Four major New York banks have agreed to pay civil penalties ranging from $210,000 to $360,000 for violating federal law by failing to report thousands of international currency transactions, the Treasury Department announced yesterday.
The relative lightness of the fines drew swift criticism from Rep. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Banking Committee, who charged that they were "bargain-basement rates" and would not adequately deter other banks from committing similar violations.
The banks cited yesterday included Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co., Irving Trust Co. and Chemical Bank, which -- following the criminal prosecution of the Bank of Boston last February -- had admitted that they had committed the violations. Chase Manhattan, the country's third-largest bank, was charged with the same violations yesterday and was hit with the largest fine, $360,000.
Assistant Treasury Secretary John Walker said at a press conference yesterday that the fines represented less than 25 percent of the maximum that could have been imposed. But he said the reduced penalties were "appropriate" because the banks had come forward voluntarily with information about the violations and because there was no evidence of willful violations.
"At these bargain-basement rates, it is no wonder that the banks have come forward gleefully and joyfully," St Germain retorted in a statement later. "The Treasury must keep in mind that the severity of the penalties has a heavy impact on how seriously other banks take the Bank Secrecy Act."
Walker acknowledged yesterday that the banking industry as a whole had been negligent in complying with the Bank Secrecy Act -- a 1970 law that requires banks to report to the Treasury cash transactions in excess of $10,000.
Walker also said that 140 other banks are under criminal investigation for possible violations of the same law as part of an ongoing Treasury campaign to crack down on alleged money laundering at financial institutions.
The apparently widespread failure of banks to comply with this requirement first became public last February when the Bank of Boston pleaded guilty to a felony violation and was forced to pay a $500,000 fine for failing to report about $1.2 billion in cash transfers with a group of banks, most of them Swiss.
"We are seeing a problem that the banking industry as a whole could not be graded more than C-plus in this area," said Walker. "It was not given a high priority by the banks. But the Bank of Boston has changed that. The failure to comply does reflect on the ability of banks as a whole to manage their own operations."
Despite the relative lightness of the latest fines, spokesmen for two of the banks yesterday indicated their companies did not believe they were warranted.
"Some clerical people did not file reports here and there," said Fraser Seitel, a spokesman for Chase. "We agreed to pay the fine to settle the thing, but we don't believe if we had chosen to contest the matter, there would have been any penalty. . . . There was nothing wilful about this thing."
"We made a business decision -- we elected to pay the fine to avoid legal and other expenses," said Charles Salmans, a spokesman for Chemical Bank, the country's sixth-largest, which was fined $210,000. "For an institution of our size, it was not going to break the bank."
In the case of Chemical, Salmans said, virtually all of the 857 violations it was cited for occurred because it failed to report about $25 million in purchases of sterling, marks and other European currencies from New York-based foreign exchange dealers. The bank purchased the currencies for its retail outlets to meet the demands of American tourists planning to travel abroad, he said.
Walker declined to comment on reports that a fifth major bank will be cited soon.
Walker acknowledged yesterday there was no evidence of money laundering at any of the four banks, but he and other Treasury officials have maintained that strict compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act's requirements are needed to combat laundering by drug smugglers and organized-crime figures.
In many cases, sophisticated criminals have laundered drug profits through unwitting banks, they have argued. Even though the banks may not have been aware of the criminal activity, their failure to report large cash transactions has compounded the problems faced by law enforcement officials, Treasury officials say.
But one official with a major New York bank said there was a feeling throughout the industry that "there is some real grandstanding" by Treasury over the issue. "These transactions were all perfectly legal," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "There's a bit of bank-bashing going on."