By Kathleen Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page A01
Riggs Bank agreed yesterday to pay a record $25 million in civil penalties for what federal regulators called a «willful, systemic» violation of anti-money-laundering law.
Regulators said the bank failed to report, detect or even look for clearly suspicious transactions in accounts related to foreign embassies.
Riggs officials have acknowledged years of deficiencies in reporting to law enforcement hundreds of millions of dollars in suspicious financial transactions by foreign customers, particularly those connected with the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, in a consent order yesterday, said Riggs also failed to identify or monitor such activities as a transfer of more than $1 million from an Equatorial Guinean account to a private investment company owned by the Riggs manager supervising the account. It also cited tens of millions of dollars in cash withdrawals and the writing of dozens of sequentially numbered cashier’s checks on Saudi accounts.
Riggs agreed to the fines without admitting or denying guilt. «We’re 100 percent committed to fulfilling our obligations,» said Riggs spokesman Mark Hendrix.
Yesterday’s fines come at an unprecedented time of change for the D.C. bank, where foreign accounts have been under investigation for more than two years by the FBI and for over a year by bank regulators and three Senate committees.
Two weeks ago, Joe L. Allbritton, head of the family that has controlled Riggs for more than two decades, told the board of directors he will relinquish his last official post with the company at the annual meeting later this month, stepping down as vice chairman of the bank’s parent company. His wife, Barbara, said she too would resign from its board. Their son Robert L. Allbritton, 34, will remain chairman of both the parent company and the bank, jobs he assumed in early 2001, bank officials have said.
While regulators did not force the resignations, directors on the parent company’s board and the bank’s board have been under pressure from them to radically make over Riggs’s corporate culture, which enabled many bank officials to look the other way when foreign customers engaged in unusual transactions.
Among trails the FBI has investigated is a charitable contribution made to an individual by Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, because some of the money was used by two men to help two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers with rent and other expenses. An FBI spokesman said investigators have found no evidence that the men who gave the money to the hijackers knew they were helping terrorists, but other government officials said the circumstances remain suspicious.
A federal grand jury is investigating possible money laundering in accounts held by officials of Equatorial Guinea, and the Riggs official who managed the West African nation’s accounts has been fired and is under investigation for possible embezzlement. The grand jury also is looking into whether bribes were paid by U.S. oil companies through Riggs accounts to the president of Equatorial Guinea, according to people who have been briefed on the matter.
The penalties do not end the months-long investigation of Riggs by regulators who, sources said, continue to consider civil fines for individuals on the bank’s board, some top managers and two former officers, whom neither regulators nor the bank have identified.
The comptroller, Riggs’s main federal banking regulator, and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen, a law enforcement unit of the Treasury Department, cited the bank and its holding company for deficiencies in risk management and internal controls. The Federal Reserve Board, which regulates Riggs’s holding company as well as a Riggs unit that engages in foreign transactions, is expected to cite the company for similar deficiencies soon, Riggs said yesterday.
The deficiencies caused the bank not to file suspicious transaction activity reports to federal officials, as required by the Bank Secrecy Act, a key anti-money-laundering statute, the regulators said. The act, which Congress strengthened after the Sept. 11 attacks, is intended to alert regulators and law enforcement officials to attempts to hide the origin or destination of funds related to illegal activities such as drug smuggling or terrorism.
«The facts of this case demonstrate Riggs’s systemic failure to comply with its obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act,» FinCen director William J. Fox said in a prepared statement. He said the problems at Riggs are not typical of the banking industry, though some members of Congress have wondered if they are more widespread.
«Riggs Bank deserves every penny of this huge fine,» said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose staff is one of several probing Riggs. «Banks have a patriotic duty, not to mention legal requirement, to report suspicious activity. When banks look the other way, they put our national security at risk. Whether it’s through incompetence, negligence or greed, they are allowing terrorists to funnel their blood money through the system.»
Critics in Congress — and within the Treasury Department, the FBI and other agencies with security oversight — say accounts at Riggs provide a window into how the Saudi royal family and other powerful heads of governments move millions of dollars around the world each year without sufficient monitoring of where the money ends up.
Grassley has asked members of the 9/11 commission to review transactions by Saudi embassy officials at Riggs and Fleet Bank of Boston to see whether any funds, knowingly or not, have supported terrorist activities.
Regulators had planned to announce the fine when the bank announced Joe Allbritton’s decision to step down, but disagreement among regulators over the size of the fine made that impossible.
Allbritton, 79, bought control of the bank company in 1981 and ran it for two decades before handing control to his son.
While he maintains a part-time residence in Texas, Allbritton has long used his position at Riggs to make himself a prominent figure in Washington business and social circles. Under Allbritton, Riggs, which has about $6 billion in assets, became the area’s leading bank in serving foreign dignitaries.
The risks of that business became apparent after Sept. 11, when the FBI began combing the bank’s records. In July, regulators had become so concerned about the bank’s lack of controls that the comptroller issued a consent order, and in recent weeks the comptroller designated Riggs a «troubled institution.» That means Riggs can make no management changes without the approval of the federal government.
In addition to announcing Joe Allbritton’s departure, Riggs has said it will give up most of its international banking business, which accounts for 23 percent of its $4.2 billion in deposits, by the end of September.
The Allbritton family will continue to control 43 percent of the company’s stock.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
By Kathleen Day