WASHINGTON — U.S. Bancorp has agreed to pay the federal government $613 million to settle criminal charges that it did not guard against money laundering in its business.
The U.S. Justice Department said Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp "willfully" failed to maintain adequate safeguards against money laundering, leading the bank to miss suspicious transactions for a five-year period from 2009 to 2014.
It singled out the bank's relationship with Scott Tucker, a former race car driver sentenced earlier this year to more than 16 years in prison for running a fraudulent payday lending operation.
U.S. Bancorp, the country's fifth-largest bank, operated its anti-money laundering program "on the cheap," according to Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who handled the case.
The company restricted resources to check on money laundering, capped the number of transactions it reviewed and "concealed its wrongful approach" from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Berman said in a news release Thursday.
U.S. Bancorp CEO and President Andy Cecere said in a statement that the company "accepted responsibility for the past deficiencies in our [anti-money laundering] program. Our culture of ethics and integrity demands that we do better."
The deal announced Thursday includes a deferred prosecution agreement that gives U.S. Bancorp two years to pay a total of $613 million in forfeitures and fines to various federal agencies and to take remedial measures that improve its ability to monitor money laundering.
The charges stem from the bank's relationship with Tucker, who along with a partner illegally extracted high interest rates from borrowers, some rates as high as 1,000 percent, according to an indictment in the case. Tucker's payday loan operations "exploited over four and a half million working people … struggling to pay living expenses," the indictment charged.
The government also charged that Tucker tried to avoid prosecution on state criminal charges by claiming to operate on American Indian reservations that were beyond the reach of state law enforcement.
From 2008 through 2012, Tucker's companies generated "more than $2 billion in revenue and hundreds of millions of dollars in profits" with most of the money moving through U.S. Bancorp accounts, government documents said.
"USB employees responsible for servicing Tucker's ongoing account activity disregarded numerous red flags that Tucker was using the tribes to conceal his ownership of the accounts," the U.S. Attorney's Office news release said.
For example, according to the release, Tucker spent large sums from accounts in the names of tribal companies on personal items, including "tens of millions of dollars" on a vacation home in Aspen.
The bank first disclosed the investigation of its relationship with Tucker and its anti-money laundering shortcomings in a quarterly Securities and Exchange Commission filing in August 2016.
Tucker's business "maintained certain deposit accounts with U.S. Bank National Association," the company reported.
On Thursday, a bank spokesman declined to describe the exact details of Tucker's links to the bank, but said he was "a retail customer" and also had a "business relationship."
Tucker, a flamboyant character who financed a Ferrari race team, misled the government about the role of tribal authorities in his business, the government alleged.
The indictment summarized a lavish lifestyle financed with hundreds of millions of dollars paid by people in such financial distress that they needed advances on paychecks.
Tucker was convicted in October 2017 and in January sentenced to more than 16 years in prison for what the Justice Department called "a nationwide internet payday lending enterprise that systematically evaded state laws for more than 15 years."
In 2015, U.S. Bancorp signed a consent agreement with the federal government that concluded that the bank lacked an adequate "system of internal controls," had "ineffective independent testing," and had "inadequate training" regarding money laundering. The company also "failed to file all necessary Suspicious Activity Reports ... related to suspicious customer activity."
Among the required fixes was a bank assessment of how to battle potential money laundering "associated with each line of business, and an enterprisewide assessment."
The bank was to review such things as "correspondent banking, prepaid cards and mobile banking, cash vault services, and remote deposit capture, and customer types such as nonbank financial institutions, cash-intensive businesses, business, commercial, and private banking, and other higher risk products, services, customers, or geographies."
In a release Thursday, the bank detailed several steps it says it has taken to improve internal controls since 2014.
"One of U.S. Bank's key priorities is to maintain an exceptional [anti-money laundering] program and we are confident in the strength of the program we have in place today," Cecere said in a statement.
U.S. Bancorp shares were little changed in trading Thursday, closing at $55.11, down 20 cents.
The bank signaled Thursday's settlement last month, taking a $608 million expense in its fourth quarter earnings. Despite the hit, the bank reported a record profit for the three months ended Dec. 31.
The long-term impact on the bank and its reputation is unclear.
"I don't know that it will hurt their brand," said Andrew Winton, chair of the finance department at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. But he said complying with terms of the various legal agreements will add to expenses and increase government oversight.