.
The bank held as much as $5.5 billion in Madoff-connected cash and, according to court filings by Picard, earned an estimated half-billion dollars from fees and other revenues generated by Madoff's billions.
Any concerns within the bank about Madoff "were suppressed as the drive for fees and profits became a substitute for common sense, ethics and legal obligations," Picard's lawsuit said.
The suit said the bank ignored a key indicator of money laundering or other financial crimes: frequent wire activity with offshore banking centers and financial secrecy havens. Within Madoff's main account at JPMorgan, dollar amounts of wire activity with high- and medium-risk jurisdictions increased 83 percent between 2004 and 2008.
In June 2007, a JPMorgan risk officer raised questions about whether Madoff might be running a Ponzi scheme. Other than asking a junior employee to do a Google search, JPMorgan officials did nothing to dig deeper into Madoff's business model, Picard charged. Madoff's main JPMorgan account was still operating without restrictions when he was arrested at the end of 2008.
The bank calls Picard's allegations "blustering" and "preposterous."
"The trustee's damages claims demand the absurd inference that JPMorgan deliberately joined with Bernard Madoff in a doomed-to-fail Ponzi scheme so that it could earn conventional banking fees," the bank said in a court filing.
A judge threw out many of Picard's claims against JPMorgan, ruling that it's up to individual victims rather than the trustee to sue the bank. That decision is on appeal. Other claims are still alive in bankruptcy court.
Last month, the New York Times reported that U.S. prosecutors have opened a new front in the case, investigating whether JPMorgan violated federal law by failing to fully inform authorities about suspicions about Madoff.
A bank spokesman told the Times the JPMorgan employees made "good faith" efforts "to comply with all anti-money-laundering and regulatory obligations."
As the fallout from Madoff's fraud and the 2008 financial crisis was spreading across Wall Street, JPMorgan was dealing with another scandal 5,000 miles away.
An Argentine newsmagazine, CrÃtica de la Argentina, had run an exposÃ© listing the names and deposit balances of some 200 citizens with JPMorgan accounts in the U.S. — including executives associated with the country's largest media company.
The headline: EL MORGANGATE.
The issue of flight capital flowing from Latin America to the United States had once again come to the surface. And, once again, JPMorgan was in the middle of the affair, in a case with striking parallels to the Tony Gebauer scandal two decades before.
Hernan Arbizu was a New York-based JPMorgan vice president in charge of some $200 million in accounts belonging to Argentines. Like Gebauer, he was accused of pilfering money from his clients. And as in the Gebauer case, exposure of his wrongdoing was accompanied by questions about his employer's relationships with wealthy, tax-shy Latin Americans.
Arbizu claims he and other private bankers helped customers launder money and evade taxes in their home countries. "I became a fraudster from the minute I started working in private banking, because if you think about it, I was committing fraud against Argentina as a whole through our activities here," he told Bloomberg News in 2009.
JPMorgan sued Arbizu in federal court in New York, accusing him of stealing money from client accounts and violating confidentiality agreements by expropriating JPMorgan documents. The bank eventually won a default judgment against him totaling nearly $3.6 million.
U.S. criminal charges pending against Arbizu may never be prosecuted. He remains out of reach in Argentina, protected from extradition by a government that has used his testimony in various legal actions.
JPMorgan declined to answer questions about Arbizu.
In 2010, anti-money laundering specialists at JPMorgan became concerned about a series of multi-million-dollar wire transfers involving a San Antonio, Texas, businessman. When bank officials confronted the businessman, court affidavits say, he told them he was acting as a front for his brother-in-law, the former treasurer of the Mexican border state of Coahuila.
The bank alerted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, helping spark official investigations of the ex-treasurer, who now stands accused in Mexico of embezzling millions of dollars from his state's treasury.
In 2010 and 2011, anti-money laundering experts at the bank joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the agency's fight against human trafficking.
Homeland Security and JPMorgan officials developed a detailed M.O. for the banking habits of businesses involved in human smuggling for prostitution and other forms of forced labor, according to John Byrne, executive vice president of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. One of the red flags: businesses that booked lots of round-number credit card payments — say, $200 — after midnight.
Byrnes' group honored JPMorgan and Homeland Security with its Private-Public Service Award. The collaboration, Byrnes says, was an example of good-faith effort by JPMorgan and other banks to fight corruption and money laundering.
Byrnes acknowledges big banks have made mistakes, but he believes these problems don't add up to a picture of an industry that puts profits above compliance.
The banking industry, he says, "works very, very hard to keep illicit funds out of institutions. The commitment comes from the top — from senior management."
Around the time JPMorgan was helping Homeland Security and the DEA zero in on human smugglers and the former Mexican official, it was under fire from another U.S. agency.
The Department of the Treasury was investigating evidence that JPMorgan had ignored legal bans on doing business with Cuba, Sudan, Liberia and Iran.
After the department subpoenaed information about one suspect transaction, the bank claimed, repeatedly, that it didn't have key documents that in fact it did have, the agency said. Only after the agency provided a detailed list it had obtained from another financial institution, the agency said, did JPMorgan cough up the documents.
Treasury officials found that the bank committed multiple violations of U.S. economic embargoes between March 2005 and March 2011. Among the violations: 1,711 transfers totaling $178.5 million to Cuban citizens and the transfer of 32,000 ounces of gold bullion, worth more than $20 million, to a bank in Iran.
The agency charged that bank managers and supervisors knew about the law-breaking and but did nothing to fix the problem.
After the $88.3 million penalty in the case was announced in August 2011, a JPMorgan spokesman said the matter involved "rare incidents" that were "unrelated and isolated from each other. The firm screens hundreds of millions of transaction and customer records per day and annual error rates are a tiny fraction of a percent."
That settlement hasn't wiped the slate clean for the bank when it comes to problems over its handling of suspect transactions and clients. Other investigations and lawsuits are still in the works.
In federal court in Minnesota, JPMorgan faces claims that it allowed corporate financier Thomas Petters to run a $3.7 billion Ponzi scheme that raised money through investment funds based in the Caymans.
Petters moved more than $83 million in Ponzi cash through his JPMorgan accounts between 2002 and 2007, a court-appointed trustee, Douglas Kelley, claims in a lawsuit. JPMorgan accepted his deposits, loaned him huge sums and worked with him on his $426 million purchase of Polaroid Corp., the suit says, even though it knew or should have known that he had a shady business plan — and a shady backstory.
Petters had a record of convictions for forgery, larceny and fraud and his chief fundraiser in the Ponzi scheme had done time in prison for cocaine dealing and offshore money laundering.
In court records, JPMorgan says Kelley's charges are "long on innuendo" and full of "largely irrelevant allegations." It says it engaged in legitimate, arm's-length transactions with Petters and that Kelley is trying to overcome the facts and the law "by talismanically invoking the term 'Ponzi scheme.' "
Kelley, a former federal prosecutor, said in an interview that his court filings in various lawsuits relating to Petters' frauds are "filled with specific facts" that show that JPMorgan and other banks that did business with Petters "turned their heads aside and didn't ask questions they ought to be asking just because they were making money hand over fist."
"If you're a banker and start to see a number of these red flags crop up," Kelley said, "you have a duty to ask questions — and you have a duty not to accept answers that are not facially candid."