The Bank of New York accounts at the center of an unfolding Russian money-laundering probe were referred to the bank by Lucy Edwards, a bank vice president who is married to Peter Berlin, the man who opened the accounts, Bank of New York Chairman Thomas A. Renyi said yesterday.
When money flowing through those accounts suddenly increased and raised red flags, bank officials didn't pursue their suspicions because they were reassured by the accounts' association with Edwards, a "well-regarded" official in the bank's Eastern European division in London, Renyi said.
Thus, the movement of billions of dollars through the accounts from late 1996 to late 1998 was never reported to top officials at the bank or to regulators, as it should have been, he said.
"The questioners relied too heavily on the fact that Mr. Berlin was married to a well-regarded officer," Renyi said. "Allowing those accounts to remain open and active without sufficient questioning was a lapse on the part of the bank."
Renyi revealed these details during testimony on the second day of House Banking Committee hearings into allegations of money laundering and Russian corruption. It was the first time that Renyi has commented publicly since a federal probe into the accounts came to light last month.
House Banking Chairman Jim Leach (R-Iowa) organized the hearings after recent publicity concerning a year-long federal probe into whether the billions of dollars that passed through the Bank of New York were linked to Russian capital flight or illegal activities. The Bank of New York has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and law enforcement officials have said they have not yet uncovered evidence that could lead to criminal charges under U.S. law.
Renyi also provided the first details of why the bank fired Edwards last month. He said she was dismissed because she had given herself signature authority over the accounts, which gave her the ability to move funds in and out of them. That violated bank rules, he said, because no one other than an account holder is supposed to have signature authority, unless they get approval from top bank officials, something Edwards had not done.
T. Barry Kingham, an attorney for Edwards and Berlin, declined to comment. They have denied any wrongdoing.
Renyi disclosed other, previously unknown details of the bank's relationship with the Russian financial system. He said that the Bank of New York is the correspondent bank for 160 Russian banks and that Russia's central bank opened an account last November.
A correspondent bank transfers money and provides other banking services for banks in other states or other countries. The Bank of New York is the nation's second most active correspondent bank.
Renyi said that Berlin opened nine accounts at the bank in connection with Benex International Co. and several other companies he controlled, but that only three accounts were particularly active. In the three-year period ending in August, $7.5 billion moved through the three accounts, earning the bank about $500,000 a year in correspondent banking fees, Renyi said.
He reiterated that senior officials at the bank learned of the federal probe last fall after being served subpoenas, and that the bank cooperated with investigators in keeping Berlin's accounts open after top officers learned that unusually large amounts of money were moving through them.