Government watchdog ends intense oversight of U.S. Bank’s fight against money laundering

By Evan Ramstad

The banking industry’s top government watchdog has ended intense scrutiny of U.S. Bancorp’s anti-money laundering practices after three years, a period in which the company spent heavily to improve safeguards against criminal activity.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in late November terminated a 2015 consent order that found that U.S. Bank, the nation’s fifth largest, lacked an adequate “system of internal controls” and “inadequate training” regarding money laundering.

Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank announced the termination of the order late last week.

The end of the consent order signaled acceptance by regulators of the company’s new measures to comply with anti-money laundering laws and the Bank Secrecy Act, the 1970 law that requires banks to work with the government to combat money laundering.

“The OCC believes that the safety and soundness of the bank and its compliance with laws and regulations does not require the continued existence of the order,” the federal agency said in the document that terminated the 2015 consent order.

The order was an early sign of larger trouble for U.S. Bank as the agency and federal prosecutors examined suspicious transactions at the bank from 2009 to 2014. In February this year, the company agreed to pay $613 million to the federal government to settle charges that it did not guard against money laundering.

When the settlement was announced, U.S. Bancorp Chief Executive Andy Cecere said the company “accepted responsibility for the past deficiencies.” He added: “Our culture of ethics and integrity demands that we do better.”

Regulators and prosecutors found problems in the overall program and processes to combat money laundering at U.S. Bank. Among them: U.S. Bank restricted resources used to check on money laundering, limited the number of transactions it reviewed and didn’t tell regulators about those limits.

In response, the government forced U.S. Bank to examine each line of business for its ability to spot customers trying to engage in such criminal behavior and develop new training procedures for employees.

At the heart of the government investigations was a case involving a payday lending company based in Kansas run by a former race car driver named Scott Tucker. He was sentenced earlier this year to 16 years in prison for illegally charging customers extremely high interest rates — as much as 1,000 percent — and trying to conceal his operations from regulators by basing them on American Indian reservations.

From 2008 to 2012, Tucker’s companies generated more than $2 billion in revenue and hundreds of millions in profit, with most of the money moving through U.S. Bank accounts. The government alleged U.S. Bank employees ignored signs that Tucker was using American Indian tribes to conceal his ownership of the payday lending company and related accounts.

Tucker’s story gained attention on the Netflix “Dirty Money” series this year. In September, the government announced that about $505 million would be returned to scores of people who were swindled by Tucker’s firms.