Pomerantz LLP

BNP Paribas Joins the Bank Perp Walk

Pomerantz Monitor, July/August 2014

On June 30, BNP Paribas, France’s biggest bank and one of the five largest banks in the world, pled guilty to charges that it conspired to violate the International Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act. It agreed to forfeit approximately $8.9 billion traceable to its misconduct. This is the largest amount paid by any bank to settle allegations brought by the U.S. government and bank regulators. 

According to the Statement of Facts the Justice Department filed in the U.S . District Court in the Southern District of New York, from at least 2004 through 2012, BNP processed thousands of transactions through the U.S. financial system on behalf of banks and entities located in countries subject to U.S. sanctions, including Sudan, Iran, and Cuba. BNP structured the transactions to help clients move money through U.S. financial institutions while avoiding detection by U.S. authorities and evading sanctions. The practices were deliberate and pervasive, involving, for example, intentionally deleting references to sanctioned countries in order to prevent the transactions from being blocked, and using non-embargoed, non-U.S. “satellite banks” and complicated, multistep transfers to disguise the origin of the transactions. 

To make matters worse, U.S. authorities uncovered substantial evidence that senior executives knew what was happening and did nothing about it. In fact, in 2006, BNP issued a policy for all its subsidiaries and branches that “if a transaction is denominated in USD, financial institutions outside the United States must take American sanctions into account when processing their transac¬tions.” Then, in 2009 and 2010, when the U.S. DOJ and New York County District Attorney’s Office contacted BNP to express concern, the bank was less than cooperative in responding to requests for documents from BNP’s offices in Geneva. Overall, BNP allegedly processed 2,663 wire transfers totaling approximately $8.3 billion involving Sudan; 318 wire transfers totaling approximately $1.2 billion involving Iran; 909 wire transfers totaling approximately $700 million involving Cuba; and 7 wire transfers totaling approximately $1.5 million involving Burma. The New York Department of Financial Services places the estimates much higher, contending that a total of $190 billion of dollar-based transactions were concealed between 2002 and 2012. 

BNP potentially faced criminal, civil, and regulatory actions by various U.S. authorities involving potential penalties of about $19 billion. The $8.9 agreed-upon fine resolves all these related actions and ensures that BNP will not be subject to further prosecution for violations of U.S economic sanctions laws and regulations. While BNP may temporarily suspend payment of dividends to shareholders and may have to take steps to shore-up its capital ratio, the fine is not expected to have any long-term financial repercussions. Notably, BNP’s stock rose 3.6% the day the settlement was announced. 

But the plea agreement contains significant non-financial provisions. Specifically, BNP faces a five-year probationary period and is required to enhance it compliance policies and procedures. An independent monitor will be installed to review BNP’s compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act, Anti-Money Laundering Statute, and economic sanctions laws. In addition, BNP is banned from U.S. dollar-clearing operations through its New York Branch and other U.S. affiliates for one year for certain lines of business for certain BNP offices implicated in the conspiracy. BNP is not permitted to shuffle clients to other BNP branches or affiliates to circumvent this ban. This means that client relationships may be damaged, as clients take their business elsewhere. Furthermore, although there have not been any individual criminal prosecutions to date, 13 individuals were terminated and 32 others were disciplined as a result of the investigations and Plea Agreement. 

These measures are more likely to prompt reform, because they are implemented over a longer time period, require replacement of personnel, and change the way the business operates. They also signal to the industry what is required in this new regulatory environment. The fact that Deutsche Bank, itself a target of investigators, recently announced that it would be hiring 500 new employees in the U.S. in compliance, risk, and technology is not a coincidence. Other banks likely will follow suit. If that occurs, it may be the most positive result to come out of the BNP settlement for all investors.