The US Justice Department is seeking tough criminal penaltiesagainst European giants Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas as prosecutors aim todemonstrate that no institution is "too big to jail."BNP Paribas chief executive Jean-Laurent Bonnafe acknowledged at Wednesday'sannual meeting that a fine could be "very significantly higher" than the $1.1 billionit has set aside to settle charges it did business in Iran and other countries under USsanction."The situation is obviously difficult," said Bonnafe.Officials at Credit Suisse last week said he bank was working to resolve a criminalprobe on enabling US taxpayers to evade taxes through secret bank accounts.Credit Suisse has set aside $810 million to resolve the case, but reports have saidthe bank could end up paying $2 billion.The crackdown on the two European giants follows major federal settlements withJPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and other large US banks over myriad violations."There is no such thing as 'too big to jail,'" Attorney General Eric Holder said earlierthis month."When laws indeed appear to have been broken -- and the evidence supports theallegations -- a company's size will never be a shield from prosecution or penalty,"he said.
- No guilty pleas for US banks -But in similar cases, US banks have been fined heavily but not forced to plea guilty.
For example, the Justice Department won a record $13 billion settlement fromJPMorgan Chase last year to settle myriad charges over fraudulently labelledmortgage-backed securities.In January, JPMorgan agreed to pay $2.6 billion to settle criminal charges its laxoversight enabled the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff. The bankacknowledged a lengthy statement of facts outlining the wrongdoing and signed adeferred prosecution agreement.But in neither case did JPMorgan have to admit the charges.Moreover, the Justice Department has not criminally prosecuted any senior bankofficials in the mortgage securities debacle, a decision that US Judge Jed Rakoffsuggested could be "one of the more egregious failures of the criminal justicesystem in many years."
One reason prosecutors have been loath to force guilty pleas until now is the fear ofthat a conviction could trigger dire consequences, such as the withdrawal of abank's charter to operate, endangering jobs and threatening the economy."You take into consideration all factors," US Attorney Preet Bharara said in January,noting "collateral consequences" to pursuing a criminal case against a big financialinstitution.But in March Bharara, referring to a case against "a significant financial institution",said the department would test claims by prosecuted banks that a guilty plea risked"potential devastation".In the Credit Suisse and BNP cases, New York state's top financial regulatorBenjamin Lawsky has told both that they could keep their charters if they pleadguilty and agree to significant penalties, according to a person familiar with thematter.Samuel Buell, a former US prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Duke University,said the two cases reflect Justice's shifting view of the "feasibility of doing guiltypleas."But Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, saidthey raise concerns that US and foreign banks are being treated differently."It may be that foreign companies aren't prosecuted unless it's a bigger case, and itmay be that foreign companies care less about the consequences of a plea in somecases, but that's a real concern," Garrett said."But I do think that going forward, if convictions can become more routine that's a
good thing. Normally people think that if serious crimes are committed, theappropriate result is conviction.