New York investigating consulting firms Promontory and PwC in laundering cases

September 13, 2013

New York state has subpoenaed two of the biggest names in the financial consulting industry, Promontory Financial and PricewaterhouseCoopers, in connection with their work on money-laundering cases, according to a person familiar with the inquiry.

The orders are part of a broader investigation into the consulting industry’s relationship with Wall Street. Consultants are supposed to work at the behest of regulators to provide objective assessments of a firm’s problems. But lawmakers have raised doubts about the independence of consultants handpicked by financial firms accused of wrongdoing.

At the heart of the inquiries issued by the New York Department of Financial Services is whether two prominent consultants acquiesced to client demands and shirked their duties to regulators, according to the person familiar with the case, who was not authorized to talk on the record.

Promontory declined to discuss specifics, but spokeswoman Debra Cope said that “from time to time we get subpoenas” related to client work. She said the firm was not at liberty to divulge the scope of the inquiry. PricewaterhouseCoopers would not comment on the subpoena.

According to the person familiar with the case, the department is looking into Promontory’s work last year for Standard Chartered Bank. Asked by the bank to conduct a review for evidence of money laundering, Promontory determined that the British bank had illicitly funneled about $14 million to Iran. The sum fell well short of the assessment by the New York financial regulator, which accused the bank of processing at least $250 billion in illicit transactions.

In an interview last month with The Washington Post, Promontory chief executive Eugene Ludwig said the transactions in question were closer to the finding of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, which identified about $24 million in illegal transactions to Iran. Ludwig said Promontory was specifically looking for violations of OFAC standards, whereas regulators in New York had broader jurisdiction over the bank’s records.

In the case of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the department is investigating the firm’s review of foreign transactions processed by the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ from 2002 and 2007. In June, the Japanese bank agreed to pay $250 million to settle New York charges that it cleared some 28,000 transactions totaling $100 billion for countries facing U.S. sanctions, including Iran, Sudan and Burma.

Before the settlement was reached, the person familiar with the case said the department requested e-mails, draft reports and other correspondences from PricewaterhouseCoopers. The firm is cooperating with the state regulator, according to the source.

Officials in the New York financial regulator’s office declined to discuss ongoing investigations. The head of the department, Benjamin M. Lawsky, has criticized the way financial consultants have operated.

“Often the results of the work consultants do are unsatisfactory, and in many cases it’s because there are misaligned incentives,” he said in an interview with The Post last month. “Regulators need to be far more active in managing consultants and make sure they know that the consultant works for the regulator.”

Lawsky issued new guidelines for consultants in June, after hitting Deloitte with a $10 million fine and barring its subsidiary, Deloitte Financial Advisory, from advising banks chartered in New York for one year. Regulators claim that the consulting giant removed a recommendation from a report about Standard Chartered’s money-laundering controls at the bank’s request.

Consultants have been engulfed in a firestorm over their alliances on Wall Street and influence in Washington. The surge in enforcement actions and new regulation since the financial crisis has at once propelled and disrupted the consulting business.

Troubles came to a head last fall when reports surfaced that PricewaterhouseCoopers, Promontory and other firms were paid nearly $2 billion by banks to examine shoddy mortgage files. The banks were supposed to pay out millions of dollars to borrowers for flawed foreclosure practices. In spite of the consultants’ hefty payday, not a single penny of relief reached the homeowners.

The revelation prompted congressional hearings and led federal regulators to review the use of consultants. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates big banks, is developing more stringent guidelines for independent consultants used in enforcement actions.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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