Criminal charges vs. banks near, U.S. prosecutors say

By Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg / New York Times News Service

Published Apr 30, 2014 at 12:01AM

Federal prosecutors are nearing criminal charges against some of the world’s biggest banks, according to lawyers briefed on the matter, a development that could produce the first guilty plea from a major bank in more than two decades.

In doing so, prosecutors are confronting the popular belief that Wall Street institutions have grown so important to the economy that they cannot be charged. A lack of criminal prosecutions of banks and their leaders fueled a public outcry over the perception that Wall Street giants are “too big to jail.”

Addressing those concerns, prosecutors in Washington and New York have met with regulators about how to criminally punish banks without putting them out of business and damaging the economy, interviews with lawyers and records reviewed by The New York Times show.

The new strategy underpins the decision to seek guilty pleas in two of the most advanced investigations: one into Credit Suisse for offering tax shelters to Americans, and the other against France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, over doing business with countries like Sudan that the U.S. has blacklisted. The approach applies to American banks, though those investigations are at an earlier stage.

In the talks with BNP, which has a huge investment bank in New York, prosecutors in Manhattan and Washington have outlined plans to extract a criminal guilty plea from the bank’s parent company, according to the lawyers not authorized to speak publicly.

If BNP is unable to negotiate a lesser punishment — the bank has enlisted the support of high-ranking French officials to pressure prosecutors — the case could counter congressional criticism that arose after the British bank HSBC escaped similar charges two years ago.