WASHINGTON Bankers acknowledged at a congressional hearing Thursday that they had not gone far enough to combat money laundering in past years, but emphasized that the industry has toughened standards and that banks are now doing a better job of policing themselves.
One executive also said that federal regulators and enforcement agencies should do a better job of informing banks of organizations or foreign banks suspected of laundering money.
In the first of three money-laundering hearings, James C. Christie, senior vice president of global treasury risk management at Bank of America, told a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee that the institution had made mistakes when it allowed Swiss American Bank to open a correspondent account there in 1991. Swiss American was later found to engage in money-laundering activities.
But Mr. Christie cautioned that Bank of America has changed its due diligence practices, and would not open a similar account with a like institution today.
If we had the benefit of all our knowledge today, we would have done something differently, Mr. Christie said. But the environment didnt call for it then.
David Weisbrod, senior vice president of the treasury services division for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., whose predecessor bank, Chase Manhattan Corp., also allowed Swiss American to open an account, agreed. Yes, we should have done more due diligence, but we have an advanced program now, Mr. Weisbrod said.
But such arguments did not satisfy Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the permanent investigations subcommittee, who charged that the banks had been negligent in their duties and needed to do more. He accused banks of purposely turning a blind eye to institutions that engaged in suspicious activity, despite increasing attention to those institutions.
For example, Sen. Levin said, Bank of America and Chase Manhattan Bank had kept Swiss Americans accounts despite mounting evidence that the banks accounts were repositories for funds associated with drug trafficking, financial frauds, Internet gambling, or other illicit activities.
The hearing focused primarily on correspondent accounts, which let banks in other countries do business here through U.S. banks. Sen. Levin said he planned to introduce legislation soon that would prohibit banks from offering correspondent services to foreign institutions that have no offices or branches so-called shell banks.
At the hearing, both Mr. Christie and Mr. Weisbrod said their institutions did not do business with shell banks, and could not think of a legitimate reason why someone would.
Furthermore, Mr. Christie said that regulators and law enforcement officials could do more to help banks, and recommended that governments provide the industry with the names of companies and foreign banks that are known to be involved in money laundering.
By providing us with the names of the entities that are engaged in fraud and other related activities, we could add this information to our filtering systems and interdict the activities of these entities, Mr. Christie said. This information would, in turn, potentially allow us to identify the accounts of, or relationships with, the named entities.
Sen. Levin continued to press his case that both banks should have known that Swiss American and other banks were engaged in money laundering. He pointed to advertisements that he said strongly implied the banks would help individuals skirt the law, and criticized Chases decision to do business with the institution even as Bank of America closed its account there. He quoted a Bank of America memo that cited Swiss Americans abysmal reputation as the reason for closing the accounts.
Mr. Weisbrod responded that Chase was unaware that Swiss American had a bad reputation, and had received two references from well-respected sources. Sen. Levin noted that the bank had not closed the Swiss American accounts until October, when a Chase executive was subpoenaed to appear before the subcommittee.
Both bank executives said their institutions should probably have been aware much earlier that the institution was involved in money laundering, but said that they had taken several steps in the past few years to correct the problem. Mr. Christie and Mr. Weisbrod both said they had dramatically improved their training processes for conducting due diligence.
A visit to the institutions physical operation is also required, Mr. Christie said. We will also want to know what know your customer standards the applicant bank has in place; what type of client base the applicant maintains, including accounts with any foreign public officials; whether the correspondent bank will offer services to other correspondent banks, including any located in high-risk countries and the typical amounts and volumes of activity the bank anticipates having with us and whether these volumes seem appropriate.