Big banks launder dirty money

Among Bank of America’s 50 million customers, Pierre Falcone was far from ordinary. An infamous global arms dealer who unlawfully sold weapons to Angola for its civil war and an international fugitive, Falcone was convicted of tax fraud and illegal arms dealing in 2007 and 2009 and is currently serving six years behind bars. Yet for nearly two decades, Falcone and his relatives freely used 29 different bank accounts to funnel at least $60 million into the US from secretive havens like the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, and Singapore, and from shell corporations and secret clients. Despite his criminal record and worldwide notoriety, Bank of America essentially treated him like any other depositor.

The story of how a criminal like Falcone used Bank of America—which later received billions in a taxpayer-funded bailout—and the US financial system to advance his criminal activities appears in a new report by the Senate investigations subcommittee, led by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). In revealing the operations of Falcone and others—in most cases for the first time—the report offers a lurid primer explaining how big banks, powerful attorneys, influential lobbyists, and a host of other businessmen in this country help launder dirty foreign money.

The report highlights several gaping holes in American money laundering and corruption laws, including an exemption made by the Treasury Department in 2002 to the Patriot Act. “Foreign officials still get access to our financial system at times because US officials aid and abet their actions,” Levin told reporters on Tuesday. The 325-page report sets the stage for a hearing Thursday featuring US enforcement officials as well as some of the main players who abetted secretive individuals like Falcone and the corrupt former president of Gabon, the late Omar Bongo.

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Reports The Associated Press:

Foreign dictators, high-living bureaucrats and arms dealers are still able to funnel millions of dollars in potentially corrupt money into the United States despite post-Sept. 11 laws cracking down on money laundering, according to a Senate investigation.

The son of the president of Equatorial Guinea moved $110 million in suspect funds into the United States from 2004 to 2008 while an Angolan arms dealer, now in a French jail, was able to pay $9.6 million for an Arizona home in 2000 and maintained U.S. bank accounts handling some $60 million in transactions between 1999 and 2007, the report found.

The Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on investigations, which wrote the report, has summoned several of the U.S. lawyers, real estate agents and bankers involved in the financial transactions to a hearing Thursday.

The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said that while banks are doing better in blocking dirty money because of anti-money laundering safeguards in the 2001 Patriot Act, there are still “so many vehicles in our system where corrupt money can flow.” The findings of the report, which focused on four case studies, are “infuriating,” he said.