WASHINGTON A federal appeals court has ruled that a Florida banking subsidiary of Londons National Westminster Bank did not violate privacy laws in disclosing that a customer who was under federal prosecution for money laundering and whose assets had been frozen attempted to transfer $500,000 from her account.
Though Coutts and Co. International did not say whether it had informed government prosecutors of the attempt, the company maintained that such a disclosure would not have violated the Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978.
The customer, Maria Villalba, had sued Coutts in July 1996, claiming that the company had broken privacy laws that prohibit bank employees from disclosing a customers financial information to government authorities without customer authorization.
The law contains a safe harbor provision that allows financial institutions to inform law enforcement officials of suspected illegal activity if they reveal only the nature of the transaction. Ms. Villalba argued that the bank violated the exemption because, she said, it revealed the amount of the transaction. Also, she said, had the bank truly thought that something illegal had occurred, it would have filed an official suspicious activity report.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on May 11 upheld an earlier ruling that Coutts had reason to suspect illegal activity.