'Rogue' New York Regulator Benjamin Lawsky Sets Feds Scrambling In Standard Chartered Laundering Case

A little-known bank regulator from a young New York agency might just shame federal regulators into getting tougher with the banks. Or he should, anyway.
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A little-known bank regulator from a newly formed New York agency might just shame federal regulators into getting tougher with the banks. Or he should, anyway.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that federal regulators are in talks with the New York State Department of Financial Services about negotiating a deal with British bank Standard Chartered, which has been accused of letting Iranian interests launder $250 billion over a course of years, in violation of U.S. sanctions.

This was an intriguing development in the case, because for the past 48 hours or so, these same federal regulators have been beside themselves with fury at the guy in charge of that same New York State Department of Financial Services, Benjamin Lawsky.

Now they're talking about joining forces with him. It's almost enough to make you hope that, if there is a penalty coming, it will be more than the usual wrist-slap.

"It's the state of New York leading the charge, with the Treasury Department falling behind," Notre Dame law professor Jimmy Gurule, a former Treasury official, told the Huffington Post. "Eventually I think Standard Chartered will be hit with a substantial criminal penalty, and then Treasury can say, 'Me, too.'"

Officials at the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve are reportedly outraged with Lawsky for going rogue and bringing a case against Standard Chartered, stealing the thunder from cases they claim they, too, were slowly developing. The regulators grumbled that they weren't notified of Lawsky's case, an unseemly faux pas that caused several monocles to fog up in horror. Just what you'd expect from a New Yorker whose agency has only been open since October 2011, who probably has ambitions to be like his mentor, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

More chillingly, federal regulators have been whispering to the press that Lawsky's case is full of holes, going so far as to adopt Standard Chartered's argument, that if there was any money-laundering happening in Standard Chartered branches -- and it's not saying there was! -- then said laundering amounted to only about $14 million or so. A pittance. Hardly worth noticing at all, really.

The WSJ suggests that some of these regulators may still be pushing the bank's case -- as the WSJ puts it, "taking a different view of Standard Chartered's actions and ... advocating pursuing different remedies." Reuters points out that none other than Treasury chief Timothy Geithner may have a stake in the whole mess, because he was the head of the New York Federal Reserve, a key bank watchdog, for much of the time of the alleged money-laundering. Geithner is already criticized for being too close to banks, most recently because of his relative inaction during the Libor scandal. It would not help his image to find that banks were just willy nilly laundering money on his watch.

A lighter touch would certainly be consistent with how federal regulators have handled most cases involving banks. In just the past day, for example, we've learned that the Justice Department lightly brushed Morgan Stanley with a $4.8 million penalty for activities that it says cost New Yorkers $300 million. The Securities and Exchange Commission today quietly dropped a case against Goldman Sachs over the investment bank's involvement with toxic mortgage-backed securities. And the Justice Department said Goldman would also be spared a criminal case around those toxic MBS.

As Peter Goodman points out, being angry with federal law enforcement misses the point, which is that federal laws governing them are not very good in the first place. True -- but it is still striking how much of an effect one aggressive regulator can have.

Lawsky, for example, wants to cut off Standard Chartered's ability to do business in New York, which would be a crushing blow to the bank. Now that the feds are involved, Lawsky may not win that kind of penalty. But it's possible he'll push the embarrassed feds to get tougher than usual, at least in this case. He has already gone further than the feds ever have, releasing all sorts of damning e-mails and creating a public-relations nightmare for the bank, whose stock price has lost a quarter of its value in just a day.

Still, given the shocked, shocked reaction of federal regulators to Lawsky's aggression, it is unlikely we'll see them using Lawsky as an example. And certainly, we can expect that nobody will go to jail for any of this -- no banker with any responsibility has gone to jail for anything yet, from the financial crisis to the Libor scandal.

In contrast, if an individual was convicted of doing the sort of thing Standard Chartered is accused of doing, he would spend "two decades or more in the slammer," writes Eleazar David Melendez at the International Business Times.

"If you are taxpayer and you fail to pay taxes, you will go to jail," said former Treasury official Gurule. "If you are a banker and engage in undermining sanctions against Iran, nothing happens to you. It's mind-boggling."

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