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Auditors uncover 200 Hezbollah accounts at LCB

December 15, 2011

The role of the Lebanese Canadian Bank in laundering money for Hezbollah is deeper than first thought when Treasury announced sanctions against the bank in February.

A French bank that agreed to buy LCB’s assets mandated an audit that has revealed a far deeper network of Hezbollah financiers than what U.S. federal employees had suspected.  Note that it took a private sector audit to identify 200 suspect accounts rather than government-collected financial intelligence.

Unfortunately, although the French bank rightfully refused to acquire the suspect accounts, U.S. Treasury officials have meekly acknowledged that other Lebanese banks have taken over those accounts.

An excerpt from the New York Times yesterday:

The Americans had identified only a handful of drug-tainted accounts at the Lebanese Canadian Bank. The search for further trouble began over the summer, after the Société Générale de Banque au Liban, or S.G.B.L., agreed to buy the bank’s assets.

As part of its own agreement with Treasury officials, Lebanon’s Central Bank set up a process to scrub the books. But compliance officers at S.G.B.L.’s French partner, Société Générale, were skeptical of the Central Bank’s choice of investigators. One of them, the local affiliate of the international auditing firm Deloitte, had presumably missed the drug-related accounts the first time around, when it served as the Lebanese Canadian Bank’s outside auditor.

And, according to people knowledgeable about Lebanese banking, the central bank’s on-the-ground representative had been recommended to that post by Hezbollah.

As an extra step, to reassure wary international banks, the chairman of S.G.B.L., Antoun Sehnaoui, commissioned a parallel audit, with the help of Société Générale’s chief money-laundering compliance officer. And to make sure that his bank did not run afoul of Treasury officials by inadvertently taking on dirty assets, he also hired a consultant intimately familiar with the Patriot Act provision used to take the bank down: John Ashcroft, the former attorney general whose Justice Department wrote the law.

Identifying suspicious accounts is not a subjective business. Banks rely on internationally recognized standards and software that contains certain triggers.

For the assets of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, the process worked this way, according to the Americans and Europeans knowledgeable about the case:

Initially, the auditors looked only at records for the past year. As they began combing through thousands of accounts, they looked for customers with known links to Hezbollah. They also looked for telltale patterns: repeated deposits of vast amounts of cash, huge wire transfers broken into smaller transactions and transfers between companies in such wildly incongruous lines of business that they made sense only as fronts to camouflage the true origin of the funds.

Each type of red flag was assigned a point value. An account with 1 or 2 points on a scale to 10 was likely to survive. One with 8 or 9 cried out for further scrutiny. Ultimately, the auditors were left with nearly 200 accounts that appeared to add up to a giant money-laundering operation, with Hezbollah smack in the middle, according to American officials. Complex webs of transactions featured the same companies over and over again, most of them owned by Shiite businessmen, many known Hezbollah supporters. Some have since been identified as Hezbollah fronts.

At the center of many of these webs were companies trading in diamonds, which experts say are fast replacing more traditional money-laundering vehicles because they are easy to transport and are generally traded for cash. Large transactions leave no paper trail, and values can be altered through bogus transactions. A number of these dealers had been implicated in the buying of “conflict diamonds” and other minerals used to finance civil wars and human-rights abuses in Africa.

In some cases, money moved in amounts — tens of millions of dollars at a clip — that made no sense, given the business models and potential sales of the companies involved.

“It’s like these guys no one had ever heard of became the most successful multimillionaires overnight,” said one person with knowledge of the investigation. “It’s Hezbollah’s money.”

Mr. Sehnaoui closed the deal in September. He declined to discuss details, but said: “We bought certain assets of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, and only the clean ones. We did not take any even slightly questionable clients.”

Lawyers for Mr. Ashcroft’s firm said all the problematic accounts had been excised, even though it meant losing nearly $30 million a year in interest and fees. “As current and potential problems have been uncovered, he has not hesitated to act,” Mr. Ashcroft said of his client.

From the Treasury Department’s perspective, the case is a victory, albeit an incremental one, in the battle against terrorism financing. Lebanon’s Central Bank showed that it was willing to shut down the Lebanese Canadian Bank and sell it to a “responsible owner,” said Daniel L. Glaser, assistant Treasury secretary for terrorism financing. An important avenue to Hezbollah has been blocked.

Still, Treasury officials have no illusions that their work here is done. From the beginning, the blacklisting was also intended as a wider warning to a banking industry that, with secrecy to rival the Swiss, forms the backbone of Lebanon’s economy: henceforth, other bankers did business with Hezbollah at their peril.

“What the Central Bank hasn’t fully demonstrated, and the jury is still out, is whether they will use this as a launching pad to ensure that these illicit actors aren’t migrating elsewhere,” Mr. Glaser said.

The signs are not terribly encouraging. The Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, cut short an interview when asked about the aftermath of the American action, calling it an “old story.” As for those nearly 200 suspect accounts, Mr. Salameh would only say that he does not involve himself in such commercial questions.

Privately, he has played down the findings to the Treasury Department, attributing much of the suspicious activity to peculiarities in the way business is done in Africa. Those accounts he did deem problematic, he told the Americans, have been referred to Lebanon’s general prosecutor. But the prosecutor refused to comment, and his deputy, who handles money-laundering inquiries, said last week that he had received nothing.

In fact, as Treasury officials acknowledge, on Mr. Salameh’s watch, most of the accounts were simply transferred to several other Lebanese banks.

From the New York Times

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