Appearing at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) grilled officials from the Treasury Department over why criminal charges were not filed against officials at HSBC who helped launder hundreds of millions of dollars for drug cartels.
The HSBC scandal resulted in the Department of Justice and Treasury announcing a record $1.92 billion fine after finding that the international bank repeatedly helped the world's most violent drug gangs move at least $881 million in ill-gotten gains through numerous countries the U.S. has economic sanctions against.
"HSBC paid a fine, but no one individual went to trial, no individual was banned from banking, and there was no hearing to consider shutting down HSBC's activities here in the United States," Warren said. "So, what I'd like is, you're the experts on money laundering. I'd like an opinion: What does it take -- how many billions do you have to launder for drug lords and how many economic sanctions do you have to violate -- before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution like this?"
Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen, though admitting HSBC's actions were "egregious," did not answer Warren's question. "For our part, we imposed on HSBC the largest penalties that we've ever imposed on any financial institution ever. We looked at the facts and determined that the most appropriate response there was a very, very significant penalty against the institution."
Warren reiterated her question and still got nowhere. "We at the Treasury Department... don't have the authority to shut down a financial institution," Cohen said.
"I understand that," Warren said, visibly annoyed. "I'm asking, in your opinion -- you're the ones who are supposed to be the experts on money laundering, you work with everyone else including the Department of Justice -- in your opinion, how many billions of dollars do you have to launder for drug lords before somebody says, 'We're shutting you down,'?"
Cohen continued to rebuff her question, saying that Treasury vigorously prosecutes and fines offending banks but still insisting: "I'm not going to get into some hypothetical line-drawing exercise."
Frustrated, Warren turned to Federal Reserve board member Jerome H. Powell, who said that such a proceeding would take place after a criminal conviction. 'That's not something -- we don't do criminal investigation," he added. "We don't do trials or anything like that. We do civil enforcement, and in the case of HSBC we gave essentially the statutory maximum."
Warren seemed stunned: "You have no advice to the Justice Department on whether or not this was an appropriate case for a criminal action?" But Powell deflected, saying that's the Justice Department's realm and that the Fed will "collaborate with them" mainly by answering questions, not by recommending prosecutions.
"You know, if you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you're going to go to jail," Warren said. "If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night, every single individual associated with this. I think that's fundamentally wrong."
This video is from Elizabeth Warren's YouTube channel, published March 7, 2013.