- Reports from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists detailed findings from leaked government documents which found that some of the biggest global banks moved money for criminal networks and profited from doing so.
- The documents they drew from are known as suspicious activity reports. Very few of those reports have ever been publicized, but this leak contained 2,100 of them.
- According to BuzzFeed, the reports revealed that major lenders like JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank moved than $2 trillion in suspicious transactions between 1999 and 2017.
- BuzzFeed alleged that most banks could have stopped the transactions, but they often kept the money moving to collect fees and profit off the illicit funds “while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins.”
- For the most part, banks cannot legally comment on these reports, but in statements responding to the story, many claimed to have made significant improvements to their abilities to fight financial crimes.
BuzzFeed News’ SAR Bombshell
Some of the biggest banks in the world have helped suspected terrorists, drug cartels, rogue states, and other criminal networks move trillions of dollars, according to new reports published Sunday by BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The reports detail findings from thousands of leaked government documents called suspicious activity reports (SARs). Those reports, which banks are required to file if they suspect their clients of engaging in money laundering, fraud, or other illegal activity, are sent to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), an agency housed in the Treasury Department that is tasked with combating financial crimes.
FinCEN collects millions of SARs each year and sends them to law enforcement agencies all over the world. Notably, the SARs themselves do not provide evidence of wrongdoing, and the agency does not require banks to stop doing business with clients it flagged in SARs.
The investigative pieces by BuzzFeed and the ICIJ, which have been dubbed the FinCEN Files, provide an incredibly significant look into the secretive banking reports. As BuzzFeed notes, very few SARs had ever been revealed to the public prior to their reporting.
“The FinCEN Files encompass more than 2,100,” the outlet wrote, adding that the FinCEN Files “offer an unprecedented view of global financial corruption, the banks enabling it, and the government agencies that watch as it flourishes.”
According to BuzzFeed, in all, the SARs they reviewed “flagged more than $2 trillion in transactions between 1999 and 2017. Western banks could have blocked almost any of them, but in most cases they kept the money moving and kept collecting their fees.”
“[The] huge trove of secretive government documents eveals for the first time how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions, enriching themselves and their shareholders while facilitating the work of terrorists, kleptocrats, and drug kingpins,” the article said. “And the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”
Regarding the government response, BuzzFeed writes: “In the rare instances when the US government does crack down on banks, it often relies on sweetheart deals called deferred prosecution agreements, which include fines but no high-level arrests.”
“Laws that were meant to stop financial crime have instead allowed it to flourish,” the report continued. “So long as a bank files a notice that it may be facilitating criminal activity, it all but immunizes itself and its executives from criminal prosecution. The suspicious activity alert effectively gives them a free pass to keep moving the money and collecting the fees.”
“Banks often get to the end of their agreement without actually fixing the problems. Then, instead of getting the prosecution that they had been threatened with, they just get another chance. And sometimes another.”
BuzzFeed then goes on to explicitly flag five banks, writing that its investigation “shows that even after they were prosecuted or fined for financial misconduct, banks such as JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of New York Mellon continued to move money for suspected criminals.”
BuzzFeed mentions a number of examples regarding those banks. One of the most outstanding instances concerned Standard Chartered, which BuzzFeed said moved money for a Dubai-based business called Al Zarooni “that was later accused of laundering cash on behalf of the Taliban.”
During the years that Al Zarooni was a Standard Chartered customer, “Taliban militants staged violent attacks that killed civilians and soldiers.”
The report also says the SARs BuzzFeed accessed showed that HSBC’s Hong Kong branch, “allowed WCM777, a Ponzi scheme, to move more than $15 million even as the business was being barred from operating in three states.”
That scam stole at least $80 million from investors, most of whom were Latino and Asian immigrants. According to authorities, the company’s owner “used the looted funds to buy two golf courses, a 7,000-square-foot mansion, a 39.8-carat diamond, and mining rights in Sierra Leone.”
In addition to those two banks, the outlet also reported that “Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, American Express, and others collectively processed millions of dollars in transactions” for the family of the former mayor of Kazakhstan’s most populous city, who was later convicted of “bribe-taking and defrauding the city through the sale of public property.”
BuzzFeed claimed that those banks continued to process those transactions “even after Interpol issued a Red Notice for his arrest.”
Separately on Sunday, NBC News, which also viewed the same SARs, published an article claiming the documents showed that “North Korea carried out an elaborate money laundering scheme for years using a string of shell companies and help from Chinese companies, moving money through prominent banks in New York.”
“The suspected laundering by North Korea-linked organizations amounted to more than $174.8 million over several years, with transactions cleared through U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase and the Bank of New York Mellon,” NBC added, noting that this occurred at the same time the U.S. had put strict economic sanctions against the country in place.
Response From Banks & FinCEN
FinCEN has not released any statements since the reports came out, but it does appear they knew the exposé was coming.
In a statement published Sept. 1, the agency said it was “aware that various media outlets intend to publish a series of articles based on unlawfully disclosed (SARs).”
“The unauthorized disclosure of SARs is a crime that can impact the national security of the United States, compromise law enforcement investigations, and threaten the safety and security of the institutions and individuals who file such reports,” it added.
FinCEN also seemed to respond to reports that the SARs would be leaked by doing early damage control. On Sept. 17, just days before media outlets prepared to publish the documents, the agency published another statement announcing plans for a huge overhaul of national anti-money laundering rules.
Many of the banks mentioned by BuzzFeed have also responded to the article in a series of lengthy statements where each lender reiterated the fact that they cannot legally comment on SARs. They also noted that they have made improvements over the years when it comes to fighting financial crimes and money laundering.
Regarding the release of the SARs themselves, BuzzFeed says it would not publish them because “they contain information about people or companies that are not under suspicion,” and added that some of the documents will be published later with redactions “to support reporting in specific stories.”
Currently, it is unclear if these bombshell reports will move the needle when it comes to reforms and overhauls.
“If the government wanted to, experts in financial crime say, it could stop the dirty money coursing through the big banks, as well as the vast array of criminal activity it funds,” BuzzFeed wrote.
Reforms that could be made, according to the outlet, include greater public accountability, arresting and prosecuting executives whose banks break the law, and requiring companies “to disclose their owners to the Treasury Department, rather than allowing people to hide behind a shell company.”
Additionally, while these reports are likely some of the biggest insights into SARs ever made public, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The FinCEN Files represent less than 0.02% of the more than 12 million suspicious activity reports that financial institutions filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017,” ICIJ noted in their version of the publication.
What’s more, in the last two years alone, FinCEN received “more than 2 million SARs” according to BuzzFeed.
“That number has nearly doubled over the past decade, as financial institutions have faced mounting pressure to file and the volume of international transactions has grown,” the outlet added. “Over the same period, FinCEN’s staff has shrunk by more than 10%. Sources there say most SARs are never even read, let alone acted upon.”
With that information in mind, the big question then becomes: will there be pressure from the public?
Even if it does, as The New York Times points out, it is unclear if that pressure would outweigh the sway big banks have on the government.
“Recently, banks have pushed Congress to relieve them of some of their anti-money-laundering responsibilities,” The Times reported. “They say they are so worried about the legal consequences of failing to report suspicious activities that they err on the side of over-reporting transactions.”
See what others are saying: (NBC News) (The New York Times) (Business Insider)
Katie Couric Says She Edited Ruth Bader Ginsburg Quote About Athletes Kneeling During National Anthem
Couric said she omitted part of a 2016 interview in order to “protect” the justice.
Kate Couric Edited Quote From Justice Ginsburg
In her upcoming book, journalist Katie Couric admitted to editing a quote from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 2016 in order to “protect” Ginsberg from potential criticism.
Couric interviewed the late justice for an article in Yahoo News. During their discussion, she asked Ginsburg about her thoughts on athletes like Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
“I think it’s really dumb of them,” Ginsburg is quoted saying in the piece. “Would I arrest them for doing it? No. I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.”
According to The Daily Mail and The New York Post, which obtained advance copies of Couric’s book “Going There,” there was more to Ginsburg’s response. Couric wrote that she omitted a portion where Ginsburg said the form of protest showed a “contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life…Which they probably could not have lived in the places they came from.“
Couric Says She Lost Sleep Making Choice
“As they became older they realize that this was youthful folly,” Ginsberg reportedly continued. “And that’s why education is important.“
According to The Daily Mail, Couric wrote that the Supreme Court’s head of public affairs sent an email asking to remove comments about kneeling because Ginsburg had misspoken. Couric reportedly added that she felt a need to “protect” the justice, thinking she may not have understood the question. Couric reached out to her friend, New York Times reporter David Brooks, regarding the matter and he allegedly likewise believed she may have been confused by the subject.
Couric also wrote that she was a “big RBG fan” and felt her comments were “unworthy of a crusader for equality.” Because she knew the remarks could land Ginsburg in hot water, she said she “lost a lot of sleep” and felt “conflicted” about whether or not to edit them out.
Couric was trending on Twitter Wednesday and Thursday as people questioned the ethics behind her choice to ultimately cut part of the quote. Some thought the move showed a lack of journalistic integrity while others thought revealing the story now harmed Ginsburg’s legacy.
See what others are saying: (New York Post) (The Daily Mail) (Insider)
Biden Administration Orders ICE To Halt Workplace Raids
The Department of Homeland Security will now focus on targeting employers who exploit undocumented workers, instead of carrying out raids that dissuade those workers from reporting labor violations.
DHS Reverses Worksite Raid Policy
The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it was ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stop workplace raids.
The move marks a reversal from Trump administration policies that have been strongly criticized by immigration activists who argue the efforts created fear in immigrant communities and dissuaded them from reporting labor violations or exploitative employment practices.
In addition to stopping the raids, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a memo that the administration will refocus enforcement efforts to instead target “employers who exploit unauthorized workers, conduct illegal activities or impose unsafe working conditions.”
Mayorkas added that the immigration agencies housed in DHS will have the next 60 days to identify harmful existing policies and come up with new ones that provide better deportation protections for workers who report their employers.
In the Tuesday memo, the secretary argued that shift of focus will “reduce the demand for illegal employment by delivering more severe consequences to exploitative employers” and “increase the willingness of workers to report violations of law by exploitative employers and cooperate in employment and labor standards investigation.”
Labor Market Implications
The new policy comes at a time when the U.S. is experiencing a critical labor shortage, including in many sectors that rely on immigrant labor.
Some companies that use undocumented workers pay them wages that are far below the market rate, which is not only exploitative but also undercuts competitors.
According to Mayorkas, the pivot to employer-based enforcement will help protect American businesses.
“By exploiting undocumented workers and paying them substandard wages, the unscrupulous employers create an unfair labor market,” he said in the memo. “They also unfairly drive down their costs and disadvantage their business competitors who abide by the law.”
It is currently unclear how effective the new efforts will be, but historical precedent does not paint an optimistic picture.
The Biden administration’s efforts closely mirror a similar move by the Obama administration, which attempted to reverse workplace raids authorized under President George W. Bush by targetting those who employ undocumented workers rather than the workers themselves.
That effort, however, still led to thousands of undocumented workers being fired.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (ABC News)
Mom Charged for Hosting Secret Teen Parties, Pressuring Kids To Drink and Engage in Sex Acts
Investigators said some of the sex acts between teens were non-consensual and at times took place while the mother stood by laughing.
Mother Hit With Dozens of Charges
A California mother is facing 39 criminal charges after hosting a series of illegal parties for her teenage son and his mostly 14- and 15-year-old friends that regularly led to dangerous accidents and sexual assaults.
The mother, 47-year-old Shannon O’Connor, also known as Shannon Bruga, is currently awaiting extradition to Santa Clara County. According to The Mercury News, she was arrested Saturday in Ada County, Idaho, where she has a home in addition to her property in Los Gatos that is currently on the market.
Her criminal charges include 12 felony counts and 10 misdemeanor counts of child endangerment, one count of misdemeanor sexual battery, three counts of misdemeanor child molestation, and 13 misdemeanor counts of providing alcohol to minors.
“It took a lot of brave children to come forward and to untangle this deeply disturbing case,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a press release regarding the case. “As a parent, I’m shocked. As the DA, I’m determined to hold those adults who endanger children fully accountable to the law and our community.”
What Happened During the Parties?
Investigators claim O’Connor organized the functions, attended by as many as 20 teens, via text message and Snapchat. She would then allegedly supply the teens with alcohol and push them to binge drink, often to the point of illness or unconsciousness.
The harm that resulted from their intoxication included one teen breaking a finger and another almost drowning in a hot tub, among other serious situations.
In another instance, O’Connor let an unlicensed drunk teen drive her car. Her son and another one of his friends then hung off the back while it was moving, which caused the friend to fall, hit his head, and become unconscious for 30 seconds. He was later diagnosed with a concussion after spending the night vomiting.
O’Connor is additionally accused of manipulating and encouraging drunk teens to participate in sex acts with one another, which were sometimes non-consensual or carried out while she watched. In some cases, she allegedly laughed while the sexual acts happened or when assault victims asked her why she didn’t step in to help.
Investigators added that O’Connor required teens who attended her parties to keep them a secret. She’s even accused of helping them sneak out of their homes so she could drive them to her events. Authorities said she was found to have bullied at least one teen who she suspected of breaking the secret.
“Everyone should feel relieved this woman’s not on the street,” the parents of one assault victim told The Mercury News. “She was grooming these kids, setting them up for sexual acts, and she’s a mother and doing this to her own child. … I’ve been racking my brain trying to think what was in it for her.“