France’s biggest bank BNP Paribas on Monday pleaded guilty to two criminal charges and agreed to pay $8.83 billion in a broad agreement with U.S. authorities over charges the French bank violated U.S. sanctions laws.
"BNP Paribas went to elaborate lengths to conceal prohibited transactions, cover its tracks and deceive U.S. authorities," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "These actions represent a serious breach of U.S. law."
A lawyer for BNP briefly appeared in New York state court on Monday and pleaded guilty to one count of falsifying business records and one count of conspiracy.
BNP’s plea represents the first such criminal admission of guilt from a major bank in more than two decades.
Assistant District Attorney Ted Starishevsky said the bank engaged in a "long-term, multi-jurisdictional conspiracy" to violate sanctions laws by facilitating transactions involving Sudan, Cuba and Iran.
"This conduct, this conspiracy was known and condoned at the highest levels of BNP," Starishevsky said.
The bank's general counsel, Georges Dirani, told the judge that BNP took steps to evade sanctions between 2004 and 2012 that the United States imposed on Sudan, Cuba and Iran.
U.S. authorities have been examining whether BNP Paribas evaded U.S. sanctions, in part by stripping identifying information from wire transfers so they could pass through the U.S. financial system without raising red flags.
BNP Paribas is also likely to be suspended from making dollar payments on behalf of clients in some businesses for as long as a year, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters, an untested and potentially severe penalty for the French bank.
The New York State Department of Financial Services, headed by Benjamin Lawsky, had proposed the ban as one condition for not revoking BNP's license to operate in New York.
The French economy minister, Michel Sapin, last week asked the Justice Department to be "fair and proportionate" in deciding on the potential penalty. President Francois Hollande wrote to the Obama administration in April asking for a "reasonable" solution.
Washington and New York prosecutors have in recent months held meetings with regulators aimed at figuring out a way to bring criminal charges against so-called too-big-to-fail banks without damaging the economy or putting the banks out of business, lawyers briefed on the matter have reportedly told The New York Times in April.
Al Jazeera and wire services