Swiss fine Coutts unit over 1MDB money-laundering breaches

Switzerland's financial regulator has fined Coutts & Co over its involvement with Malaysian state fund 1MDB.
Switzerland's financial regulator has fined Coutts & Co over its involvement with Malaysian state fund 1MDB. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (Bloomberg) - Switzerland's financial regulator has fined Coutts & Co for violating money-laundering rules and illegally profiting from transactions associated with 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), prompting Swiss prosecutors to review the decision to see if the bank should face a criminal investigation.

Coutts, owned by Royal Bank of Scotland Group, allowed a total of US$2.4 billion worth of assets related to the Malaysian development fund to flow through accounts in Switzerland even though it had good reason to be suspicious of the transactions, Finma said.

Finma ordered the bank to pay back 6.5 million Swiss francs in unlawfully generated profits from the transactions, saying Coutts had "seriously breached money laundering regulations by failing to carry out adequate background checks into business relationships and transactions" associated with 1MDB.

The bank also ignored internal warnings from some of its employees, Finma said. In December, the Monetary Authority of Singapore imposed a S$2.4 million fine on Coutts for anti-money laundering (AML) breaches at its branch there.

Finma said it was also considering enforcement proceedings against those Coutts employees responsible for the bank's actions. A young Malaysian businessman opened an account in the summer of 2009 with the expectation that US$10 million would be transferred to it from the holder's family assets. Instead, about US$700 million was moved to the account late that year from 1MDB.

The wealth fund, which has consistently denied wrongdoing, is at the center of several international investigations into alleged corruption and money laundering by public officials.

Prosecutors in Singapore, Switzerland, the U.S. and other jurisdictions are looking into a sweeping multiyear scheme in which more than US$3.5 billion was allegedly diverted from the investment vehicle.

"We regret any historic failings in our AML processes," RBS said in an e-mailed statement.

"Coutts & Co has progressively and substantially strengthened its AML policies and controls. We are in the process of winding-down this Swiss-incorporated business, following the sale of the majority of the assets last year."

RBS sold the Coutts International private-banking unit to Union Bancaire Privee last year. UBP declined to comment on the Finma announcement and said that since it was an asset-only deal, it didn't inherit any legal liability.

The Swiss attorney-general's office said Thursday it had asked Finma for a copy of the enforcement decision to help evaluate whether Coutts' behaviour meets the test for corporate criminal liability.

Finma said it has also flagged the case to the UK Financial Conduct Authority. A spokesman for the FCA declined to comment.

Coutts & Co is not the first Swiss bank to be sanctioned for its 1MDB dealings.

Falcon Private Bank and BSI, both based in Lugano, were ordered to shut down their Singapore banking units as punishment for facilitating illicit payments, and BSI was fined 95 million Swiss francs last year for ignoring clear warning signals, according to Finma CEO Mark Branson.