Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Banks Snooze, Arms Dealers Win

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:57 PM PST

You've heard plenty about the big banks' role in the Great Recession, but their headaches are about to get worse.

At a packed hearing today, the Senate investigations subcommittee led by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) shed new light on banks' negligence and wrongdoing—and this time it's not credit-default swaps or derivatives but money laundering and arms dealers. The hearing, held in conjunction with a 325-page report by the subcommittee, focused on four detailed cases of foreign money pouring in the United States and the ways in which American banks, lobbyists, lawyers, and other businessmen aided that money laundering. "For the United States, which has so much riding on global stability, corruption is a direct threat to our national interests," Levin said in his opening statement. "The stories we uncovered are striking in their misuse of our financial system."

In essence, the hearing and the report highlighted how institutions like Bank of America, HSBC, and Citibank snoozed when it comes to due diligence and investigating their clients, while notorious arms dealers, sons of despotic politicians, and even shady central banks channeled millions upon millions into the US to buy planes, sports cars, and luxury houses. Singling out HSBC, whose anti-money laundering compliance director testified at the hearing, Levin slammed the bank for actually encouraging the Central Bank of Angola—whose clients include many questionable red-flagged individuals, or "Politically Exposed Persons"—to move millions to an offshore bank in the Bahamas beyond the reach of British financial laws. "You claim that you're a leader in anti-money laundering rules and enforcement," Levin told HSBC's Wiecher Mandemaker. Yet "you facilitate people evading the law of your own country."

Levin, seated next to subcommittee ranking member Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), had also invited three active participants in the corruption cases detailed in the report—Beverly Hills attorneys Michael Berger and George Nagler, who'd aided Teodoro Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, and Jeffrey Birrell, an American lobbyist who tried to purchase armored cars and military transport planes for Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon. All three directly implicated witnesses, however, chose not to speak at the hearing, citing the Fifth Amendment. 

Levin and Coburn did offer a modicum of praise to a Bank of America senior executive who spoke at this morning's hearing. Bank of America appears several times in the subcommittee's report for allowing Pierre Falcone, an infamous arms dealer imprisoned several times, and his relatives to circulate at least $60 million through 29 accounts with the bank. In fact, Levin pointed to documents obtained by the subcommittee showing that Bank of America knew of Falcone's background and the millions flowing into his accounts from the secretive countries and shady "clients" yet concluded that "activity for the accounts of the Falcone's [sic] is not unusual." And while William Fox, the Bank of America executive, acknowledged that the bank had made "a bad judgment call" with Falcone, he emphasized the tougher disclosure and anti-money laundering safeguards that bank had installed in the past few years, measures that Levin praised.

In all, the hearing, together with the report, offered an unparalleled glimpse at the ways in which corrupt foreign figures still funnel their money into major American financial institutions. At the hearing, Levin said he hopes to close legal loopholes and revoke a 2002 exemption allowed by the Patriot Act, among others, to cut off the gaping holes that still allow dirty money to come into the US. "There is a lot more that can be done to combat foreign corruption," Levin said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

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Hip-hop Starlet's Dirty Money Ties

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:17 AM PST

The explosive new report by the Senate investigations subcommittee out today, which I covered here, is filled with lurid, juicy details about four previously unreported money-laundering cases in the US and the Americans who aided that laundering. For instance, Teodoro Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea's despotic president, used US attorneys and realtors to help him create shell corporations for his money—and in return, he feted them with VIP access to exclusive parties and other perks; in one email, an attorney who helped Obiang funnel money into the US, and who later got into a Playboy Mansion Halloween party thanks to Obiang, writes, "I met many beautiful women, and I have the photos, e-mail addresses and phone numbers to prove it."

Another eye-catching detail that appears is the appearance of Obiang's then-girlfriend, hip-hop starlet Eve Jeffers. (The two are no longer together.) Now, the relationship between Eve and Obaing had been reported long before the subcommittee's report came out Eve Teodoro Obiang. However, today's report does shed light on an unreported twist in their relationship: Eve was actually named president and CFO of one of Obiang's shell corporations, named Sweet Pink Inc., according to George Nagler, the attorney who created the corporation for Obiang. Eve was also a signatory for an account at Union Bank of California for the Sweet Pink corporation, the report found. 

This was a shady arrangement to say the least. Indeed, soon after the Union Bank account was created that listed Eve as a signatory, two wire transfers of about $30,000 from one of Obiang's companies in Equatorial Guinea were deposited in the account. That raised red flags for Union Bank, which had listed Equatorial Guinea as a "high-risk jurisdiction," and the bank quickly examined the accounts and later closed them, less than a month after they were opened.

The report doesn't mention Eve outside the Obiang incident, but it goes to show that the ways in which foreign figures will launder money in the US are many, utilizing anyone from well-connected lobbyists and attorneys to even well-known music stars.

The Paul Volcker Surge

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:03 PM PST

After a spell in the political wilderness, where his financial reform proposals received scant attention, Paul Volcker looks to be fully back in the mix. The former Federal Reserve chairman from 1979 to 1987, Volcker now has the ear of both Obama and the current Fed chair, Ben Bernanke. According to a Bloomberg story today, Volcker met with Bernanke six times—five of which were one-on-one meetings—between January and November 2009; by contrast, Volcker met with Bernanke only once in the year before that. And it's obvious that Volcker has had plenty of contact with the top financial gurus in the Obama administration: After all, the president's push to ban proprietary trading by throwing up a firewall between commercial banks' deposits and their riskier trading operations is being called the "Volcker Rule." 

For the most part, this surge of Paul Volcker's is a good thing. Since Obama took office last year Volcker has been pushing rigorous, important reforms—reining too-big-to-fail institutions, restoring parts of the Glass-Steagall Act—but had clashed with administration officials like National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and hadn't exerted much influence despite his stature as one of the leading economists in the country. A veteran of Beltway economic policy, Volcker also appears to have little patience for powerful lobbyists like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) who support "reform lite." And while Volcker's backing of the Fed to keep its watchdog role overseeing financial institutions and consumer protection may not be best for the country, given how poorly the Fed did that job before the crisis, his rise within the financial reform debate can only improve the odds for a bill that actually limits excessive risk-taking and tries to prevent future crises.

The Unmanned Future of US War

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 2:15 PM PST

From land to sea, there's no mistaking that the US is heading toward a future of unmanned wars. That conclusion is one of the main take-aways from the Defense Department's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, released today, a detailed report that updates Congress on the Pentagon's strategies and planning. The 2010 QDR further cements the Defense Department's commitment to bolstering its fleet of unmanned combat ships, like the Reaper and Predator drones whose lethal attack missions over Pakistan and Afghanistan are one of the worst-kept secrets in all of government.

According to the QDR, everything about the military's drone armada is ramping up. The DoD plans to increase the number of Predator and Reaper drone orbits (sustained airborne missions for more than 24 hours) from 35 today to 50 in the 2011 fiscal year to 65 in 2015, a significant uptick that comes on top of the Air Force's projections that all its drones will fly 250,000 total hours this year, up from a measly 71 hours for the Reaper drone in 2004. The QDR says the Army will also increase the number of drones in every class of its fleet in the next few years, especially its souped-up Extended Range Multi-Purpose Predator.

Not to be outdone, the Navy is developing its own aerial drone, the N-UCAS built by Northrop Grumman, which could deploy from aircraft carriers around the world and expand the military's aerial reach. And as the QDR reports, the unmanned future isn't confined to the skies, either: Underway right now is a far-ranging underwater drone with strike capabilities that the Navy is developing. The QDR also vaguely hints at improvements in drone intelligence gathering capabilities, like the current "Gorgon Stare" video technology boasting 10 different cameras operating at once and a more advanced camera technology with 30 feeds at once that could come online this fall.

Interestingly, the QDR's outlook on drone warfare isn't limited to the US. DoD officials anticipate—as they logically should—that unmanned drones are quickly becoming the weapon of choice around the world, briefly noting that "non-state actors such as Hezbollah have acquired" drones and pose a threat going forward. The only question now, based on this latest QDR and other news reports, is whether future warzones will actually feature any living, breathing people at all—apart, that is, from the unfortunate bystanders living in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan whose skies are filled with the Predators and Reapers and other drones of the future.

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