US seizes $150 m. from 'laundering' Lebanese bank

Lebanese bank suspected of being at heart of international money-laundering schemes linked to Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s Central Bank 370 (photo credit: Mohamed Azakit/Reuters)
Lebanon’s Central Bank 370
(photo credit: Mohamed Azakit/Reuters)
US authorities said Monday that they had seized $150 million from a Lebanese bank suspected of being at the heart of Hezbollah’s international money-laundering and narcotics trafficking schemes.
The announcement was made by Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Michele M. Leonhart, administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bharara said: “Money is the lifeblood of terrorist and narcotics organizations, and while banks which launder money for terrorists and narco-traffickers may be located abroad, today’s announcement demonstrates that those banks and their assets are not beyond our reach.”
“We will use every resource at our disposal [to seize terror and narco-traffickers funds], even those hidden in foreign accounts,” said Bharra.
Leonhart said the Lebanese Canadian Bank played a key role in facilitating money laundering for Hezbollah-controlled organizations across the globe.” She added that the DEA’s “relentless pursuit of global criminal networks” uncovered the exploitation of the US banking system to launder drug trafficking funds through West Africa and into Lebanon.
In February 2011, the US Department of the Treasury designated the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a “primary money-laundering concern.”
The privately owned bank subsequently merged with the Lebanese subsidiary of Société Générale de Banque au Liban, a large European bank.
In the complaint, federal prosecutors in New York City and the DEA accused bank officials of knowingly participating in a scheme in which $329m. was transferred between January 2007 and early 2011 from various individuals and companies in Beirut to purchase used cars in the US.
The cars were then sold in West Africa, and Hezbollah-linked groups would help smuggle the proceeds into Lebanon, authorities said.
Washington considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group. US officials say that it has become increasingly involved in the drug trade, facilitating the distribution and sale of cocaine in West Africa.
In September 2011, Société Générale de Banque au Liban agreed to purchase most of Lebanese Canadian Bank’s assets for $580m., and at least $150m. in purchase funds related to that sale are being held in escrow in Lebanon at the Banque Libano-Française SAL.
The money-laundering and forfeiture complaint was filed in December 2011.
The seized funds are substitutes for the money in the LCB escrow account at BLF, and came from an account at a US bank that is used by BLF to conduct US currency transactions.
The funds were seized using warrants issued on August 15, 2012.
Pursuant to US law, the US can seize funds located in a bank’s correspondent accounts in the US if there is probable cause that the bank is holding funds subject to forfeiture overseas.
There are no allegations of wrongdoing against BLF, SGBL or the US banks.
The seized money was held in corresponding accounts at five different banks in the US, including Citibank and London-based bank Standard Chartered.
The funds will be transferred to a seized assets account maintained by the US Marshals Service until the forfeiture action is resolved.
An attorney for the Lebanese Canadian Bank did not immediately return a call from Reuters seeking comment.