BNP Paribas Agrees to Plead Guilty and Pay Nearly $9 Billion for Sanctions Violations

On June 30, 2014, the United States Department of Justice announced that BNP Paribas S.A. (BNPP), a global financial institution headquartered in Paris, agreed to enter a guilty plea to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) by processing billions of dollars of transactions through the U.S. financial system on behalf of Sudanese, Iranian, and Cuban entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions. The agreement by the French bank to plead guilty is the first time a global bank has agreed to plead guilty to large-scale, systematic violations of U.S. economic sanctions.

The press release states, in part:

“BNP Paribas went to elaborate lengths to conceal prohibited transactions, cover its tracks, and deceive U.S. authorities. These actions represent a serious breach of U.S. law,” Attorney General Holder said. “Sanctions are a key tool in protecting U.S. national security interests, but they only work if they are strictly enforced. If sanctions are to have teeth, violations must be punished. Banks thinking about conducting business in violation of U.S. sanctions should think twice because the Justice Department will not look the other way.”

“BNP ignored US sanctions laws and concealed its tracks. And when contacted by law enforcement it chose not to fully cooperate,” Deputy Attorney General Cole said. “This failure to cooperate had a real effect -- it significantly impacted the government’s ability to bring charges against responsible individuals, sanctioned entities and satellite banks. This failure together with BNP’s prolonged misconduct mandated the criminal plea and the nearly $9 billion penalty that we are announcing today.”

“By providing dollar clearing services to individuals and entities associated with Sudan, Iran, and Cuba – in clear violation of U.S. law – BNPP helped them gain illegal access to the U.S. financial system,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “In doing so, BNPP deliberately disregarded U.S. law of which it was well aware, and placed its financial network at the services of rogue nations, all to improve its bottom line. Remarkably, BNPP continued to engage in this criminal conduct even after being told by its own lawyers that what it was doing was illegal.”

“BNPP banked on never being held to account for its criminal support of countries and entities engaged in acts of terrorism and other atrocities,” said U.S. Attorney Bharara. “But that is exactly what we do today. BNPP, the world's fourth largest bank, has agreed to plead guilty and pay penalties of almost $9 billion for performing the hat trick of sanctions violations, unlawfully opening the doors of the U.S. financial markets to three sanctioned countries, Sudan, Iran, and Cuba. For years, BNPP provided access to billions of dollars to these sanctioned countries, as well as to individuals and groups specifically identified and designated by the U.S. government as being subject to sanctions. The bank did so deliberately and secretly, in ways designed to evade detection by the U.S. authorities. For its years-long and wide-ranging criminal conduct, BNPP will soon plead guilty in a federal courthouse in Manhattan.”

According to documents released publicly today, over the course of eight years, BNPP knowingly and willfully moved more than $8.8 billion through the U.S. financial system on behalf of sanctioned entities, including more than $4.3 billion in transactions involving entities that were specifically designated by the U.S. Government as being cut off from the U.S. financial system. BNPP engaged in this criminal conduct through various sophisticated schemes designed to conceal from U.S. regulators the true nature of the illicit transactions. BNPP routed illegal payments through third party financial institutions to conceal not only the involvement of the sanctioned entities but also BNPP’s role in facilitating the transactions. BNPP instructed other financial institutions not to mention the names of sanctioned entities in payments sent through the United States and removed references to sanctioned entities from payment messages to enable the funds to pass through the U.S. financial system undetected.

“The significant financial penalties imposed on BNP Paribas sends a powerful deterrent message to any company that places its profits ahead of its adherence to the law,” said FBI Director James Comey. “We will continue to work closely with our federal and state partners to ensure compliance with U.S. banking laws to promote integrity across financial institutions and to safeguard our national security.”

“Today’s outcome is a testament to U.S. efforts to stem the exploitation of the American financial system and ensure that if you chose to do business in our country you must abide by our laws,” said IRS-CI Chief Weber. “BNP Paribas will forfeit the historic figure of almost $8.9 Billion representing the proceeds of criminal activity. BNPP had many opportunities to take corrective action and abide by the law, and yet, despite warnings from American regulators and other banks, consciously chose to ignore those warnings and commit literally thousands of flagrant violations. IRS-CI, and our domestic and international law enforcement partners, will continue to pursue these cases and follow the money trail – wherever it may lead.”

“The most important values in the international community – respect for human rights, peaceful coexistence, and a world free of terror – significantly depend upon the effectiveness of international sanctions,” said District Attorney Vance. “Today’s guilty plea marks the seventh major case involving sanctions violations by a large international bank that my Office has pursued and resolved since 2009. These cases are critically important for international public safety and the security of our banking system, which is put at risk when it is used to further criminal activity. The seven investigations have revealed a series of widespread schemes to falsify the business records of financial institutions in Manhattan and have resulted in the forfeiture of approximately $12 billion in total. But, more importantly, they have resulted in a fundamental change in the way all banks conduct their business, have heightened vigilance worldwide with respect to dealing with sanctioned entities, and have increased the integrity of our Manhattan-based financial institutions.”

BNPP will waive indictment and be charged in a one-count felony criminal information, filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York, charging BNPP with knowingly and willfully conspiring to commit violations of IEEPA and TWEA, from 2004 through 2012. BNPP has agreed to plead guilty to the information, has entered into a written plea agreement, and has accepted responsibility for its criminal conduct. BNPP is scheduled to formally enter its guilty plea before United States District Judge Lorna Schofield on July 9, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.

The plea agreement, subject to approval by the court, provides that BNPP will pay total financial penalties of $8.9736 billion, including forfeiture of $8.8336 billion and a fine of $140 million.