- 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)
Biden to Mandate COVID Vaccines for Federal Workers as CDC Changes Masking Guidance
News of the efforts came on the same day that the U.S. reported more than 100,000 new daily COVID cases for the first time since February.
Federal Vaccine Mandate
President Joe Biden will announce Thursday that all federal employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or consent to strict testing and other safety precautions, White House officials told reporters Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, Biden said he was considering the requirement but did not provide any more information.
While the officials also said the details are still being hashed out, they did note that the policy would be similar to ones recently put in place by California and New York City, which respectively required state and city workers to get the jab or submit to regular testing.
Also on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines to recommend that Americans who live in areas “of substantial or high transmission,” as well as all students and teachers, wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.
Delta Causes Spikes, But Vaccines Still Prove Effective
The renewed COVID mitigation efforts come as the delta variant is driving massive surges all over the country.
Coronavirus cases have quadrupled throughout July, jumping from a weekly average of 11,799 on the first day of the month to 63,248 on Tuesday, according to The New York Times tracker. Tuesday also saw new daily infections topping 100,000 for the first time since February, with more than 108,000 reported, per The Times.
While the vast majority of new infections are among people who have not been vaccinated, there have also been increasing reports of breakthrough cases in people who have received the jab.
Those cases, however, do not mean that the vaccines are not effective.
No vaccine prevents 100% of infections. Health officials have said time and time again that the jabs are intended to prevent severe disease and death, and they are doing just that.
According to the most recent data for July 19, the CDC reported that only 5,914 of the more than 161 million Americans who have gotten the vaccine were hospitalized or died from COVID-19 — a figure that represents 0.0036% of vaccinated people.
While safety precautions may be recommended for some people who have received the vaccine, many media narratives have overstated the role breakthrough cases play in the recent spikes. As New York Magazine explains, it is imperative to understand these new mask recommendations are not happening because the vaccine is not effective, but because not enough people are getting the vaccine.
“Because breakthrough infections have so often made the news due to their novelty, that can create a perception of more cases than are actually happening — particularly without more robust tracking of the actual cases to provide context,” the outlet wrote.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNBC)
Wisconsin Police Deny Planting Evidence in Viral Video, Release Their Own Body Cam Footage
The footage police released shows that during a search, officers found a corner tear from a plastic bag inside a backseat passenger’s pocket. An officer then discarded it into the car after determining that it was empty.
Viral Video Appears To Show Officer Planting Evidence
The Caledonia Police Department in Wisconsin has responded to a viral cell phone video that appears to show an officer planting a small plastic baggie inside of a car during a traffic stop.
The now-viral footage was posted to Facebook by a man who goes by GlockBoy Savoo.
The user, who also filmed the clip, wrote in his post’s caption that the officer did this “just to get a reason to search the car” and said the cop didn’t know he was being recorded by the passenger.
Police Shut Down Accusations With Their Own Footage
After that video spread across social media, many were outraged, calling the Caledonia police dirty for seemingly planting evidence. All the outrage eventually prompted the department to announce an investigation Saturday.
Within hours, the department provided an update, claiming that officers didn’t actually plant any evidence or do anything illegal.
Police shared a lengthy summary of events, along with two body camera clips from the incident. That statement explained that the driver of the vehicle was pulled over for going 63 in a 45mph zone.
Two passengers in the backseat who were then spotted without seatbelts were asked to identify themselves and step out of the car. During a search of one passenger’s pockets, an officer pulled out “an empty corner tear” from a plastic baggie.
Police claim the corner tear did not contain any illegal substances, though they said this type of packaging is a common method for holding illegal drugs.
In one body cam clip, an officer can be heard briefly questioning the backseat passenger about the baggie. Then, that piece of plastic gets handed off to different officers who also determined it as empty before the officer in the original viral video discarded it into the back of the car.
The officer can also be seen explaining where the plastic came from to the passenger recording him.
“Aye, bro you just threw that in here!” the front seat passenger says, as heard in his version of the events.
“Yeah, cause it was in his pocket and I don’t want to hold onto it. It’s on their body cam that they took it off of him…I’m telling you where it came from, so. It’s an empty baggie at the moment too, so,” the officer replies.
The department went on to explain that while it would discourage officers from discarding items into a citizen’s car, this footage proves that evidence was not planted.
Authorities also noted that no arrests were made in this incident and the driver was the only one issued a citation for speeding. The statement added that since four officers were present at the scene, police have more than six hours of footage to review but they promised to release the footage in full in the near future.
See what others are saying: (Heavy)(CBS 58) (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Medical Groups, Local Leaders Push for Healthcare Workers and Public Employees To Get Vaccinated
The move comes as COVID cases have nearly quadrupled in the last month due to the rapid spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
Increased Calls for Mandatory Vaccinations in Certain Sectors
More than 50 of America’s largest medical groups representing millions of healthcare workers issued a statement Monday calling for employers of all health and long-term care providers to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
The groups, which included the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and 55 others, cited contagious new variants — including delta — and low vaccination rates.
“Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures,” they wrote.
The call to action comes as new COVID cases have almost quadrupled during the month of July, jumping from just around 13,000 infections a day at the beginning of this month to more than 50,000.
While the vast majority of new infections and hospitalizations are among those who have not received the vaccines, many healthcare workers remain unvaccinated. According to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, over 38% of nursing home staff were not fully vaccinated as of July 11.
An analysis by WebMD and Medscape Medical News found that around 25% of hospital workers who were in contact with patients had not been vaccinated by the end of May when vaccinations became widely available.
In addition to calls for medical professionals to get vaccinated, some local leaders have also begun to impose mandates for public employees as cases continue spiking.
Last month, San Francisco announced that it was requiring all city workers to get vaccinated. Also on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that all municipal employees — including police officers and teachers — must either get the jab or agree to weekly testing by the time school starts in September.
Dr. Fauci Says U.S. Officials Are Considering Revising Mask Guidance for Vaccinated People
Numerous top U.S. health officials have applauded efforts by local leaders to mitigate further spread of the coronavirus, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who confirmed Sunday that federal officials are actively considering whether to revise federal masking guidelines to recommend that vaccinated Americans wear face coverings in public settings.
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are vaccinated do not need to mask in public. Although that was a non-binding recommendation, many states and cities that had not already lifted restrictions on masking began to do so shortly after.
But now, local leaders in areas seeing big spikes have begun reimposing mask mandates — even for those who are vaccinated — including major counties like Los Angeles and St. Louis.
In his remarks Sunday, Fauci also emphasized that, despite claims from many conservatives, those efforts are in line with the federal recommendations, which leave space for local leaders to issue their own rules.
While Fauci and other top U.S. public health officials have encouraged local governments to take action, Republican lawmakers in several states are taking steps to limit the ability of local leaders and public health officials to take certain mitigation measures.
According to the Network for Public Health Law, at least 15 state legislatures have passed or are considering bills to limit the legal authority of public health agencies — and that does not even include unilateral action taken by governors.
Some of the leaders of states suffering the biggest spikes have banned local officials from imposing their own mask mandates, like Arkansas, which has the highest per capita cases in the country right now, as well as Florida, which currently ranks third.
Notably, some of the laws proposed or passed by Republicans could go beyond just preventing local officials from trying to mitigate surges in COVID cases and may have major implications for other public health crises.
For example, according to The Washington Post, a North Dakota law that bans mask mandates applies to other breakouts — even tuberculosis — while a new Montana law also bars the use of quarantine for people who have been exposed to an infectious disease but have not yet tested positive.