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HSBC linked to drug lords and terrorists, Senate report alleges

HSBC Holdings, accused in a Senate report this week of exposing the U.S. financial system to illegal funds from Saudi Arabian terrorists, Mexican drug cartels and rogue regimes in North Korea and Cuba, will send a lineup of executives Tuesday to face a Senate subcommittee and apologize.

In a statement, Europe’s largest bank – which has a substantial presence in the U.S. – said it “will acknowledge that, in the past, we have sometimes failed to meet the standards that regulators and customers expect.”

Before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, HSBC said it “will apologise, acknowledge these mistakes, answer for our actions and give our absolute commitment to fixing what went wrong.”

The subcommittee, after investigating the bank for a year, released a 330-page report this week, condemning London-based HSBC and its American affiliate HBUS for “poor anti-money laundering controls” and incident after incident of managers allegedly turning a blind eye.

HSBC operates in more than 80 countries; HBUS has 470 U.S. branches with 4 million customers.

By “playing fast and loose with U.S. banking rules,” HSBC exposed the country “to Mexican drug money, suspicious travelers cheques, bearer share corporations and rogue jurisdictions,” according to the Senate report.

HBUS offered services to high-risk international affiliates, including HSBC Bank Mexico. HBUS dealt with $7 billion from the affiliate in a single year, a massive amount that may have included proceeds from illegal drug sales in the U.S., according to the report.

The bank is accused by the Senate report of helping slip billions in Iranian funds past American regulators. HBUS also offered services to Saudi Arabian and Bangladeshi banks known to have ties to terrorist financing, according to the report.

“HSBC’s compliance culture has been pervasively polluted for a long time,” said Sen. Carl Levin, (D-Mich.), who chairs the subcommittee.“Its recent change in leadership says it’s committed to cleaning house. That commitment is welcome surely, but it will take more than words for the bank to change course.”

The report also lambasted regulators at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for ignoring red flags.

HSBC said in advance of the hearings that it will address its “unacceptable behaviour” by making the bank’s global operations easier to manage and putting more resources into compliance and screening efforts. The bank overhauled its senior leadership team last year.

Executives testifying Tuesday include HBUS Chief Executive Irene Dorner and Stuart A. Levey, the bank’s chief legal officer and former under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence for the U.S. Treasury.

"This process has highlighted some unacceptable shortcomings that HSBC deeply regrets," said Levey in written testimony. "While our old model served us well historically, it does not work in an interconnected world where transactions cross borders instantaneously and where weaknesses in one jurisdiction can be quickly exported to others."

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