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Standard Chartered money-laundering deal: Did New York jump the gun?

Standard Chartered Bank will pay $340 million to New York for laundering money to Iran, but by acting before the federal government, the state took an unusual step that could ruffle feathers. 

By Ron SchererStaff writer / August 15, 2012

The new Standard Chartered office tower in Singapore is seen in this file photo.

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New York

Normally, there is a pecking order when it comes to prosecuting crimes of international finance: local officials defer to state law enforcement, who defer to the feds, who are usually the big bird on the perch.

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But that’s not how it’s worked in the case of Standard Chartered Bank. The bank is paying a $340 million penalty to the state of New York, which threatened to revoke its license over charges that the bank laundered money to Iran over a seven-year period.

New York's actions prompt questions about why federal officials, who have been looking at the same information for the past five years, did not act sooner – and whether New York has damaged its relationship with the federal government by going first. Indeed, the agreement could force the federal government's hand, and the US Treasury may not want to accept less money than the state of New York.

“I think they will take action, but they won’t do it with a smile on their faces,” says Jimmy Gurulé, a former undersecretary for enforcement at the US Treasury, now a professor of law at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. “The optics of this will look very bad if the state takes action and the Feds do not.”

As far as the potential penalty federal officials might want, “the settlement by the state establishes a floor,” says Anthony Michael Sabino, a professor at St. John’s University in New York. “They will probably want an amount north of that.”

Mr. Gurulé says he has heard one estimate of a potential fine as large as $360 million. If true, it would make the combined state and federal fines the largest sanction ever imposed for not complying with anti-money laundering regulations. Currently, the largest amount paid by a bank is $619 million paid by Dutch bank ING in June for laundering money for Iranian and Cuban clients.

In almost all such cases examined by the government, banks try to hide their clients’ identities. They do this by stripping the name of their clients from their electronic communications when they move money through their US subsidiary. While that is not illegal, it means the US subsidiary can not determine if the transaction is illegal, as is required by US law. And, it means that US regulators also can not tell if the transaction is legal. 

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