Warren Hits Back Against 'Too Big to Jail' Banks

Posted by Allison Crawford - Monday, March 11th, 2013

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren wasn't pulling any punches during Thursday's Senate Banking Committee hearing regarding fines imposed against HSBC for laundering close to $1 billion for foreign drug cartels. Warren grilled officials from the Treasury Department on just what a big bank has to do before anyone faces criminal charges or a company gets shut down:

“The U.S. government takes money laundering very seriously,” the senator began. “It's possible to shut down a bank that's been involved in money laundering, individuals can be banned from ever participating in financial services again, and people can be sent to prison. Now, in December HSBC admitted to... laundering $881 million, that we know of, for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, and also admitted to violating our sanctions... And they were caught doing it, warned not to do it, and kept right on doing it, and evidently making profits doing it. HSBC paid a fine, but no one individual went to trial, no individual was banned from banking, and there was no hearing to consider shutting down HSBC's activities here in the U.S.”

Warren then asked the experts after what amount of money laundering and violating sanctions a financial institution like this would be shut down, or other legal action would be taken. David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence evaded her question and responded that although the activity committed by HSBC was “egregious” his department had done all they could by “[imposing] on HSBC the largest penalties that [they] had ever imposed on any financial institution.”

Annoyed, Warren reiterated her initial question, as Cohen continued to deflect responsibility from the Treasury department.

After several more attempts by Warren to glean an opinion on exactly what it would take to shut down a company like HSBC, a flustered Cohen eventually got aggravated and responded, “I'm not going to get into some hypothetical line drawing exercise,” leaving Warren to draw her own conclusion that it is "somewhere beyond $881 million of drug money.”

The senator then took on Jerome H. Powell, Federal Reserve board member and asked the same question. Powell also deflected by saying that the Justice Department is in charge of any prosecutions or criminal suits. “We don't do trials or anything like that,” Powell stated. “We do civil enforcement, and in the case of HSBC we gave essentially the statutory maximum.”

Warren was clearly far from satisfied with any of these answers and concluded by drawing comparisons between the effect of the law on everyday criminals versus big bankers: 

“If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you're going to go to jail,” she said. “If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night, every single individual associated with this. I think that's fundamentally wrong.”

Warren's assertion comes just one day after Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that the biggest banks are often difficult to penalize for breaking the law: 

“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if we do prosecute – if we do bring a criminal charge – it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” he told the Senate Judiciary panel Wednesday.

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