US regulators say they were caught off guard when New York state regulators accused Standard Chartered Bank of helping Iranian clients hide money.
Officials at the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Justice Department and the Treasury Department are trying to determine how broad the suspected wrongdoing at a Standard Chartered U.S. branch is, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Benjamin Lawsky, head of the New York Department of Financial Services, claimed this week the bank had processed $250 billion in tainted money while hiding the identities of its Iranian clients. Some federal authorities, however, said they think the amount is much smaller; Standard Chartered said that $14 million didn't comply with regulations.
On Monday, Lawsky issued an order in which he indicated he may yank Standard Chartered's license to do business in New York.
The disparity arises from varying interpretations about how many Standard Chartered transactions violated a federal rule governing the way money from abroad wends through the American financial system, the Times said.
Before 2008, the rule didn't require foreign banks to provide much detail to U.S. subsidiaries as long as the banks overseas vetted the transactions for suspected suspicious activity. Since 2008, all transactions with Iran and other sanctioned countries are banned.
Standard Chartered, a British banking organization with major operations in New York, maintains that "99.9 percent" of the transactions in question complied with the rule, maintaining it examined the transactions and found nothing suspicious.
Some Treasury Department officials told the Times they suspect Lawsky took too broad an interpretation, saying that some of the transactions, while sketchy aren't necessarily illegal.
Officials at the Fed, which has been investigating Standard Chartered since 2010, say they don't know the extent of the scheme and haven't taken action yet.
The Justice Department, too, said it was still determining whether to pursue a criminal case.
Lawsky has refused to back down from his accusations, the Times said.
"The very serious and indisputable conduct described in the order speaks for itself," Lawsky spokesman David Neustadt said. "We have and will continue to work with our state, local and federal partners."
If the federal government decides to take legal action against Standard Chartered, the government may ask New York to delay a hearing next week, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
"This is something the U.S. attorney normally jumps on," Anthony Michael Sabino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York. "If the U.S. is going to act, without a doubt the feds will push the state regulators out of the way."