- 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)
Conservatives Slam Elmo For Getting Vaccinated Against COVID-19
While critics accused the muppet of promoting propaganda, CDC data shows the shots are safe and effective.
Elmo Gets Vaccinated
Conservative politicians expressed outrage on Twitter after the beloved “Sesame Street” character Elmo revealed he got vaccinated against COVID-19 on Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently cleared the way for children between the ages of six months and five years to get vaccinated against the virus. The famous red muppet is three years old, making him finally eligible for the jab.
In a video shared by “Sesame Street,” Elmo said that he felt “a little pinch, but it was okay.”
Elmo’s father, Louie, then addressed parents who might be apprehensive about vaccinating their own kids.
“I had a lot of questions about Elmo getting the COVID vaccine,” he said to the camera. “Was it safe? Was it the right decision? I talked to our pediatrician so I could make the right choice.”
“I learned that Elmo getting vaccinated is the best way to keep himself, our friends, neighbors, and everyone else healthy and enjoying the things they love,” he continued.
Republicans Criticize “Sesame Street”
While some praised the video for raising awareness and addressing the concerns parents may have, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx) quickly lambasted the effort.
“Thanks, Sesame Street for saying parents are allowed to have questions,” Cruz tweeted. “You then have Elmo aggressively advocate for vaccinating children UNDER 5. But you cite ZERO scientific evidence for this.”
Despite Cruz’s claim, the CDC has provided ample resources with information on vaccines for children.
He was not alone in criticizing the video. Harmeet Dhillon, a committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California, suggested that Elmo would be taking puberty blockers next.
Other anti-vaxxers claimed Elmo would get myocarditis and accused “Sesame Street” of promoting propaganda.
COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be both safe and effective against transmission of the virus, but this is not the first time conservatives have turned their anger against a friendly-looking muppet who opted to get the jab. When Big Bird got vaccinated in November, Cruz and other right-wing figures accused the show of brainwashing kids.
Big Bird’s choice to get vaccinated was not a shocker though, clips dating back to 1972 show him getting immunized against the measles.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Hill) (Market Watch)
Uvalde Puts Police Chief on Leave, Tries to Kick Him Off City Council
If Pete Arredondo fails to attend two more consecutive city council meetings, then he may be voted out of office.
Police Chief Faces Public Fury
Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo was placed on administrative leave Wednesday following revelations that he and his officers did not engage the shooter at Robb Elementary for over an hour despite having adequate weaponry and protection.
Superintendent Hal Harrell, who made the announcement, did not specify whether the leave is paid or unpaid.
Harrell said in a statement that the school district would have waited for an investigation to conclude before making any personnel decisions, but chose to order the administrative leave because it is uncertain how long the investigation will take.
Lieutenant Mike Hernandez, the second in command at the police department, will assume Arredondo’s duties.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune earlier this month, Arredondo said he did not consider himself in charge during the shooting, but law enforcement records reviewed by the outlet indicate that he gave orders at the scene.
Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told state senators on Tuesday that some officers wanted to enter the classrooms harboring the shooter but were stopped by their superiors.
He said officer Ruben Ruiz tried to move forward into the hallway after receiving a call from his wife Eva Mireles, a teacher inside one of the classrooms, telling him she had been shot and was bleeding to death.
Ruiz was detained, had his gun taken away, and was escorted off the scene, according to McCraw. Mireles later died of her wounds.
Calls for Arredondo to resign or be fired have persisted.
Emotions Erupt at City Council
Wednesday’s announcement came one day after the Uvalde City Council held a special meeting in which community members and relatives of victims voiced their anger and demanded accountability.
“Who are you protecting?” Asked Jasmine Cazares, sister of Jackie Cazares, a nine-year-old student who was shot. “Not my sister. The parents? No. You’re too busy putting them in handcuffs.”
Much of the anger was directed toward Arredondo, who was not present at the meeting but was elected to the city council on May 7, just over two weeks before the massacre.
“We are having to beg ya’ll to do something to get this man out of our faces,” said the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old victim. “We can’t see that gunman. That gunman got off easy. We can’t take our frustrations out on that gunman. He’s dead. He’s gone. … Ya’ll need to put yourselves in our shoes, and don’t say that none of ya’ll have, because I guarantee you if any of ya’ll were in our shoes, ya’ll would have been pulling every string that ya’ll have to get this man off the council.”
One woman demanded the council refuse to grant Arredondo the leave of absence he had requested, pointing out that if he fails to attend three consecutive meetings the council can vote him out for abandoning his office.
“What you can do right now is not give him, if he requests it, a leave of absence,” she said. “Don’t give him an out. We don’t want him. We want him out.”
After hearing from the residents, the council voted unanimously not to approve the leave of absence.
On Tuesday, Uvalde’s mayor announced that Robb Elementary is set to be demolished, saying no students or teachers should have to return to it after what happened.
We make it a point to not include the names and pictures of those who may have been seeking attention or infamy and will not link out to websites that might contain such information.
Texas Public Safety Director Says Police Response to Uvalde Shooting Was An “Abject Failure”
New footage shows officers prepared to engage the shooter one hour before they entered the classroom.
Seventy-Seven Deadly Minutes
Nearly a month after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two teachers, evidence has emerged indicating that police were prepared to engage the shooter within minutes of arriving, but chose to wait over an hour.
The shooting at Robb Elementary began at 11:33 a.m., and within three minutes 11 officers are believed to have entered the school, according to surveillance and body camera footage obtained by KVUE and the Austin American Statesman.
District Police Chief Pete Arredondo reportedly called a landline at the police department at 11:40 a.m. for help.
“It’s an emergency right now,” he said. “We have him in the room. He’s got an AR-15. He’s shot a lot… They need to be outside the building prepared because we don’t have firepower right now. It’s all pistols.”
At 11:52 a.m., however, the footage shows multiple officers inside the school armed with at least two rifles and one ballistic shield.
Law enforcement did not enter the adjoined classrooms to engage the shooter until almost an hour later, at 12:50 p.m. During that time, one officer’s daughter was inside the classrooms and another’s wife, a teacher, reportedly called him to say she was bleeding to death.
Thirty minutes before law enforcement entered the classrooms, the footage shows officers had four ballistic shields in the hallway.
Frustrated Cops Want to Go Inside
Some of the officers felt agitated because they were not allowed to enter the classrooms.
One special agent at the Texas Department of Public Safety arrived about 20 minutes after the shooting started, then immediately asked, “Are there still kids in the classrooms?”
“It is unknown at this time,” another officer replied.
“Ya’ll don’t know if there’s kids in there?” The agent shot back. “If there’s kids in there we need to go in there.”
“Whoever is in charge will determine that,” the other officer responded.
According to an earlier account by Arredondo, he and the other officers tried to open the doors to the classrooms, but found them both locked and waited for a master key to arrive. But surveillance footage suggests that they never tried to open the doors, which a top Texas official has confirmed were never actually locked.
One officer has told reporters that within minutes of the police response, there was a Halligan bar, which firefighters use to break down locked doors, on-site, but it was never used.
At a special State Senate committee hearing Monday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw called the police response an “abject failure” and “antithetical to everything we’ve learned over the last two decades since the Columbine massacre.”
“The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from (entering rooms) 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children,” he said. “The officers have weapons, the children had none.”