Editorial: No justice in scandal of HSBC

Dec. 13, 2012 @ 08:41 PM

North Carolinians got it right two years ago. Earlier this week, our country’s Justice Department did not. And we don’t like what it says about our country.

In the criminal justice system, there are justifications for crimes separated into misdemeanors and felonies. The ability to “settle” rather than meet punishment also has its place in the judicial system.

When North Carolinians were asked in 2010 at the ballot box to affirm a candidate for the office of sheriff could or could not be a convicted felon, we said “could not” and we said it resoundingly.

Those in America choosing to do business with the British bank HSBC now have a similar question. Earlier this week, HSBC agreed to pay $1.9 billion in penalties for helping Mexican drug traffickers, Iran, Libya and others under U.S. suspicion or sanction move money around the world.

The executives in charge at the bank, which has locations in more than 70 countries, were not charged with crimes. Not those who enabled, and not those who helped other countries achieve deceit.

Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan moved about $660 million in transactions prohibited by U.S. banking laws between the mid-1990s and 2006. The bank let over $200 trillion between 2006 and 2009 slip through relatively unmonitored, including more than $670 billion in wire transfers from HSBC Mexico, making it a favorite of drug cartels and money launderers. How’s that for a snappy jingle to draw in the customers?

Regulators said bank executives acted as felons in the largest scale, lied about their actions, made money and got caught. None of them will pay criminally.

The $1.9 billion penalty? It’s just a drop in the bucket for last year’s — just one year’s — $17 billion profit.

Too big to fail? We’ve heard it before. Now we’re hearing it again.

Banks cheating since the 2008 financial crisis? Put HSBC in a line with Credit Suisse, Barclays, Lloyds, ING and Standard Charter PLC paying settlements for deals with people or companies under U.S. sanction.

Until a real deterrent is created, we have no reason to believe in change or that our justice system will get it right.