ABOVE: Ben Lawsky
Of the $8.9 billion fine being paid by BNP Paribas for violations of U.S. sanctions on Cuba, Iran and Sudan, $2.24 billion is going to the State of New York and, specifically, to Ben Lawsky’s Department of Financial Services. All of this will gild Lawsky’s credentials, overstuff the NYDFS’s coffers, and pay for NYDFS’s holiday parties and expensive lunches for eons to come, while not a single cent of this astonishing sum of money being handed over to the New York agency will go to anyone whom the sanctions seek to protect like, say, Sudanese refugees.
The NYDFS consent order justifies this mega-fine, in part, on BNP’s processing of $160 billion in dollar-denominated transactions for Iranian customers. This is the overwhelming bulk of the $190 billion total of dollar-denominated transactions at issue here for all three sanctioned countries. This amount for Iran covers, according to the consent order, the ten-year period between 2002 and 2012. Astute readers will remember, from the NYDFS/Standard Chartered fiasco, that we’ve been here before with NYDFS. Prior to November 2008 — i.e., for most of the period cited by NYDFS — it was perfectly legal for BNP’s NY branch to process off-shore dollar-denominated Iranian transactions under the so-called U-Turn transactions rule.
So, when Lawsky and his crew complain in the consent decree that the failure of BNP to include references to Iran in the legal U-turn transactions “rendered its New York Branch and other New York-based financial institutions helpless to detect payments that should have been rejected or blocked under U.S. law,” they are spouting utter nonsense given that these payments were legal before November 2008 and not required to be rejected or blocked. But Lawsky’s goal is to enrich NYDFS here, not to observe legal niceties like what OFAC’s rules actually said before November 2008.
There are two major problems here. First, NYDFS’s case is completely dependent upon the scope and extent of federal sanctions, because without a federal sanctions violations, none of the record keeping issues are material. And, obviously, the New York state regulators either have no clue, or do not care, as to the actual scope of those sanctions. Second, and more importantly, to the extent that everything is based ultimately on federal sanctions, the enforcement of those sanctions is ultimately a matter of U.S. foreign policy, something that should be in the hands of OFAC, the DOJ and the rest of the federal government and not in the hands of either the State of New York or, worse, the hands of a single New York regulator.