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Too Big to Do Time?

by LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.

The U.S. government won convictions against 23,506 drug traffickers nationwide during 2010, sending 96 percent of the offenders to prison, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.

Yet one of the biggest entities busted by the feds for involvement in drug trafficking last year received just a wrist-slap deal from federal prosecutors with nobody getting prison time.

During 2010, the U.S. government also won convictions against 806 persons involved in smaller-time drug-related money laundering, sending nearly 77 percent of those offenders to prison.

Yet when it came to a case involving billions of dollars in illegal drug profits, the federal government gave the same unusual wrist-slap to the same entity caught giving greed-blinded assistance to Mexican drug cartels by laundering billions of dollars in illegal profits for them.

So, what is this entity that federal prosecutors found worthy of big breaks for its laundering of billions of dollars, and for its blatant facilitating or tons of smuggled cocaine?

Meet Wachovia ? once the nation’s sixth largest bank by assets and now a part of Wells Fargo Bank? a too-big-to-fail bank that for the feds is apparently too-big-to jail.

Wachovia recently completed what amounted to a year-long probation arising from a March 2010 settlement deal with federal prosecutors who were pursuing criminal proceedings against Wachovia for its facilitating of illegal money transfers from Mexico totaling $378-billion?a staggering sum greater than half of the Pentagon’s annual budget, which included billions of dollars traced directly to violent Mexican drug cartels.

The record $160-million fine slapped on Wachovia under terms of that settlement deal included a $50-million assessment for failing to monitor cash used to ship into the US 22 tons of cocaine. (That fine amounted to less than two percent of Wachovia’s profits during the prior year.)

Wells Fargo now owns Wachovia. Wells Fargo, federal prosecutors stress, was not involvement in the misdeeds that landed Wachovia in court, where it received a deferred prosecution deal.

Wells Fargo purchased Wachovia in early 2009 for $12.7-billion, shortly after Wells Fargo had received $25-billion in federal bail-out funds from the TARP program. That purchase helped make Wells Fargo America’s second-largest bank.

Many condemn the federal government settlement with Wachovia as a farce.

Criticism has come from persons in law enforcement frustrated by big-bank involvement in laundering drug money and from those who claim federal drug enforcement practices provide bigger breaks to drug kingpins than to low-level operators.

“All the law enforcement people wanted to see this come to trial. But no one goes to jail,” said Martin Woods, an English expert on anti-money laundering, whose work while with Wachovia’s London office helped unravel the drug connections. Woods says Wachovia officials bashed him for his investigative diligence and whistle-blowing as an employee.

“It’s simple: it you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point,” Woods said in an April 3, 2011 article published inThe Observer, a British newspaper published on Sundays.

Wachovia’s involvement in big-time money laundering paralleled the period of a murderous escalation in violence in Mexico’s Drug War that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 Mexicans since 2006 alone, with the dead including politicians, prosecutors, police, soldiers, drug gang members and innocent bystanders.

During the same month last year when federal prosecutors gave Wachovia a break, finding no need to imprison any bank personnel for their involvement in massive drug-tainted money laundering, other federal prosecutors were pounding domestic drug dealers with long prison sentences.

For example, an Anchorage, Alaska man received a ten-year term for selling four ounces of crack cocaine, while an East St. Louis, Ill. businessman received a life sentence plus a $2.25-million fine for distributing three thousand pounds of cocaine between 2004 and his arrest in April 2008.

The amount of cocaine trafficking that sent the Illinois man to prison for life ? one and a half tons – was much smaller than that single 22 ton cocaine shipment referenced in the Wachovia settlement document.

The settlement agreement Wachovia officials signed with federal prosecutors in Miami last year clearly stated that the bank knew that many of the transactions with Mexican financial institutions from 2004 to 2007 carried the stench of drugs.

That settlement agreement stated in part that as early as “2005 Wachovia was aware that other large US banks were exiting the [Mexican] business based on [anti-money laundering] concerns?Despite these warnings, Wachovia remained in business” according to news media reports.

One reason Wachovia stayed in the business as others pulled out is that the bank reaped hefty fees from that money-laundering “business,” in which billions of dollars in wire transfers, traveler’s checks and bulk cash shipments went into Wachovia accounts from Mexican exchange facilities called casa de cambios (CDCs).

Jeffery Solman, the federal prosecutor who handled the Wachovia case, stated last year that “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.”

Last year Bloomberg News, in an article on the Wachovia money laundering scandal, reported how the federal government cited other mega-financial institutions in the U.S. like American Express Bank International and Bank of America for their complicity in laundering drug money.

Making a farce out of the nation’s supposed War on Drugs, none of the mega-financial institutions identified by federal authorities as having been involved with laundering drug money and none of the well-paid individuals at those institutions which were facilitating that laundering has faced go-to-jail federal criminal prosecutions like those targeting small fry in the drug trade.

Days after Wachovia received its wrist-slap deal for laundering billions of dollars in drug money, federal prosecutors secured a five-year sentence for a 26-year-old Johnstown, Pa. man involved with a drug ring it claimed was responsible for $10,000 in drug sales per month.

Imprisoning that Johnstown street dealer for five years will cost taxpayers $113,115, based on the average cost of $22,623 annually to house a federal prisoner. He was one of six people netted during a drug crackdown in that small former steel town located in the mountains 66 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Alarming evidence of the Drug War farce ? the prosecutorial pounding of small fry while major players get a pass ? is evident in statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the federal agency that advises Congress on criminal sentencing matters.

During 2009, in the Southern Florida district where Miami is located, 96.1 percent of the 669 persons convicted in federal courts for drug trafficking received prison time. Twenty-percent of the persons convicted in Southern Florida federal courts for simply possessing drugs received prison time.

Of the 67 persons convicted of money laundering during 2009 in those same Southern Florida courts, 77.6% went to prison, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.

As noted in that April 2011 article in The Observer, the conclusion of the Wachovia case “was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the “legal” banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars ? the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world ? around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.”

That Observer article included observations made in 2008 by the then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime providing evidence suggesting that drug/crime money was “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse.

“Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drug trade,” the Observer article quoted the U.N. official as stating. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

The June 2010 Bloomberg News article provided an ominous observation about the wrist-slap protection large banks receive from criminal indictments due to a variant of the too-big-to-fail theory:

“Indicting a big bank could trigger a mad dash by investors to dump shares and cause panic in financial markets,” says Jack Blum, a U.S. Senate investigator for 14 years and a consultant to international banks and brokerage firms on money laundering. The theory is like a get-out-of-jail free card for big banks, Blum says.

Another anti-money laundering expert disappointed with the federal government’s settlement with Wachovia is Robert Mazur, identified in the Observer article as one of the world’s “foremost figures” in providing anti-money laundering training and the point-man for US law enforcement during prosecutions against Columbian drug cartels two decades ago.

Mazur told The Observer, “The only thing that will make the banks properly vigilant to what is happening is when they hear the rattle of handcuffs in the boardroom.”

LINN WASHINGTON, JR. is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported online alternative newspaper about to celebrate its first year of daily publication.

 

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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