NY Times: Criminal Charges Are Finally in the Wings for Big Banks

Wednesday, 30 Apr 2014 11:37 AM

By John Morgan

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Federal prosecutors are preparing criminal charges against two of the world’s mega-banks that could yield the first criminal guilty plea from a major bank in more than 20 years, The New York Times reported.

Neither of the banks cited by the Times is a U.S. bank. The charges focus on Switzerland’s Credit Suisse for its practices in offering tax shelters to Americans, and on France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, over doing business with nations like Sudan and Iran that the U.S. has blacklisted, according to the Times.

“The approach applies to American banks, though those investigations are at an earlier stage,” the Times said.

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The newspaper reported that the probes, being conducted simultaneously by a range of government agencies, means prosecutors are “confronting the popular belief that Wall Street institutions have grown so important to the economy that they cannot be charged.”

“A lack of criminal prosecutions of banks and their leaders fueled a public outcry over the perception that Wall Street giants are ‘too big to jail.’”

According to the Times account, any guilty pleas would apparently come from the banks themselves or their subsidiaries — there was no mention that any individual banker might be charged.

In their pursuit of the criminal cases, prosecutors are reportedly torn by a desire not to harm the broader economy in a ripple effect. The outcome of some criminal charges might mean the automatic revocation of a bank’s charter to do business in the U.S., which could amount to the “corporate equivalent of a death penalty,” the Times reported.

“Federal guidelines require prosecutors to weigh the broader economic consequences of charging corporations.”

Those reportedly involved in the government investigation include the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Benjamin M. Lawsky, New York’s top financial regulator; Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan; David O’Neil, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division in Washington; and Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney.

According to the Times’ unnamed sources, Bharara has also opened his own criminal investigations into alleged fraud at Citigroup’s Mexican affiliate and other American banks.

Bloomberg noted previous cases against big banks have been settled through so-called non-prosecution and deferred-prosecution agreements, which have been criticized by some U.S. senators for failing to hold banks accountable for law-breaking.

John Hueston, a former Enron Task Force prosecutor, told Bloomberg, “Prosecutors… rarely indict large institutions because of the potential widespread collateral damage to uninvolved employees and investors in the form of lost jobs and shareholder value.”

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