Nine days ago Ben Lawsky was a no-name financial regulator working for the state of New York, but now he's the front page protagonist behind the largest money laundering settlement in U.S. history. On Tuesday, the 42-year-old superintendent of financial services announced the $340 million payment by Standard Chartered, the British mega bank that allegedly laundered some $250 billion of Iranian money. Those charges, leveled at the bank eight days ago, came out of nowhere, but equally surprising was Lawsky's lightning-fast settlement of the case, which The New York Daily News championed as "quick and effective." "Bravo to state Financial Services Superintendent Ben Lawsky," added the tabloid. But despite the impressive haul for the one-year-old state agency, the man has quickly made enemies with powerful U.S. and European regulators and some of the biggest voices in financial journalism. Here's how Lawsky's opponents are trying to take down New York's rising star regulator after his huge cash haul on Tuesday:
He jumped the gun. Lawsky's agency wasn't the only regulator looking into Standard Chartered's questionable dealings with Iran prior to last week's charges. According to reports, regulators including the U.S. Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the Justice Department and the Manhattan District Attorney were also involved in the matter. But in pursuing his go-it-alone strategy, Lawsky infuriated the feds and may have complicated forthcoming investigations and settlements, a former prosecutor tells Bloomberg. “Ben Lawsky hijacked the feds’ case,” says Rita Glavin, currently an attorney at Seward & Kissel LLP. “That kind of move causes a major headache for the Justice Department. Before, they may have been more willing to share with a state regulator. They may not be so willing in the future.” While that may be true, The New York Times' Jessica Silver-Greenberg reports that its unclear if the feds would've pounced if Lawsky hadn't. "In the weeks leading up to Mr. Lawsky’s move against the bank, the Justice Department was on the brink of deciding not to pursue criminal charges, after concluding that virtually all of the transactions with Iran had complied with United States law, current and former authorities said." Either way, feathers were clearly ruffled.
He played fast and loose with the facts. In today's paper, The Wall Street Journal's editorial board makes a piercing assessment of Lawsky's conduct in the case. "His grandstanding on Standard Chartered may also do more harm than good. For one thing, his declaration of allegations includes some exaggerated facts. Of the $250 billion of transactions at issue, it now appears that $249 billion and change were legal at the time they occurred," writes the newspaper. "We're told by other law enforcers that roughly $300 million in transactions over the course of a decade were illegal. This is higher than the bank's public claim of only $14 million, but a tiny fraction of the amount in Mr. Lawsky's initial accusation. So far the illegal transactions also don't appear to have had any ties to terror or weapons." Pushing back against the Journal, blogger Yves Smith called it an "alternative reality editorial," noting that both "parties have agreed that the conduct at issue involved transactions of at least $250 billion."
He sacrificed the truth for a headline. CNN Money's Larry Doyle says a hasty fine settlement could prevent us from uncovering the actual misdeeds of Standard Chartered. "The last thing I want to see is a fine. Better that Standard Chartered pays not a penny than we suffer again from not truly knowing and learning the truth. A fine only serves to suffocate the truth," he writes, calling for an independent investigation. "When a bank is merely fined for dealing with a rogue nation such as Iran, that payment is nothing more than blood money. A fine does not rebuild confidence but erodes it dramatically because the public is aware that the truth remains under wraps. What rebuilds confidence? The truth. If the truth exposes ugly practices within Standard Chartered and similarly lax oversight from regulators, then so be it... In delivering the truth, the public and our global economy will be reinvigorated by fresh air filling our collective lungs."
It was a publicity stunt. In an interesting window into the world of competing global regulators, it appears Lawsky's peers aren't big fans of his alleged grandstanding. "Lawsky’s order angered U.K. officials, who viewed it as an attack on London’s status as a financial center," Bloomberg's Greg Farrell and Tiffany Kary report. "In the U.S., regulators including the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Manhattan District Attorney complained privately in published reports that Lawsky’s order was a publicity stunt that disrupted their own probes of the matter."