HSBC settles with U.S. government in money laundering case

By LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | DECEMBER 11, 2012

The international bank HSBC, which is based in the UK has agreed to pay a fine of $1,9 billion as part of an agreement with the U.S. government, after a new investigation on banking practices revealed that HSBC permitted criminals worldwide to launder drug money to finance terrorist operations.

In a report released in July, the U.S. Senate accused the leadership of HSBC of not taking action even though they had prima facie evidence that Mexican drug traffickers used their accounts to transfer funds to the U.S. and Saudi banks with tight relations to terrorist groups as well as Iranians seeking to circumvent the sanctions imposed on them by Washington.

The government began its own investigation through the Department of Justice and determined that there was enough evidence to accuse HSBC of aiding the laundering of billions of dollars.

The Wall Street Journal was one of the main stream media outlets to first report this last case of money laundering charges against HSBC, and they were also the first to report on the agreement between the Justice Department and HSBC to settle the case. Both federal and state authorities in the U.S. have decided not to file criminal charges against HSBC even though this is not the first time the bank is accused of facilitating the laundering of money from drug cartels and a very short list of important customers.

Amazingly, the U.S.’s excuse not to pursue criminal charges was “not to destabilize one of the largest financial institutions in the world,” with revenues of 105,000 million annually and more than 267,000 employees worldwide. The fine of $1,9 billion is one of the largest in recent U.S. history.

Of the total amount of the fine, $1,3 billion accounts for an agreement with the U.S. Executive, to avoid criminal charges. Another $650 million will go to pay a civil penalty. Needless to say this is chunk change for a corporations that has figured out how to get away with murder every single time it has been formally investigated. In July, the bank admitted that the mechanisms of control and transparency in the actions of their clients had been insufficient, and put $1,5 billion dollars in a fund for potential claims. That fund has  been cut down to $400 million.

It is expected that the U.S. Justice Department makes a formal announcement Tuesday. The deal comes less than a month after the British oil company BP agreed to plead guilty on negligence charges in the case of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, which occurred in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. BP will pay the U.S. government $ 3,5 billion for environmental offenses.

The Senate report on HSBC focused particularly on transactions between Mexican and U.S. subsidiaries of the bank. In Mexico, the report accused HSBC of “opening accounts for high risk customers including exchange houses and other businesses that offer services and American money, such as the Casa de Cambio Puebla and Sigue Corporation. These two Casas have been investigated for laundering money from the sale of illegal drugs in the U.S. “.

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Traficantes de drogas entre os melhores clientes do Banco HSBC

POR LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | 18 NOVEMBRO, 2012

O Ministério Britânico das Finanças e Alfândega (HMR) abriu uma investigação sobre contas bancárias no Banco de Hong Kong e Xangai (HSBC) cujos proprietários são cidadãos britânicos da ilha de Jersey, conhecida por seus baixos impostos.

Conforme relatado pelo Daily Telegraph, a investigação começou depois de uma denúncia anônima que daria detalhes de contas de clientes do Reino Unido na ilha e no exterior.

Os membros da lista de 4.388 pessoas incluem celebridades que mantêm em torno de  699 milhões de libras fora do país e bilhões de libras em planos de investimento.

O jornal disse que a lista de pessoas em Jersey inclui Daniel Bayes, um conhecido traficante de drogas conhecido e ex condenado, que se encontra na Venezuela, e Michael Lee, que foi condenado por posse ilegal de centenas de armas. Há, também, três banqueiros que, no passado, foram processados ​​por fraude.

O banco HSBC tem a obrigação legal de informar, em caso de dúvida sobre, a origem dos fundos depositados nas contas. O banco pagará aos Estados Unidos 1,5 bilhões de dólares em penalidades por lavagem de dinheiro.

Jersey, a maior ilha do Canal da Mancha, é uma democracia parlamentar, com sua própria leis judicial, financeira, legal e independente. Seu status de paraíso fiscal irrita, cada vez mais, os britânicos afetados pela recessão e um déficit significativo.

Não é a primeira vez que as autoridades descobrem que o banco HSBC e outros, como Wells Fargo e Wachovia, ajudam a transferir milhões e, às vezes, bilhões de dólares em todo o mundo, embora a origem destas grandes quantidades de dinheiro são desconhecidas. Em maio, o jornal Vancouver Sun informou sobre como o HSBC permite a lavagem de grandes quantidades de dinheiro através das contas pertencentes a alguns de seus clientes mais ricos. No artigo, o jornal relatou que documentos e e-mails do HSBC mostraram que não só o banco não questionava a fonte dos fundos, mas, também, fazia o possível para esconder a transferência de dinheiro de clientes de origem iraniana, libaneses, brasileiros e cubanos. A maioria das transações suspeitas foram realizadas nos escritórios do HSBC em Nova York e Miami.

Bloomberg também informou sobre como o HSBC, Wachovia e Bank of America lavaram bilhões de dólares dos cartéis de drogas mexicanos. Neste caso, os traficantes tinham comprado um avião DC-9 com fundos lavados que foram transferidos através de dois dos maiores bancos nos EUA: Wachovia Corp e Bank of America Corp, relatou a revista Bloomberg Markets em agosto de 2010. O Banco Wachovia lavou $ 378,4 bilhões originados em casas de câmbio no México entre 2004 e 2007. Essa é a maior violação da Lei do Sigilo Bancário na história dos EUA , uma lei contra a lavagem de dinheiro.

Grande parte da lavagem de dinheiro por bancos internacionais geralmente acaba no mercado de ações, o que muitos atribuem por ser a razão pela qual a economia global não colapsou completamente em 2008. Grande parte do dinheiro da droga é utilizada para financiar as operações de inteligência da CIA e o resto vai para a compra de grandes extensões de terra e recursos de todo o planeta.

Para o HSBC, as ações de lavagem de dinheiro  são parte de um esquema que ” movem bilhões de dólares entre os bancos todos os dias. Segundo este sistema, os bancos nos Estados Unidos são usados ​​para mover grandes quantidades de fundos ilícitos “, disse Jennifer Shasky Calvery, Chefe da Seção deLavagem de Dinheiro do Departamento de Justiça dos Estados Unidos, em seu depoimento ao Congresso em fevereiro passado.

De acordo com o artigo do Vancouver Sun, bancos como o HSBC enfraqueceram  o departamento que monitora a lavagem de dinheiro e pessoas incompetentes foram contratadas para supervisionar as operações que normalmente são mantidas sob o radar. “O HSBC não examinou milhares de alertas internos contra a lavagem de dinheiro e não criou os relatórios exigidos por leis, relatórios de atividades suspeitas em transações coletadas pelo sistema de controle interno do banco.” Atividade suspeita deve ser enviada para a polícia para que tal seja estudada e monitorada. Em maio de 2010, o HSBC tinha cerca de 50.000 relatórios de atividades suspeitas que não haviam sido comunicado às autoridades.

Talvez o detalhe mais surpreendente que se evidencia nos documentos relacionados com a investigação contra o HSBC é que a gestão, intencionalmente, decidiu não examinar alguns casos de atividades suspeitas. “Parece que há casos em que os funcionários do banco estão deturpando os dados” que são enviads para o alto escalão da gerência. Em outros casos, os gerentes simplesmente mudaram as classificações de risco para algumas transações para  não alarmar a ninguém que uma fraude estava sendo cometida.

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Traficantes de drogas entre los mejores clientes de HSBC

POR LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | 14 NOVIEMBRE, 2012

El Ministerio británico de Hacienda y Aduanas (HMR) ha abierto una investigación sobre cuentas bancárias en Banco de Hong Kong and Shanghai (HSBC), cuyos propietarios son ciudadanos británicos en la isla de Jersey, conocida por sus bajos impuestos.

Según ha informado el Daily Telegraph, la investigación se inició tras una denuncia anónima que dio detalles de las cuentas de clientes del Reino Unido en la isla y en el extranjero.

Los miembros de la lista de 4.388 personas incluyen a personas famosas que mantienen unos £ 699 millones fuera del país y miles de millones de libras en planes de inversión.

El diario dijo que la lista de personas en Jersey incluye a Daniel Bayes, un famoso traficante de drogas y ex con, quien se encuentra en Venezuela, y Michael Lee, que ha sido declarado culpable de posesión ilegal de cientos de armas. También hay tres banqueros que en el pasado fueron procesados ​​por fraude masivo.

El banco HSBC tiene la obligación legal de informar en caso de duda sobre el origen de los fondos depositados en las cuentas. La compañía de Londres aumentó a 1.500 millones de dólares las sanciones que tendrá que pagar a los EE.UU. por lavado de dinero.

Jersey, la isla más grande del Canal de la Mancha, es una democracia parlamentaria con su propio poder judicial, financiero, legal e independiente. Su condición de paraíso fiscal irrita cada vez más a los británicos, afectados por la recesión y un déficit significativo.

No es la primera vez que las autoridades encuentran que el banco HSBC y otros como Wells Fargo y Wachovia ayudan a transferir millones y, en algunos casos miles de millones de dólares en todo el mundo a pesar de que el origen de esas grandes cantidades de dinero son desconocidos. En mayo, el Vancouver Sun informó sobre cómo HSBC permite el lavado de grandes cantidades de dinero a través de cuentas que pertenecían a algunos de sus clientes más ricos. En su informe, el Sun relató como documentos y correos electrónicos mostraron que HSBC no sólo no preguntaba sobre el origen de los fondos, sino que también hizo todo lo posible para disimular la transferencia del dinero de los clientes de origen Iraniano, Libanés, Brasileño y Cubano. La mayoría de las transacciones sospechosas se realizaron a través de las oficinas de HSBC en Nueva York y Miami.

Bloomberg informó también sobre cómo HSBC, Wachovia, Bank of America lavaron miles de millones de dólares de los cárteles mexicanos de la droga. En ese caso, los traficantes habían comprado un avión DC-9 con fondos lavados que habían transferido a través de dos de los bancos más grandes en los EE.UU.: Wachovia Corp. y Bank of America Corp., informó la revista Bloomberg Markets en agosto de 2010. El Banco Wachovia lavó $ 378,4 mil millones originadas en  casas de cambio de moneda mexicana, entre 2004 y 2007. Esa es la mayor violación de la Ley de Secreto Bancario, una ley contra el blanqueo de dinero, en la historia de EE.UU..

Gran parte del dinero del narcotráfico lavado por los bancos internacionales usualmente termina en lugares como el mercado de valores a lo que muchos atribuyen al hecho de que la economía global no colapsara completamente en 2008. Una gran parte del dinero de la droga sirve para financiar las operaciones de inteligencia de la CIA y el resto va a comprar grandes porciones de tierras y recursos de todo el planeta.

En el caso de HSBC, las acciones de lavado de dinero forman parte de un esquema “encubierto que mueve miles de millones de dólares entre los bancos cada día. Bajo este sistema, los bancos en los Estados Unidos se utilizan para mover grandes cantidades de fondos ilícitos “, dijo Jennifer Shasky Calvery, jefe de Confiscación de Activos y Lavado de Dinero del Departamento de Justicia de Estados Unidos, en su testimonio en una audiencia del Congreso en febrero pasado.

De acuerdo con el informe del Vancouver Sun, bancos como HSBC debilitó su departamento que vigila el blanqueo de capitales y contrató a personas incompetentes para vigilar las operaciones que normalmente se mantenían por debajo del radar. “HSBC no ha examinado miles de alertas internas contra el lavado de dinero y no ha generado los reportes legales requeridos, informes de actividades sospechosas en las transacciones recogidas por el sistema de control interno del banco.” Actividad sospechosa se envía a la policía para ser estudiada y vigilada. En mayo de 2010, HSBC tenía un arsenal de cerca de 50.000 informes de actividades sospechosas que no habían sido transmitidas a las autoridades.

Quizás el detalle más sorprendente que se muestra en los documentos relacionados con la investigación en curso en contra de HSBC es que la gerencia  intencionalmente decidió no mirar en algunos casos de actividad sospechosa. “Parece que hay casos en que los empleados del Banco están tergiversando los datos”, que se envían a los altos directivos. En otros casos, los administradores simplemente cambiaron las calificaciones de riesgo para algunas transacciones, ara no alarmar a nadie del fraude que estaba siendo cometido.

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Drug traffickers among HSBC’s best customers

By LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | NOVEMBER 12, 2012

The British Ministry of Finance and Customs (HMR) has opened an investigation into accounts at HSBC whose owners are British citizens on the island of Jersey, known for its low taxes.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph, the investigation was launched after an anonymous tip that gave details of UK customers with accounts in the island and abroad.

Members of the list of 4388 people include famous people who keep some 699 million pounds out of the country and billions of pounds in investment plans.

The newspaper said the list of people in Jersey includes Daniel Bayes, a famous drug dealer and ex-con who is currently in Venezuela, and Michael Lee, who has been declared guilty of illegal possession of hundreds of weapons. There are also three bankers who in the past were prosecuted for massive fraud.

The bank has the legal obligation to report when in doubt about the origin of the funds deposited in the accounts. The London company increased to $ 1,500 million provision sanctions that it may have to pay the U.S. for money laundering.

Jersey, the largest island of the Channel of La Mancha, is a parliamentary democracy with its own financial, legal and independent judiciary. Its tax haven status increasingly irritated the British, affected by the recession and a significant deficit.

It is not the first time authorities find that HSBC bank and others like Wells Fargo and Wachovia help transfer millions and in some cases billions of dollars across the world even though the origin of such large amounts of money are unknown. Back in May, the Vancouver Sun reported on how HSBC allowed the laundering of large amounts of cash through accounts that belonged to some of its wealthiest customers. In its report, the Sun related how documents and e-mails showed that HSBC not only didn’t inquire about the origin of the funds, but also worked hard to conceal the transfer of the cash from clients of Iranian, Lebanese, Brazilian and Cuban origin. Most suspicious transactions are done through the HSBC’s New York and Miami offices.

Bloomberg also reported on how HSBC, Wachovia, Bank of America laundered billions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels. In that case, smugglers had bought the DC-9 with laundered funds they transferred through two of the biggest banks in the U.S.: Wachovia Corp. and Bank of America Corp., Bloomberg Markets magazine reported in its August 2010 issue. Wachovia bank alone laundered $378.4 billion for Mexican-currency-exchange houses from 2004 to 2007. That’s the largest violation of the Bank Secrecy Act, an anti-money-laundering law, in U.S. history.

Much of the drug trafficking money laundered by international banks is said to end in places such as the stock market to which many attribute the fact that the global economy did not completely collapse in 2008. A big chunk of drug money goes to finance intelligence operations for the CIA and the rest goes to buy large portions of land and resources around the planet.

In the case of HSBC, money laundering actions are part of a “disguised scheme that moves trillions of dollars between banks each day. Under this system, banks in the United States are used to move massive amounts of illicit funds,” said Jennifer Shasky Calvery, head of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, while providing her testimony in a congressional hearing last February.

According to the report on the Vancouver Sun, banks such as HSBC understaffs its anti-money laundering compliance division and hires incompetent personnel to watch over the transactions that are normally kept under the radar. “HSBC failed to review thousands of internal anti-money laundering alerts and generate legally required suspicious activity reports, or SARs, on transactions picked up by the bank’s internal monitoring system.” Suspicious activity is sent to law enforcement to be studied and watched over. Back in May of 2010, HSBC had a stockpile of almost 50,000 reports of suspicious activity which had not been passed on to authorities.

Perhaps the most amazing detail shown in the documents related to the ongoing investigation against HSBC is that “management intentionally decided” not to look into some cases of suspicious activity. “There appear to be instances where Bank employees are misrepresenting data” which is sent to senior managers. In other cases managers simply changed risk ratings for some transactions so that they would not set off the fraud alarms.

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HSBC Permits Money Laundering for Wealthy Clients

Documents and E-mails show that the bank not only doesn’t inquire about the origin of funds, but also works hard to conceal the transfer of large amounts of cash from clients of Iranian, Lebanese, Brazilian and Cuban origin.

Most suspicious transactions are done through the HSBC’s New York and Miami offices.

By CARRICK MOLLENKAMP, BRETT WOLF and BRIAN GROW | VANCOUVER SUN | MAY 8, 2012

In April 2003, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and New York state bank regulators cracked the whip on HSBC Bank USA, ordering it to do a better job of policing itself for suspicious money flows. Staff in the bank’s anti-money laundering division, according to a person who worked there at the time, flew into a “panic.”

The U.S. unit of London-based HSBC Holdings Plc quickly rallied. It hired a tough federal prosecutor to oversee anti-money laundering efforts. It installed monitoring systems for operations that had grown unwieldy during the bank’s U.S. expansion. The aim, as HSBC said in an agreement with regulators at the time, was to “ensure that the bank fully addresses all deficiencies in the bank’s anti-money laundering policies and procedures.”

Nearly a decade later, the effort has failed to satisfy law-enforcement officials.

The extent of that failure is laid out in confidential documents reviewed by Reuters that originate from investigations of HSBC’s U.S. operations by two U.S. Attorneys’ offices.

These documents allege that from 2005, the bank violated the Bank Secrecy Act and other anti-money laundering laws on a massive scale. HSBC did so, they say, by not adequately reviewing hundreds of billions of dollars in transactions for any that might have links to drug trafficking, terrorist financing and other criminal activity.

In some of the documents, prosecutors allege that HSBC intentionally flouted the law. The bank created an operation that was a “systemically flawed sham paper-product designed solely to make it appear that the Bank has complied” with the Bank Secrecy Act and is able to detect money laundering, wrote William J. Ihlenfeld II, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, in a draft of a 2010 letter addressed to Justice Department officials.

In that letter, Ihlenfeld compared HSBC unfavorably to Riggs Bank. In 2004 and 2005, that scandal-plagued Washington bank was fined a total of $41 million after it was found to have violated anti-money laundering laws, and it was acquired by PNC Financial Services.

“HSBC is to Riggs, as a nuclear waste dump is to a municipal land fill,” Ihlenfeld wrote.

The allegations laid out in the Ihlenfeld letter and other documents couldn’t be confirmed. It is possible that subsequent inquiries have led investigators to alter their views of what went on inside HSBC’s compliance operation.

As they are, the documents reviewed by Reuters, combined with regulatory filings, court documents and interviews with current and former HSBC employees, paint a damning portrait of a bank allegedly unable, and unwilling, to police itself or its clients.

HSBC’s U.S. anti-money laundering division – the people charged with ensuring that the bank toes the line of regulators and law enforcement – has experienced high turnover among executives. Since 2005, at least half a dozen overseers have come and gone. Compliance staff also encountered pushback from bankers eager to maintain relationships with lucrative clients whose dealings raised red flags.

In the Miami office – an important center for HSBC’s private-banking and retail operations – a longtime private banker was fired for alleged sexual harassment after he warned compliance officers that clients were engaged in shady dealings.

In one email exchange submitted as evidence in that case, employees debated whether the bank should help a Miami client get around U.S. sanctions by moving the client’s business to HSBC’s Hong Kong office. “I believe that the best outcome would be for the customer to open a relationship with Hong Kong just for leters (sic) of credit purposes. He travels there all the time,” private banker Antonio Suarez wrote in a 2008 email. Suarez has since left the bank and couldn’t be reached for comment.

UNDER THE RADAR

The revelations come as HSBC confronts multiple investigations into its internal policing abilities. The Justice Department, the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Manhattan district attorney, the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations are scrutinizing client activities such as cross-border movements of bulk cash, and transactions linked to Iran and other parties under U.S. economic sanctions, the bank said in a February regulatory filing.

“We continue to cooperate with officials in a number of ongoing investigations,” HSBC spokesman Robert Sherman said. “The details of those investigations are confidential, and therefore we will not comment on specific allegations.” HSBC said in its February filing that it was likely to face criminal or civil charges related to the probes.

A successful case against HSBC could result in an onerous fine and represent one of the most significant money laundering cases ever brought against an international bank. It also would draw unaccustomed attention to the challenges governments — and financial institutions — face in monitoring the trillions of dollars flowing through banks’ back-office operations, flows essential to the daily functioning of the global financial system.

“Disguised in the trillions of dollars that is transferred between banks each day, banks in the U.S. are used to funnel massive amounts of illicit funds,” Jennifer Shasky Calvery, head of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, said in congressional testimony on organized crime in February.

In response to Reuters inquiries about the investigations, Gary Peterson, chief compliance officer of HSBC’s U.S. bank operations, said: “Since joining HSBC in 2010, I’ve been proud to lead an AML (anti-money laundering) team that has vastly increased investments in people, systems and expertise. We are continuously seeking to strengthen our core AML mission: to detect and deter money laundering and terrorist financing – and our efforts are showing results.”

To date, the only enforcement action detailing any anti-money laundering shortcomings at HSBC was a 2010 consent order from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Treasury agency that is HSBC’s chief regulator. The OCC, calling HSBC’s compliance program “ineffective,” told the bank to conduct a review to identify suspicious activity. This “look-back” was expected to yield a report to HSBC and regulators. The status of the report isn’t known. A spokesman for the OCC declined to comment.

The West Virginia U.S. Attorney’s probe of HSBC, which ran from 2008 until at least 2010, originated in a case against a local pain doctor who allegedly used HSBC accounts to launder ill-gotten gains from Medicare fraud. Over time, the U.S. Attorney’s office began to discern that, as Ihlenfeld wrote in his letter, the doctor’s case was just “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the volume of suspicious money sluicing through HSBC.

The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn – one of the most powerful prosecutors outside of Justice Department headquarters in Washington – has conducted a parallel investigation, in collaboration with the Justice Department’s money laundering section.

Specifics on the investigations have until now been cloaked in secrecy. The documents reviewed by Reuters for the first time fill in some of the details. Taken together, they depict apparent anti-money laundering lapses of extraordinary breadth. Among them, according to the documents:

* The bank understaffed its anti-money laundering compliance division and hired “gullible, poorly trained, and otherwise incompetent personnel.” In 2009, the OCC deemed a senior compliance official at HSBC to be incompetent – the same executive in charge of implementing a new anti-money laundering system.

* HSBC failed to review thousands of internal anti-money laundering alerts and generate legally required suspicious activity reports, or SARs, on transactions picked up by the bank’s internal monitoring system. SARs are important because they are sent to U.S. law enforcement and scrutinized for leads to criminal activity. In May 2010, the bank’s backlog of alerts was nearly 50,000 and “growing exponentially each month,” according to one of the documents.

* Hundreds of billions of dollars moved unchecked each year through various bank operations because of lax due diligence and monitoring of accounts with foreign correspondent banks, which are financial institutions that rely on U.S. banks for processing services. The bank maintained accounts with “high risk” affiliates such as “casas de cambios” – Mexican foreign-exchange dealers – widely suspected of laundering drug-trafficking proceeds, and some Mexican and South American banks.

* In some instances, “management intentionally decided” not to review alerts of suspicious activity. An investigation summary also says, “There appear to be instances where Bank employees are misrepresenting” data sent to senior managers, and where management altered risk ratings on certain clients so that suspect transactions didn’t set off alarms.

Sherman, the HSBC spokesman, said the bank cleared the backlog of alerts and has remained current. Sherman also said the bank “regularly reviews risk ratings. We have revised and strengthened our country risk rating review policies.”

Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney in Wheeling, West Virginia, and for the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn declined to comment. The Justice Department in Washington also declined to comment, citing “an ongoing investigation into this matter.”

THE MIAMI CONNECTION

HSBC was born in 1865 as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp in the then-British colony of Hong Kong. It had little presence in the U.S. market until its purchase in the 1980s of Marine Midland Banks Inc based in Buffalo, New York.

Now the fifth-largest bank in the world in terms of market value, HSBC had $2.6 trillion in assets at the end of 2011 and operations in 85 countries and territories. Its North American business, which includes HSBC Bank USA and a consumer finance unit, accounts for about 5 percent of HSBC’s profit.

In 1999, HSBC’s U.S. unit paid $10 billion to buy Republic New York Corp and a European affiliate, banks controlled by Lebanese financier Edmond Safra. The deal doubled HSBC’s private bank to 55,000 clients with $120 billion in assets and broadened business in New York, Florida, Latin America and Europe.

The purchase also yielded one of the world’s biggest banknote businesses, an operation that handles bulk cash exchanges between central banks and large commercial banks. In 2003, HSBC plunged into the U.S. market for subprime lending, paying $14 billion for Household International Inc.

By then, all banks faced U.S. regulatory pressure aimed at stopping shady money flows. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot Act took effect, attempting, among other things, to choke off terrorist financing by strengthening requirements that banks look for and report suspicious activity. In recent years, U.S. law enforcement added an emphasis on money tied to the illegal drug trade.

When the 2003 order came down from regulators for HSBC to improve its anti-money laundering efforts, the bank had no centrally organized means of monitoring the movement of money across borders. That’s when it hired Teresa Pesce. Pesce came from the high-profile U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, where she made a name for herself as a tough prosecutor overseeing money laundering prosecutions.

Pesce “knew the ropes,” according to a person who worked in compliance at the time, and the sense among many staffers was that a “savior was here.” One of her first initiatives was to order the installation of the Customer Account Monitoring Program, or CAMP, a technology system designed to filter suspicious retail transactions across HSBC’s U.S. operations.

In 2006, regulators lifted their 2003 order, according to people familiar with the situation.

Pesce left the bank in 2007 to run KPMG LLP’s anti-money laundering consulting business. A lawyer for Pesce declined to comment.

Despite Pesce’s efforts, problems with HSBC’s program persisted. In 2009, the OCC determined that Lesley Midzain, a compliance executive with little direct experience running anti-money laundering programs, was incompetent. She was in charge of the installation of a monitoring program to replace Pesce’s CAMP system, which the OCC had determined was “inadequate to support the volume, scope and nature of international money transfer transactions,” according to the documents reviewed by Reuters. Efforts to locate and obtain comment from Midzain were unsuccessful.

The former compliance-division staffer said that in the Miami office in particular, with millions of dollars from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and other countries flowing through the Premier private-banking business for wealthy clients, “it was a nightmare to figure out what was going on down there.”

Those observations mesh with allegations in a 2010 lawsuit against HSBC brought by Tomas Benitez, a longtime private banker in South Florida who had worked at Republic Bank. Benitez alleged that HSBC fired him in January 2009 after he warned colleagues that clients had violated U.S. restrictions on trade with Iran and Cuba.

HSBC said in a court filing that it fired Benitez for alleged sexual harassment – allegations Benitez denied.

In court documents, Benitez alleged that during an audit meeting in 2008, an unidentified federal bank examiner told HSBC employees that a client referred to only as “CM” “had multiple affiliations whose ties to Iran and Cuba were part of their ordinary course of business.

At a follow-up meeting, the account was discussed because of indications its owner “was funneling large amounts of funds in and out, with no apparent business purpose,” Benitez alleged. He told Clara Hurtado, director of anti-money laundering compliance at HSBC’s private bank in Miami, that the account had ties to Iran and Cuba and “as a result, it should not be maintained,” according to the lawsuit.

After the meeting, Benitez alleged, another banker said “he would not allow Benitez’s word and suspicions to defeat a million-dollar-plus account relationship.” The account wasn’t terminated, Benitez alleged.

Hurtado declined to comment. She left HSBC in 2009, according to her LinkedIn account.

In an email exchange submitted as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Hurtado and other HSBC employees discussed whether the bank could help a Miami client avoid violating U.S. sanctions by issuing letters of credit for the client from the bank’s Hong Kong offices, according to Benitez’s lawsuit. “Clara, we are persuing (sic) another solutions……(anything but losing the account!!!),” Suarez, the private banker, wrote in an email. The banker suggested issuing the letters of credit through Hong Kong.

In January 2009, HSBC fired Benitez. In late 2010, a federal judge dismissed his case and demand for pay, saying there was no evidence of a connection between Benitez’s concerns about the accounts and the firing. The judge didn’t address Benitez’s allegations about illicit transactions.

Benitez’s Miami lawyer, Mark Raymond, declined to comment on his client’s behalf.

HSBC spokesman Sherman declined to comment on Benitez’s case. “It’s inappropriate to comment on unsubstantiated allegations in termination of employment cases,” he said.

OBVIOUS TO STOOGES

Around the time Benitez was sounding warnings in Miami, authorities were accelerating an investigation in West Virginia of Barton Adams, a pain clinic operator in the Ohio River town of Vienna. In 2008, the U.S. Attorney in Wheeling indicted Adams on 157 counts of alleged healthcare fraud and other crimes. They allege that Adams moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in Medicare fraud proceeds between a U.S. HSBC account and HSBC accounts in Canada, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Adams has pleaded not guilty.

In building their case against him, the West Virginia prosecutors determined that HSBC’s compliance problems were systemic. As Ihlenfeld wrote in his letter to the Justice Department: “The Adams money laundering practices – which Moe, Larry, and Curly would dismiss as too transparent – would not be detected by HSBC regardless of who the customer was, or where any transaction occurred.” HSBC, he said, “systematically and egregiously” violated the Bank Secrecy Act.

One document reviewed by Reuters says HSBC developed a “large appetite for risk” after snapping up business with Mexican foreign-exchange houses formerly handled by Wachovia Corp. In 2010, Wachovia agreed to pay $160 million as part of a Justice Department probe that examined how drug traffickers had moved money through the bank.

West Virginia prosecutors focused much of their attention, according to the documents, on HSBC’s failure to report suspicious activity on hundreds of billions of dollars in business from “high-risk” sources.

For instance, 73 percent of accounts with foreign correspondent banks were rated “standard” or “medium” risk and thus weren’t monitored at all, the documents say, noting that oversight of such accounts was “extremely limited despite indications of possible terror financing.” In one example, the bank “summarily cleared as many as 5,000” internal alerts of suspicious activity from correspondent customers in Argentina after lowering the country’s risk rating.

Investigators cited a litany of failings in the bank’s back-office operations — the vast but mundane business of clearing transactions by moving big sums of money around the globe. In the bank’s “remote deposit capture” business – an operation that electronically zaps checks around the world — HSBC “failed to detect, review and report large volumes of sequentially numbered traveler’s checks” from non-U.S. sources. Such checks are a red flag signaling possible money laundering, regulators have said.

HSBC also repatriated more than $106.5 billion in banknote deposits through foreign correspondent accounts, many of them in Mexico and South America, in a three-year period. And yet, “since 2005, the bank has filed only 19 suspicious activity reports relative to the receipt of bulk cash and banknote activities.”

People familiar with HSBC and the reports said 19 is a low number given the risk of the clients. Between 2005 and 2010, banks and other depository institutions filed more than 3.8 million SARs, according to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau of the Treasury Department.

Similarly, investigators found that HSBC didn’t report any suspicious activity after Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as drug dealers deposited millions of dollars in Paraguayan banks and then transferred the money to accounts in the U.S. through HSBC. They have also been examining connections between one of the Paraguayan banks and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamist group classified by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. HSBC has since ended its relationship with the Paraguayan bank, according to government documents.

Ultimately, the U.S. Attorney’s office in West Virginia entered into plea negotiations with HSBC, the documents show. A person familiar with the investigation said a deal could have resulted in one of the largest settlements ever in a bank money laundering case.

For reasons that aren’t clear, prosecutors in West Virginia were told to stand down while the Eastern District of New York and other Justice Department divisions continued to investigate, according to a Justice Department document and an HSBC regulatory filing. The West Virginia probe could ultimately prove to be a narrow slice of a broader case if criminal or civil charges emerge.