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By Karen Freifeld and Lindsay Dunsmuir
WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - Commerzbank AG has agreed to pay U.S. authorities $1.45 billion to resolve sanctions and other violations, the latest big European bank to acknowledge moving funds through the U.S. financial system for countries like Iran and Sudan.
Prosecutors also found Germany’s No. 2 lender did not comply with U.S. anti-money laundering laws that require detecting and reporting suspicious transactions in a probe stemming from an accounting scandal at Japan’s Olympus Corp.
U.S. and New York authorities agreed to defer criminal charges against the bank for three years, providing the lender abides by the terms of its agreements.
No individuals were charged, but New York’s banking regulator, the state Department of Financial Services, said five employees would be fired or resign as a result of the probes, including the former head of compliance for the bank’s New York branch.
Commerzbank is the latest in a series of big foreign banks that have been penalized for sanctions-related violations in recent years, forfeiting some $12 billion, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office initiated the probes some six years ago.
French bank BNP Paribas paid the bulk of that, forfeiting a record-breaking $8.9 billion last year. Other banks that have reached agreements include Amsterdam-based ING , British banks Standard Chartered Plc, Lloyds TSB Bank Plc, HSBC and Barclays, as well as Switzerland’s Credit Suisse AG.
Italy’s UniCredit, France’s Credit Agricole and Societe Generale, as well as Germany’s Deutsche Bank, are under investigation by U.S. authorities for alleged sanctions-related violations, sources have told Reuters previously.
“We take these violations very seriously and deeply regret the actions that led to today’s announcements,” Commerzbank Chief Executive Martin Blessing said in a statement. “We have made, and will continue to make, changes to our systems, training and personnel to address the deficiencies.”
The bank disclosed on Feb. 12 that it had set aside 1.4 billion euros ($1.48 billion) for legal costs, related in part to the U.S. probes. The settlement was in line with the amount Reuters first reported on March 5.
The bank said on Thursday it would book an additional one-off charge of 338 million euros ($358 million) to be reflected in its final annual financial statements for 2014.
Prosecutors say that beginning in 2002, Commerzbank concealed more than $250 million it moved through the U.S. financial system, primarily on behalf of Iranian and Sudanese customers, in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s state-sponsored shipping line, designated for sanctions by the U.S. in 2008 was one customer, according to the Manhattan District Attorney.
The Olympus fraud is considered one of the biggest corporate scandals in Japan’s history. In 2011, the camera and medical equipment maker admitted to using improper accounting to conceal massive investment losses over more than a decade and restated years of financial results.
Prosecutors said Commerzbank allowed more than $1.6 billion in suspicious transactions connected to the Olympus fraud to flow through the New York office, violating the Bank Secrecy Act, the main U.S. anti-money laundering law.
Authorities involved in the $1.45 billion deal include the Manhattan District Attorney, the New York state Department of Financial Services, the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and the U.S. Department of Justice, with U.S. Attorneys’ offices in New York and Washington, D.C. (Reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York and Lindsay Dunsmuir in Washington. Additional reporting by Thomas Atkins in Frankfurt.; Editing by Emily Stephenson and Christian Plumb)