AMSTERDAM — When two New York banks became ensnared in a Justice Department criminal probe over their ties to small Russian lenders in 1999, most big banks scrambled to dump their own Moscow clients.
One bank saw opportunity. “Shall we not capitalize on the development?” an officer at ABN Amro Holding NV emailed colleagues. The Dutch bank, the world’s 20th-largest by assets, proceeded to recruit the very Russian outfits doing business with Bank of New York Co. and Republic National Bank, even as one ABN Amro employee warned in an email, “We are all heading for trouble if we do it.”
[Rijkman Groenink]Five years later, trouble came. ABN Amro is now the subject of a Justice Department criminal inquiry. The bank acknowledges it transferred billions of dollars into the U.S. with little scrutiny of who was moving the money and why. It often failed to report these transactions to the U.S. government as required by financial-crime laws, regulators say.
ABN Amro also admits that its officers falsified documents connected to billions of dollars in transactions with Iran and Libya, which are the target of U.S. sanctions. Last week, ABN Amro entered into a settlement with U.S. and Dutch regulators calling for $80 million in fines addressing both the failure to report suspicious transactions and the illegal business with Iran and Libya.
All told, bank and government records show that the flagship bank of the Netherlands processed more than $70 billion in suspicious or illegal transfers through its New York office. The story of how ABN Amro ignored red flags and plunged into the world of shady finance illuminates the central role of the U.S. financial system in the global flow of black-market funds, even when foreign entities have no direct business in the U.S.
It also shows the U.S. government’s struggle to police dirty money. Although the Federal Reserve knew as early as 2000 that ABN Amro had attracted many suspicious customers, it waited four years to carry out a major crackdown. An initial agreement in July 2004, overseen by Fed money-laundering official Herbert Biern, didn’t require ABN Amro to pay any fines. This year Mr. Biern went to work for the bank as head of U.S. regulatory affairs. The bank and the Fed say he followed all ethics rules in securing his new job.
This article is based on internal ABN Amro correspondence whose authenticity was acknowledged by the bank; interviews with current and former bank officials and regulators; and public court documents and corporate filings.
ABN Amro’s troubles with inadequate reporting stemmed from its business with two poorly regulated entities: small banks in countries like Russia, and shell companies that are easy to set up in some U.S. states. Regulators and prosecutors believe that foreign businesspeople used these two entities — with ABN Amro’s help — to shuffle around black-market money and engage in financial scams such as claiming tax credits for fictitious exports.
Court records and government reports show officials believe several U.S. states are now top destinations for tainted dollars because of their lax laws on shell companies.
In 2002-03, for instance, ABN Amro shipped more than $1 billion in 11,000 transactions to a single company in Lexington, Ky., called Allprex LLC, ABN Amro now acknowledges. The now-defunct company, which had no known offices or products, was incorporated by gynecologist Emilios Hadjivangeli, who hails from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Dr. Hadjivangeli, who is identified as a member of the Cyprus-Russian Business Association on the association’s Web site, has incorporated 181 other companies in Kentucky and hundreds more in other states. Regulators in Cyprus and Kentucky say they haven’t heard of Dr. Hadjivangeli or Allprex. He couldn’t be located for comment.
No criminal charges have been brought against ABN Amro or its executives, and no evidence has emerged that senior executives ordered criminal activity or knew about it in advance. Virtually all of the bank’s possible violations of U.S. law were first uncovered — and reported to authorities — by investigators working for the bank or by the bank itself. The violations often involved U.S. laws that require banks to know who their clients are and where they get their money, as well as to report suspicious activity.
Many of the bank’s problems developed or worsened under the watch of Chairman Rijkman Groenink, who took the top post in 2000, but he was also instrumental in the bank’s aggressive effort to right itself. The bank has spent more than $250 million to overhaul its systems and monitor transactions more closely. It expects to continue spending that amount annually on compliance with laws and regulations, and is vetting anew every account holder world-wide. The bank has reorganized itself to insulate the executive who supervises compliance from management pressure.
Mr. Groenink was reprimanded by the bank’s board over an October 2004 incident in which he ordered the destruction of an internal report into the Iran and Libya dealings. He quickly rescinded the order and no documents were destroyed.
In a statement last week, Mr. Groenink said, “Nothing short of the highest standards of compliance is acceptable. We regrettably recognize that, in the past, our compliance in certain areas did not meet this standard.” He said the bank has put in place an extensive remedial program and called improving compliance “the highest priority of the bank.”
ABN Amro is one of Europe’s corporate aristocrats. The bank is descended from the Netherlands Trading Society, chartered in 1824 by King Willem I to build the Dutch economy and finance trade with its Indonesian colonies. In 1926 it opened the first bank in Saudi Arabia. It was privatized by the Dutch government in the 1960s and became the Algemene Bank Nederland, or ABN. Later it merged with Amsterdam-Rotterdam Bank (Amro).
[Manhattan Transfer]Like other top international banks, ABN Amro’s New York office does business as a “correspondent” for smaller foreign banks that lack a U.S. presence. Suppose a shoemaking company in Russia with an account at a small Russian bank wants to send dollars to a leather supplier overseas. Without a U.S. branch, the small bank can’t tap dollars provided by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Instead, it hooks up with a big bank like ABN Amro to get U.S. currency and help its client purchase the leather.
In the early days of post-Communist Russia, scores of new banks needed such a liaison bank in New York. The risks of these operations came to light in the 1999 case involving Bank of New York. According to the Department of Justice, a Russian emigre who worked at BONY and her husband funneled $7 billion to small U.S. companies from Russian banks in a scheme designed in part to help clients hide money from Russian authorities. The scheme took advantage of BONY’s correspondent relationships with Russian banks, according to the department.
As BONY and other banks retreated from Russia, ABN pounced. Within two years of the start of the BONY scandal, ABN’s dollar-changing accounts for Russian and Eastern European banks leapt to about 150 from around two dozen. ABN’s upper management, which was making a series of acquisitions, left the unglamorous business to junior executives, bank officials and lawyers say. It produced only a few million dollars in profits annually, even after expanding its clientele in the former Soviet bloc.
In a 2000 examination, the Federal Reserve and New York state regulators noted a “significant number” of new East European client banks at ABN Amro’s New York branch and said the branch “was unable to provide adequate documentation” about the banks. The New York branch told the regulators that the Moscow branch was doing that job, and the regulators didn’t take action.
Bank records show Mr. Groenink received the results of the examination and some other negative reports in this period but generally forwarded them to aides. On a few occasions he called for action, including a 2001 memo in which he wrote of regulators’ criticisms: “This is intolerable and must be fixed immediately.”
Yet ABN Amro’s top management also let several warning signals about the business they were engaging in pass by unheeded. In an Oct. 31, 2000, report, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, the Government Accountability Office, found that independent brokers were marketing the idea of Delaware limited-liability corporations to Russians interested in setting up U.S. shell companies.
The GAO report also disclosed that a confidential U.S. government document linked Absolut Bank of Moscow and the Commercial Bank of Latvia with suspected financial crimes. Both banks became clients of ABN Amro after BONY and Republic dumped them under pressure from regulators. Absolut couldn’t be reached by phone but says on its Web site that it is in compliance with international standards on financial crime. The Latvian bank couldn’t be located.
The next year, a U.S. Senate subcommittee connected the correspondent banking system to money laundering, or hiding the origin of illicitly obtained money. The subcommittee found that the system gives “poorly regulated, poorly managed, sometimes corrupt foreign banks with weak or no anti-money laundering controls direct access to the U.S financial system.”
Citing the Senate report, one of ABN Amro’s top compliance officials, a London-based executive named Neil Jeans, sent an email in early 2001 proposing that the bank review its East European banking relationships and inform the Fed. Other executives discouraged the idea, noting the issue hadn’t been raised recently by the Fed. An ABN Amro lawyer in Chicago wrote in an internal email, “We strongly advise against anyone contacting the Fed at this time.”
A few suits filed in Delaware courts provide examples of what was going on in transactions involving ABN Amro. In one Delaware case, Russian prosecutors allege that in 2002 a Russian businessman defrauded the Russian government by booking fake software sales to a Delaware limited-liability corporation. The businessman is accused of making fraudulent payments from a bank in Latvia to ABN Amro New York, and then on to another small Russian bank.
The alleged purpose of the roundabout payments was to get tax refunds for “exporting” the software. In Europe, firms typically pay taxes on raw materials and are entitled to a refund on those taxes if the finished product is exported. By creating documentation for a fake export of a nonexistent product, organized-crime groups can claim this refund.
Because the U.S. is a big importer, the scheme looks more plausible if a legitimate-looking American firm can be identified as the buyer of the nonexistent goods. That’s where lax U.S. state laws come in: Several states allow foreigners to set up limited-liability corporations, or LLCs, with few questions asked.
U.S. law-enforcement officials are concerned that seven states — Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon and South Dakota — make it too easy for people to set up companies even if they lack offices, employees or business activity in the state. In Kentucky, foreigners can do this via the Internet. The concerns are rarely aired publicly because federal officials don’t have jurisdiction over state laws.
Officials of the states say loose regulation is meant to spur investment and cut bureaucracy. Many of the LLCs are legitimate businesses. States earn fees from the corporate registrations, and several have mini-industries of lawyers and accountants who do the grunt work.
In addition to trade scams, shell companies can be used as conduits for cash illegally generated abroad through smuggling and tax evasion. Foreigners can use the companies to open bank accounts in the U.S. without providing the documentation a U.S. bank would otherwise demand of a prospective foreign client. “We don’t get into any monitoring of what the businesses do once they’ve been organized in the state,” says Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state. “Somebody from Russia is the same as somebody from Ohio.”
In a series of steps in 2002, U.S. state and federal regulators recommended that ABN Amro make changes in its transaction-monitoring software so that transactions in Delaware and Nevada as well as any suspicious limited-liability corporation activity would automatically be flagged for internal review. The regulators also denounced the bank’s overall compliance practices. That got Mr. Groenink’s attention. He labeled the bank’s performance “unacceptable” in a September 2002 memo to aides. The bank hired new staff and assured regulators it was making broad changes in line with the recommendations.
For a while, the feds backed off. But New York state regulators continued to pursue ABN Amro. A criminal investigator for the New York State Banking Department, Michael Tuckett, began bluntly telling bank executives that problems remained, emails show. Mr. Tuckett declined to comment.
[Dutch Flagship]In a meeting with ABN Amro in July 2003, New York state regulators told the bank that “ALL transactions involving Eastern Europe and ANY US LLC or Delaware company [are] suspect,” as the bank’s top New York compliance official put it in an email.
Mr. Jeans, the ABN Amro executive in London, now feared that regulators had run out of patience and would soon hit the bank with severe penalties. He warned U.S. colleagues in an email that the bank had “been drinking in the Last Chance Saloon” and the bartenders were “about to call time and present us with the tab!”
The bank quickly opened a review of the LLC issue and turned up more than $3 billion in suspect shell-company transactions in a single 12-month period, prompting it to move toward cutting off dozens of suspect LLCs. By January 2004, top executives in Amsterdam believed they were off the hook with the feds although they still feared a fine from New York state regulators, internal bank emails show.
The next month, publicity about massive illegal transactions at Riggs National Corp. of Washington aroused the interest of Congress. In March 2004, Fed officials swung into action against ABN Amro, accusing it in a meeting of foot-dragging.
Mr. Groenink and the bank’s other top executives, now fully alert to the peril, hired KPMG LLP to assess compliance and decided that the bank’s 100 or so client banks in Russia, Cyprus and the former Soviet republics needed to be jettisoned. Mr. Groenink also hired U.S. law firm Morrison & Foerster to review the bank’s handling of the issue to that point. In July 2004, the bank reached a vague, publicly disclosed settlement with federal and state U.S. regulators acknowledging major problems and promising to fix them.
That looked like it might wrap up the affair — but there was another scandal waiting in the wings. A few weeks after the settlement, ABN Amro’s stepped-up monitoring detected a suspicious transaction by the bank’s branch in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The bank’s internal auditors soon concluded that the Dubai branch had falsified documents on wire transfers to the New York branch. The goal: to skirt U.S. sanctions against Iran and Libya.
ABN Amro admits that its Dubai branch falsely filed paperwork identifying money flows between itself and the New York branch as generic interbank transactions, even though it knew the money was actually destined for companies doing business with Iran and Libya. An internal investigation found that a handful of employees in Dubai falsified documents over seven years on more than 100 transactions with a face value in the billions of dollars.
In many cases, the falsification was unnecessary. Because the U.S. wants the dollar to remain the international currency of choice, it allows overseas companies to sell products to Iran and route the dollar-denominated payments through U.S. banks. If the Dubai branch had truthfully reported such transactions, it wouldn’t have been violating any U.S. law.
Order to Destroy
On Oct. 1, 2004, Mr. Groenink was in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel overlooking New York’s Battery Park when a fax arrived containing the results of the internal Iran-Libya investigation. The news came just as Mr. Groenink was getting ready to visit regulators at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York over the Eastern Europe transactions. Mr. Groenink ordered his aides to stop sending sensitive documents to the U.S. and to destroy the internal Iran-Libya report, bank officials acknowledge. His aides balked at the orders, and investigators for the bank later concluded that Mr. Groenink quickly rescinded them, according to people with knowledge of the inquiry.
But the whole matter troubled the bank’s in-house lawyers in the U.S., who reported the incident to Sullivan & Cromwell, the bank’s principal outside law firm. It in turn told the audit committee of the bank’s board, which is headed by Arthur C. Martinez, former chief executive of Sears, Roebuck & Co. He ordered an inquiry by the American law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
Pillsbury Winthrop delivered a report to the audit committee as well as U.S. and Dutch regulators in December 2004. The report “showed that there were no laws broken and that there was absolutely no intention whatsoever to withhold information from regulators,” Mr. Martinez said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, at the direction of Mr. Martinez, the board in January of this year reprimanded Mr. Groenink as well as the bank’s chief financial officer, Tom de Swaan, who at one point had suggested keeping Mr. Groenink’s aborted order secret from regulators.
ABN Amro’s troubles aren’t necessarily over. While the bank reached an agreement on civil charges with U.S. regulators last week, the U.S. criminal investigation could still bring additional fines and possible criminal charges. The company says it is cooperating with that investigation.
Write to Glenn R. Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dit zei Pim Fortuyn in Elsevier (1 september 2001; interview met Hugo Camps) over Rijkman Groenink:
“We hebben niet de corruptie van het chequeboek, we hebben de corruptie van de baantjes en schakelposities. Verzekeraars hebben gewoon kartels. Verzekeringen zijn niet ge?nteresseerd in het oplossen van diefstallen. Zo?n man als Rijkman Groenink die eigenlijk achter de tralies had moeten zitten, komt weg met al zijn affaires. Hij trekt zich van de kritiek niets aan. Groenink weet zich onaantastbaar. Hij heeft dezelfde uitstraling als Prins Bernhard vlak voor de Lockheed-affaire. Volkomen losgezongen van de samenleving. Ik durf te voorspellen dat Groenink binnen het jaar keihard omvalt. Maar ook dan zal zijn arrogantie legendarisch zijn. Ik kom ze vaak op congressen tegen, de happy few van het Nederlandse bedrijfsleven. Daar zie je de totale minachting voor wat dan het klootjesvolk heet. Ze spelen elkaar de commissariaten toe. Het wereldje van de commissariaten is te herleiden tot minder dan honderd stuks. We zijn geen haar beter dan Italianen en Belgen, alleen hypocrieter.”
Groenink was rechtstreeks betrokken bij geruchtmakende faillissementen als HCS, DAF, Medicopharma en Air Holland. Vooral in de HCS-affaire was zijn rol uiterst discutabel. Hij werd beschuldigd van koersmanipulatie. Groenink zou HCS-baas Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen een aandelenverkoop hebben gesuggereerd om zo de koers te drukken. “Dat was een grapje,” zei hij later in de rechtszaal. De rechter accepteerde dat.