The Treasury's anti-money-laundering unit is taking more than four years, on average, to resolve violations of bank secrecy laws.

A report released Tuesday by the General Accounting Office showed that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network is taking longer and longer to process bank secrecy cases referred by bank regulators, despite recommendations the GAO made in a 1992 study.

In fact, in 16 cases since 1992, Fincen lost the right to fight bank secrecy crimes because the six-year statute of limitations expired.

By contrast, it took an average of 1.77 years to resolve each secrecy violation case between 1985 and 1991.

"Insufficient management attention, as indicated by the absence of timeliness goals and monitoring ... contributed to lengthy processing times in recent years," the GAO's new report concluded.

Other possible reasons for the slowdown, the GAO said, include staff inexperience and an increase in the number of cases involving nonbank financial institutions - such as casinos, check cashers, and currency exchangers - from which it is often tougher to obtain records and evidence.

As a result of Fincen's delays, bank secrecy violators may be less intimidated, and public confidence in financial crimes enforcement may have lessened, the GAO said.

To address the need for speedier case resolutions, the GAO recommended that Fincen acting Director William F. Baity set average timeliness goals for completing civil penalty cases and monitor the progress of staff in meeting those goals.

In a response letter to the GAO, Mr. Baity acknowledged the problem but said the agency had made "significant progress" over the past few months. "We concur that greater oversight is needed to ensure that civil penalty cases are processed in an expeditious yet thorough manner," he wrote.

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