In the largest fine ever assessed against a financial institution for violating US sanctions on Cuba and Iran, Netherlands-based ING Bank will pay $US619 million ($A619.84 million) to the US government, the Justice Department says.
ING agreed to pay the fine for secretly moving more than $US2 billion ($A2.00 billion) through US financial institutions in 20,000 transactions from the early 1990s to 2007, all in violation of sanctions on Cuba and Iran, according to the Justice Department.
"ING Bank helped provide state sponsors of terror and other sanctioned entities with access to the US financial system, allowing them to move billions of dollars," Assistant US Attorney General for National Security Lisa Monaco said on Thursday.
Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan are on the US list of countries under sanctions for supporting international terrorism. The half-century old US trade embargo against Cuba also bars Cuban entities from using US dollars in their transactions.
The Justice Department statement said ING fabricated endorsement stamps so that two Cuban banks could fraudulently process US dollar-denominated travellers' cheques and advised Cuban and Iranian clients on how to conceal transactions.
Senior ING officials also erased data from reports that would have revealed the involvement of Cuban and Iranian entities, and threatened to punish some employees who failed to remove those references from documents, the statement added.
Jan Hommen, chief executive officer of the bank's parent ING Groep NV, based in Amsterdam, called the violations "serious and unacceptable," but added the company had since changed.
ING's insurance and US banking operations were not involved in the case or the sanctions.
"ING has accepted responsibility for its criminal conduct" and agreed to pay the $US619 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement, the Justice statement added.
Half the money will go to the US Attorney's Office in New York, which has been investigating ING, and the bank will have to make regular reports on how it is complying with the US sanctions rules.
"For years, ING Bank blatantly violated US laws governing transactions involving Cuba and Iran, and then used shell companies and other deceptive measures to cover up its criminal conduct," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in the statement.
Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces US financial restrictions on foreign countries, added that the fine was "a clear warning to anyone who would consider profiting by evading US sanctions".
Cuba has faced US sanctions under the trade embargo since 1962. But after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, tougher US measures against terrorism financing began hitting the communist-ruled island's financial transactions even harder.
Credit Suisse Bank paid a $US536 million ($A536.72 million) fine to the US government in 2009 to settle allegations of illegal dealings with Cuba, Iran and other sanctioned countries, while Switzerland's UBS paid another $US100 million ($A100.14 million) in 2004 for similar complaints.
A Jamaican branch of Canada's Bank of Nova Scotia was reported to have refused to serve the Cuban Embassy in Kingston, and British-based HSBC bank reportedly shut down several Cuban accounts it held around the world.
Several other financial services companies that operated in Cuba as well as the United States - and were, therefore, subject to US regulations - also closed their operations in the Caribbean island, complaining that the US regulations had become too burdensome and that they risked costly violations.
The Cuban government also complained that US officials were freezing funds in allegedly illegal Cuban accounts held in foreign banks. A 2006 report in a state-run newspaper, Trabajadores, estimated the money frozen in 2005 alone at $US268 million ($A268.36 million), but gave no details.
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