U.S. Bancorp basked in millions of dollars worth of upbeat publicity for its sponsorship of the Vikings football stadium and promotion of February’s Super Bowl, America’s most popular broadcast sports event.
Less than two weeks later, USB reaped a different brand of publicity.
The company agreed to pay $613 million — about 10 percent of 2017 net earnings — to the U.S. Department of Justice and federal bank regulators to settle charges that it “willfully” failed to maintain adequate safeguards to prevent money laundering, allowing one of its former customers, a serial criminal who owned a payday lending operation, to engage in the activity for several years.
This is a big black eye for the nation’s fifth-largest bank, the result of a multiyear infraction that took place under recently retired CEO Richard Davis, and his successor, at a bank that has been lauded as an industry leader in performance and good-governance for a decade.
U.S. Bancorp’s anti-money laundering [AML] program — which guards against terrorists as well as fraudsters — was operated “on the cheap,” was inadequately staffed and supervised, and the bank “concealed its wrongful approach” from regulators for years, according to Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. USB managers ignored “red flags” flown by a since-jailed customer in Missouri named Scott Tucker.
From 2008 through 2012, he generated hundreds of millions in profits from his “fraudulent payday lending scheme” using numerous “sham bank accounts” to conceal his identity. It wasn’t until after media accounts of Tucker’s suspected fraud, and related government subpoenas to the bank, that USB closed Tucker’s accounts, according to the government. It failed to file a critical “suspicious activity” report until investigators arrived.
Tucker’s business at USB sure wasn’t worth $613 million in fines and related reputation damage.
CEO Andy Cecere, the CFO who succeeded Davis last year, said this month in a statement that USB replaced the AML unit leadership in 2014, added staff, established an “independent, enterprisewide financial crimes” compliance function and an improved process that includes frequent reports to top management and the board.
“We are confident in the strength of the program we have in place today,” Cecere said. “We regret and have accepted responsibility for the past deficiencies in our AML program. Our culture of ethics and integrity demands that we do better.”
A spokesman for the bank said the fact that it has invested tens of millions to improve the AML process, overhauled the department, and offered the apologies of its top executive underscores USB’s sincerity and concern for its reputation and integrity.
USB long has been known as one of America’s most cost-conscious, leanest-run banks. Now it looks penny-wise and pound-foolish.
“USB deserves a reputational hit,” said Jon Austin, a veteran corporate crisis communications adviser. “They can say this didn’t affect consumers … but any corporation that doesn’t act as if it operates in a see-through glass office deserves a hit over something like this. They should worry most about the regulators. USB may not be on the ‘good guy’ list anymore.”
The government will defer prosecution against USB if there are no further problems, noted John Stout, a corporate governance attorney.
“Anti-money laundering regulations are not new and remain a critical focus of regulators and banks,” Stout said. “Laundered money funds terrorism, human trafficking, the drug trade and supports corrupt foreign public officials and their governments. Once the regulators intervened, U.S. Bank clearly addressed the issue. The problem is that the issue existed. And the resolution inflicts financial and reputational damage.
“The message to boards is … ultimately, you are responsible for the company’s integrity. It’s your job to see that systems and processes are in place and functioning to provide effective risk management and oversight … funded and staffed at a level required by the size and complexity of the company.”
The fraudulent-account scandal at Wells Fargo ultimately claimed its CEO and a key board member, following regulatory sanctions and penalties.
USB stock, valued at $91 billion, has outperformed major bank stock over the last decade, until the past couple months.
“USB will not be penalized in the long run for this lapse,” predicted Jeanne Boeh, chair of the business department at Augsburg University. “They are confident there won’t be a long term penalty effect on their stock. They’re likely to be correct.”
Community organizers and others won’t forget. They will ask USB to increase its commitment to low-cost credit, affordable housing and products for working-poor customers. Senior management of this government-insured institution should listen with empathy and commitment.
Stephanie Gasca, a Wells Fargo Mortgage employee until she was laid off in 2013, for three years advocated for low-income workers through Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), part of a grass-roots coalition that lobbies for higher minimum wages and investment in low-income neighborhoods.
She sees irony in USB getting in $613 million worth of trouble with a fraudulent millionaire. Meanwhile, only last month USB raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. It will be paid for by the recent federal tax cuts, most of which will go to shareholders.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at email@example.com.