Chairman and chief executive officer Thomas A. Renyi on Wednesday acknowledged that Bank of New York ignored the suspicious transactions that are now the focus of an international money-laundering probe.
Testifying before the House Banking Committee, Mr. Renyi said bank officials detected unusually large amounts of money moving through accounts opened by Peter Berlin, a Russian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 1996 and is under investigation by law enforcement authorities. Over more than three years, Mr. Renyi said, $7.5 billion -- an average of $6 million a day -- moved through eight accounts associated with Mr. Berlin. But no one took any action because Mr. Berlin's wife, bank officer Lucy Edwards, had vouched for the accounts.
"Questions were not pursued with sufficient vigor or follow-through," Mr. Renyi told lawmakers, who wrapped up two days of hearings on the Russian money-laundering scandal with testimony from key bankers, a top law enforcement official, and others.
"Allowing these accounts to remain open and active without sufficient questioning was a lapse on the part of the bank. I have taken personal responsibility for implementing remedial actions."
Yet Mr. Renyi repeatedly emphasized that senior management and compliance officers did not know about the suspicious trading, that bank officials are cooperating with the investigation, and that the bank has not been accused of any crime.
The embattled executive even displayed a sense of humor when lawmakers asked if he had been hearing from fellow bankers about similar problems. He expressed hope that "Bank of New York being the poster child for money laundering unfairly I hope, and I certainly believe," would bring greater industry attention to the issue.
Above all, he said, Bank of New York has corrected its problems. It fired Ms. Edwards and another employee for violating conduct rules and failing to cooperate with its internal investigation, which is incomplete, Mr. Renyi said. He vowed that more disciplinary actions would be taken if needed.
Bank of New York has also implemented a new anti-money-laundering program. A committee will review unusual customer activity and recommend when accounts need to be closed or suspicious activity reports filed with the government.
The bank also plans to upgrade its computer tracking of money flows. It is testing an automated system that can examine "behavioral patterns" in the search for abnormal activity. Mr. Renyi likened it to systems used by credit card issuers to monitor card activity.
Lawmakers only lightly criticized Mr. Renyi or the bank. "There should have been more understanding of the potential for conflict of interest" by Ms. Edwards, said Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J.
"The fact that such an incident would occur at such a respected bank is frightening to me," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "We have to wonder if this case is simply the tip of the iceberg."
Lawmakers raised questions about the Federal Reserve Board's oversight of the bank but stopped short of criticizing regulators.
Meanwhile, legislative proposals continue to flow.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced legislation that would let courts double monetary penalties for violators in areas with high levels of money-laundering activity, force banks to identify the holders of commingled and offshore accounts, and require broker-dealers to file suspicious activity reports like banks.
During the hearing, Rep. Waters complained that banks are ignoring existing know-your-customer requirements and suggested that banks involved in money laundering should have their charters revoked.
James K. Robinson, an assistant U.S. attorney general, said the Clinton administration would soon submit legislation to Congress that would modernize money-laundering laws and broaden the list of crimes committed abroad that could be prosecuted here. He said it would be similar to bipartisan legislation introduced this week by House Banking Chairman Jim Leach.
In addition, Mr. Robinson said, Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers and Attorney General Janet Reno on Thursday will unveil an interagency strategy to combat money laundering.