The deal was announced quietly, just before the holidays, almost like the government was hoping people were too busy hanging stockings by the fireplace to notice. Flooring politicians, lawyers and investigators all over the world, the U.S. Justice Department granted a total walk to executives of the British-based bank HSBC for the largest drug-and-terrorism money-laundering case ever. Yes, they issued a fine – $1.9 billion, or about five weeks' profit – but they didn't extract so much as one dollar or one day in jail from any individual, despite a decade of stupefying abuses.
People may have outrage fatigue about Wall Street, and more stories about billionaire greedheads getting away with more stealing often cease to amaze. But the HSBC case went miles beyond the usual paper-pushing, keypad-punching sort-of crime, committed by geeks in ties, normally associated with Wall Street. In this case, the bank literally got away with murder – well, aiding and abetting it, anyway.
For at least half a decade, the storied British colonial banking power helped to wash hundreds of millions of dollars for drug mobs, including Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, suspected in tens of thousands of murders just in the past 10 years – people so totally evil, jokes former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, that "they make the guys on Wall Street look good." The bank also moved money for organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and for Russian gangsters; helped countries like Iran, the Sudan and North Korea evade sanctions; and, in between helping murderers and terrorists and rogue states, aided countless common tax cheats in hiding their cash.
"They violated every goddamn law in the book," says Jack Blum, an attorney and former Senate investigator who headed a major bribery investigation against Lockheed in the 1970s that led to the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "They took every imaginable form of illegal and illicit business."
That nobody from the bank went to jail or paid a dollar in individual fines is nothing new in this era of financial crisis. What is different about this settlement is that the Justice Department, for the first time, admitted why it decided to go soft on this particular kind of criminal. It was worried that anything more than a wrist slap for HSBC might undermine the world economy. "Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer at a press conference to announce the settlement, "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."
It was the dawn of a new era. In the years just after 9/11, even being breathed on by a suspected terrorist could land you in extralegal detention for the rest of your life. But now, when you're Too Big to Jail, you can cop to laundering terrorist cash and violating the Trading With the Enemy Act, and not only will you not be prosecuted for it, but the government will go out of its way to make sure you won't lose your license. Some on the Hill put it to me this way: OK, fine, no jail time, but they can't even pull their charter? Are you kidding?
But the Justice Department wasn't finished handing out Christmas goodies. A little over a week later, Breuer was back in front of the press, giving a cushy deal to another huge international firm, the Swiss bank UBS, which had just admitted to a key role in perhaps the biggest antitrust/price-fixing case in history, the so-called LIBOR scandal, a massive interest-raterigging conspiracy involving hundreds of trillions ("trillions," with a "t") of dollars in financial products. While two minor players did face charges, Breuer and the Justice Department worried aloud about global stability as they explained why no criminal charges were being filed against the parent company.
"Our goal here," Breuer said, "is not to destroy a major financial institution."
A reporter at the UBS presser pointed out to Breuer that UBS had already been busted in 2009 in a major tax-evasion case, and asked a sensible question. "This is a bank that has broken the law before," the reporter said. "So why not be tougher?"
"I don't know what tougher means," answered the assistant attorney general.
Also known as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC has always been associated with drugs. Founded in 1865, HSBC became the major commercial bank in colonial China after the conclusion of the Second Opium War. If you're rusty in your history of Britain's various wars of Imperial Rape, the Second Opium War was the one where Britain and other European powers basically slaughtered lots of Chinese people until they agreed to legalize the dope trade (much like they had done in the First Opium War, which ended in 1842).
A century and a half later, it appears not much has changed. With its strong on-the-ground presence in many of the various ex-colonial territories in Asia and Africa, and its rich history of cross-cultural moral flexibility, HSBC has a very different international footprint than other Too Big to Fail banks like Wells Fargo or Bank of America. While the American banking behemoths mainly gorged themselves on the toxic residential-mortgage trade that caused the 2008 financial bubble, HSBC took a slightly different path, turning itself into the destination bank for domestic and international scoundrels of every possible persuasion.
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. In fact, as a mortifying 334-page report issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last summer made plain, HSBC ignored a truly awesome quantity of official warnings.
In April 2003, with 9/11 still fresh in the minds of American regulators, the Federal Reserve sent HSBC's American subsidiary a cease-and-desist letter, ordering it to clean up its act and make a better effort to keep criminals and terrorists from opening accounts at its bank. One of the bank's bigger customers, for instance, was Saudi Arabia's Al Rajhi bank, which had been linked by the CIA and other government agencies to terrorism. According to a document cited in a Senate report, one of the bank's founders, Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi, was among 20 early financiers of Al Qaeda, a member of what Osama bin Laden himself apparently called the "Golden Chain." In 2003, the CIA wrote a confidential report about the bank, describing Al Rajhi as a "conduit for extremist finance." In the report, details of which leaked to the public by 2007, the agency noted that Sulaiman Al Rajhi consciously worked to help Islamic "charities" hide their true nature, ordering the bank's board to "explore financial instruments that would allow the bank's charitable contributions to avoid official Saudi scrutiny." (The bank has denied any role in financing extremists.)