Sen. Elizabeth Warren unloaded on bank regulators Thursday about the fact that British bank HSBC is still doing business in the U.S., with no criminal charges filed against it, despite confessing to what one regulator called "egregious" money laundering violations.
Her comments came just a day after the attorney general of the United States confessed that some banks are so big and important that they are essentially above the law. His Justice Department's failure to bring any criminal charges against HSBC or its employees is Exhibit A of that problem.
During a Senate Banking Committee hearing about money laundering, Warren (D-Mass.) grilled officials from the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency about why HSBC, which recently paid $1.9 billion to settle money laundering charges, wasn't criminally prosecuted and shut down in the U.S. Nor were any individuals from HSBC charged with any crimes, despite the bank confessing to laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and rogue regimes like Iran and Libya over several years.
Defenders of the Justice Department say that a criminal conviction could have been a death penalty for the bank, causing widespread damage to the economy. Warren wanted to know why the death penalty wasn't warranted in this case.
"They did it over and over and over again across a period of years. And they were caught doing it, warned not to do it and kept right on doing it, and evidently making profits doing it," Warren said of HSBC. "How many billions of dollars do you have to launder for drug lords and how many economic sanctions do you have to violate before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution like this?"
The regulator she was questioning, David Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, repeatedly refused to answer the question. Like the other regulators at the hearing, he said that his department has no authority to shut down a bank unless the Justice Department -- not represented at the hearing -- convicts the bank of a crime. He said that Treasury had come down as hard as possible on HSBC. But he wouldn't answer Warren's question about when a bank deserves to be shut down in the U.S.
"You sit in Treasury and you try to enforce these laws, and I've read all of your testimony and you tell me how vigorously you want to enforce these laws, but you have no opinion on when it is that a bank should be shut down for money laundering?" Warren finally asked. "Not even an opinion?"
Another regulator, Fed Governor Jerome Powell, said closing a bank is appropriate when that bank has been convicted of a crime. But he also said that only the Justice Department has the authority to prosecute a bank for a crime.
The regulators said they did answer Justice Department questions about the potential repercussions of convicting HSBC, but offered no opinion about whether the Justice Department should do so.
"If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you're gonna go to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life," Warren said. "But evidently if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your bed at night -- every single individual associated with this. And I think that's fundamentally wrong."
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