WASHINGTON » France’s largest bank and the owner of First Hawaiian Bank, BNP Paribas, has agreed to pay nearly $9 billion to resolve criminal allegations that it processed transactions for clients in Sudan and other blacklisted countries in violation of U.S. trade sanctions, the Justice Department announced Monday. The bank pleaded guilty to state charges in New York and plans another guilty plea in federal court next month.
First Hawaiian Bank said its customers will not be affected.
"Regarding today’s settlement, whether you are an individual customer, a small-business owner, a self-employed professional, an entrepreneur, or a company manager, I assure you that this specific issue will have absolutely no impact on you," First Hawaiian spokesman Chris Dods said in a statement.
After months of negotiations, BNP admitted to violating U.S. trade sanctions by processing billions of dollars in illegal transactions on behalf of clients in Sudan, Cuba and Iran. The United States had imposed sanctions on the countries to block their participation in the global financial system.
The transactions, which prosecutors say were processed through its New York branch office from at least 2004 through 2012, were handled at the same time as human rights abuses — including the genocide in Sudan — were occurring in those nations.
"Sanctions are a key tool in protecting U.S. national security interests, but they only work if they are strictly enforced," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "If sanctions are to have teeth, violations must be strictly punished."
The goal of such sanctions is to cut off an enemy nation’s access to banks and other sources of capital, limiting its economic growth and ability to buy weapons, food and other items available through global trade. The restrictions on dealings with sanctioned countries generally apply to U.S. banks and foreign banks with U.S. operations.
The roughly $8.9 billion deal is the largest sanctions case brought by the Justice Department and the largest penalty in any criminal case involving a bank. Prosecutors say the penalty was necessary not only because of the sheer volume of the illicit transactions, but also because of the bank’s efforts to hide them and executives’ lack of cooperation with the Justice Department.