Denmark’s Danske Bank pays $2B fine for AML fraud on US banks
The US Department of Justice has announced that Danske Bank, Denmark’s largest bank, has pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $2 billion to resolve the United States’ investigation into Danske Bank’s fraud on US banks.
According to court documents, Danske Bank defrauded US banks regarding Danske Bank Estonia’s customers and anti-money laundering controls to facilitate access to the US financial system for Danske Bank Estonia’s high-risk customers, who resided outside of Estonia – including in Russia. The Justice Department will credit nearly $850 million in payments that Danske Bank makes to resolve related parallel investigations by other domestic and foreign authorities.
The fine is a fairly large one even for a bank of Danske’s stature. In 2021 Danske Bank reported Net Revenues of $6.1 billion and Net Income of $1.8 billion – meaning that this fine alone eats up more than a full year’s worth of profit for Danske.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said:
“Today’s guilty plea by Danske Bank and two-billion-dollar penalty demonstrate that the Department of Justice will fiercely guard the integrity of the US financial system from tainted foreign money – Russian or otherwise. Whether you are a US or foreign bank, if you use the US financial system, you must comply with our laws. We expect companies to invest in robust compliance programs – including at newly acquired or far-flung subsidiaries – and to step up and own up to misconduct when it occurs. Failure to do so may well be a one-way ticket to a multi-billion-dollar guilty plea.”
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division added:
“Danske Bank lied to US banks about its deficient anti-money laundering systems, inadequate transaction monitoring capabilities, and its high-risk, offshore customer base in order to gain unlawful access to the US financial system. Today, Danske Bank accepted responsibility for defrauding US financial institutions and funneling billions of dollars in suspicious and criminal transactions through the United States. As part of its guilty plea, Danske Bank will forfeit over $2 billion and implement significant changes to its compliance program and AML controls. This coordinated resolution with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Danish authorities sends a clear message that the Department of Justice stands ready to work with our partners around the world to investigate corporate wrongdoing and hold bad actors accountable for their criminal conduct.”
“For years, Danske Bank lied and deceived US banks to pump billions of dollars of suspicious and criminal funds through the US financial system,” said US Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. “In doing so, Danske Bank, the largest bank in Denmark, deliberately disregarded US law of which it is well aware, facilitated the laundering of criminal and suspicious proceeds through the United States, and placed the US financial network at risk, all in the name of its bottom line. The bank is now being held to account. For its years-long criminal conduct, today Danske Bank pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bank fraud, will forfeit over $2 billion, and will implement and maintain a revamped compliance program and AML controls. Banks and other financial institutions around the world should heed this message: If you want to use the US financial system, you must play by the rules. If you don’t, we will hold you accountable.”
“Danske Bank’s guilty plea for defrauding US banks should serve as a stark warning to others that we will uncover the truth and deliver accountability,” said FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate. “The FBI, working with international partners, will vigorously investigate any institution, wherever based, which is engaged in manipulating US financial systems to enable money laundering. The FBI remains committed to safeguarding our national and economic security from threats which could cause harm to American institutions.”
According to admissions and court documents, between 2008 and 2016, Danske Bank offered banking services through its branch in Estonia, Danske Bank Estonia. Danske Bank Estonia had a lucrative business line serving non-resident customers known as the NRP. Danske Bank Estonia attracted NRP customers by ensuring that they could transfer large amounts of money through Danske Bank Estonia with little, if any, oversight. Danske Bank Estonia employees conspired with NRP customers to shield the true nature of their transactions, including by using shell companies that obscured actual ownership of the funds. Access to the US financial system via the US banks was critical to Danske Bank and its NRP customers, who relied on access to US banks to process US dollar transactions. Danske Bank Estonia processed $160 billion through US banks on behalf of the NRP.
US banks required Danske Bank and Danske Bank Estonia to provide information to open and maintain accounts, including information related to anti-money laundering (AML) controls, transaction monitoring, and customers. Danske Bank knew that the US banks expected honest, complete, and accurate responses and that the US banks would not maintain, or open, US dollar accounts for Danske Bank Estonia without the required information.
By at least February 2014, as a result of internal audits, information from regulators, and an internal whistleblower, Danske Bank knew that some NRP customers were engaged in highly suspicious and potentially criminal transactions, including transactions through US banks. Danske Bank also knew that Danske Bank Estonia’s anti-money laundering program and procedures did not meet Danske Bank’s standards and were not appropriate to meet the risks associated with the NRP. Instead of providing the US banks with truthful information, Danske Bank lied about the state of Danske Bank Estonia’s AML compliance program, transaction monitoring capabilities, and information regarding Danske Bank Estonia’s customers and their risk profile.
Today, Danske Bank pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the company has agreed to criminal forfeiture of $2.059 billion. Danske Bank will also enter into separate criminal or civil resolutions with domestic and foreign authorities and the department will credit approximately $850 million in payments the bank makes to the SEC and the Danish authorities.
The department reached its resolution with Danske Bank based on a number of factors, including the nature, seriousness, and pervasiveness of the offense conduct. This included a bank fraud conspiracy in which Danske Bank misled US banks in order to maintain and in one case open US dollar accounts through which Danske Bank processed $160 billion for its non-resident customers; the bank’s failure to voluntarily and timely disclose the conduct to the department; the state of Danske Bank’s compliance program and the progress of its remediation; the bank’s resolutions with other domestic and foreign authorities, including the imposition of an independent expert by Danish authorities; and the bank’s continued cooperation with the department’s ongoing investigation.
Danske Bank received full credit for cooperation and remediation because it provided full cooperation with the investigation and demonstrated recognition and affirmative acceptance of responsibility for its criminal conduct, including by, among other things, providing substantial information from its internal investigation, voluntarily and expediently producing a significant amount of documents located outside the United States in ways that did not implicate foreign data privacy laws, making foreign witnesses available for interviews, collecting and producing voluminous evidence and information including with translations where necessary, and providing detailed analysis of complex, cross-border transactions. Danske Bank has also enhanced and committed to continue improving its compliance programs and has agreed to the appointment of an independent expert selected by its regulator.
Additionally, the SEC announced a separate settlement with Danske Bank today in connection with a related, parallel proceeding. Under the terms of that resolution, Danske Bank agreed to pay approximately $413 million, which includes a civil monetary penalty of $178.6 million, as well as disgorgement that will be credited to any such payments made to the Danish authorities or the department in connection with Danske Bank’s guilty plea.
The FBI is investigating the case.
Trial Attorneys Margaret A. Moeser and Patrick B. Gushue of the Criminal Division’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) and Assistant US Attorneys Tara M. La Morte and Sheb Swett for the Southern District of New York are prosecuting the case. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs provided critical assistance in this case.
The department appreciates the significant assistance provided by the SEC and the authorities in Denmark. The department further appreciates the assistance provided by authorities in Estonia in response to multiple Mutual Legal Assistance requests.
MLARS’ Bank Integrity Unit investigates and prosecutes complex, multi-district, and international criminal cases involving financial institutions. The unit’s prosecutions focus on banks and other financial institutions, including their officers, managers, and employees, whose actions threaten the integrity of the individual institution or the wider financial system.