Benjamin Lawsky: The Man Who Picked a Fight With Wall Street


Project Gazelle was a banker’s dream. It was quiet, discreet, and made staggering piles of money catering to clients no one else would touch. The fact that it was also illegal didn’t seem to matter much. Bankers at Standard Chartered felt confident no one would notice what they were doing. And even if somebody did, history said the punishment would be a delicate slap on the wrist.

The bank was a stodgy old colonial holdover with a massive headquarters in London. It did a lot of business in Asia, clearing billions each year in profit. Sometime around 2001, the higher-ups spotted yet another place to make a buck: Iran.

The Iranian government (as well as a few private corporations) wanted to get its money out of government-run banks and into England and the Middle East. Standard was happy to help with a series of wire transfers that snaked the funds through multiple countries and, ultimately, safely abroad.

The scheme worked like a charm—with only one small snag: The transactions had to pass through the bank’s New York offices to be converted into dollars.

At the time, such maneuvering was legal, as long as banks vetted the deals for suspicious signs. But the U.S. government believed Iran was laundering its money to finance its nuclear weapons program. So Standard—which was also transferring cash for rogue states like Libya, Sudan, and Burma—took pains to cloak any hint of suspicion.

Bank executives gave employees detailed instructions on how to pull notes from their records to hide the involvement of off-limits nations, a process known as “repair.” An internal memo warned that the repair plan “MUST NOT be sent to the U.S.” Between 2001 and 2007, the bank moved $250 billion through America under this system.

Repair, of course, was illegal. In law-enforcement circles, it’s called “stripping,” and the U.S. Justice Department had already fined five other banks more than $2 billion for doing the same thing.

That left Standard’s stateside executives increasingly nervous. In 2006, Ray Ferguson, then head of Standard Chartered Americas, warned the home office in a memo that doing business with Iran could subject them all “to personal reputational damages and/or serious criminal liability.”

Standard’s finance director, Richard Meddings, had a terse reply to that one, which would soon be splashed across the pages of newspapers in both countries.

“You fucking Americans,” he wrote back. “Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?”

The transfers continued.

At some point the feds caught wind of the scheme, launching an investigation into Standard’s offices in New York, London, and Dubai. The bank disclosed this, in a way, in its 2010, 2011, and 2012 annual reports, writing that it was voluntarily reviewing its “historical compliance” with U.S. law.

Yet Standard had the good fortune of being caught during the bank-friendly Obama presidency. Despite taking office as the financial industry imploded, Attorney General Eric Holder began ramping down prosecutions for bank crimes. A new pattern emerged: The feds would conduct long, meandering investigations that ended with polite fines and no admission of wrongdoing. Standard seemed destined to be handled with the same kid gloves.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one man at one obscure government agency got impatient.

In August of last year, the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) blew the lid off Project Gazelle, issuing a complaint that charged Standard with moving billions for Iranian clients, “dealings that indisputably helped sustain a global threat to peace and stability.”

These were the words of a plainly seething Benjamin Lawsky, DFS’s superintendent.

The rest of the report was similarly furious. “For almost 10 years,” Lawsky wrote, “SCB schemed with the government of Iran and hid from regulators roughly 60,000 secret transactions, involving at least $250 billion, and reaping SCB hundreds of millions of dollars in fees. SCB’s actions left the U.S. financial system vulnerable to terrorists, weapons dealers, drug kingpins, and corrupt regimes, and deprived law enforcement investigators of crucial information used to track all manner of criminal activity.”

Lawsky wanted to know why he shouldn’t pull Standard’s license to operate in New York—a move that would cost the bank billions. The financial world erupted in chatter.

From a sleepy federal investigation that was going nowhere fast to punishment that threatened Standard’s very existence, it was clear there was a new sheriff in town.

But who the hell was Benjamin Lawsky?

At first, no one—not the feds who’d been overshadowed by Lawsky, not Standard itself—knew quite how to take the state bureaucrat’s charges (and probably a few of them were busy Googling his name). The bank was baffled and angry. The feds were, according to multiple reports, embarrassed and irritated at being outflanked. Internal memos at the Treasury Department revealed that Lawsky had informed the agency of his intentions only “hours before” announcing the charges publicly.

The blowback was nasty. Standard rejected Lawsky’s “portrayal of facts,” conceding that it had transferred money illegally—but only $14 million.

Next came the implication that Lawsky’s move was some sort of anti-British conspiracy designed to cripple London and favor New York. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, the United Kingdom’s central financial institution, implied that Lawsky had gone rogue. A columnist for the Financial Times accused Lawsky of burnishing his political prospects, ignoring the fact that his target, a gubernatorial appointee, wasn’t running for anything.

“In the strange political climate of the U.S., anyone who stands up to Iran is a hero,” wrote economist Kishore Mahbubani.

London Mayor Boris Johnson chimed in, writing in the Telegraph that Lawsky had been “motivated by jealousy” and “a simple desire to knock a rival centre”—yet another example of the U.S. being “high-handed in her treatment of other nations.”

Underneath the faux outrage, the real shock was that a bank—any bank at all—might be subjected to a serious punishment.

Though Congress passed Dodd-Frank, landmark legislation designed to rein in big banks and loosen their chokehold on the U.S. economy, more than three years ago, most of the bill has never been implemented.

So bankers have been partying as usual, laundering funds for terrorists, drug traffickers, and repressive regimes (HSBC, Standard Chartered); price-gouging on necessities like electricity and aluminum (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs); investing other people’s pension money in doomed-to-fail ventures (Bank of America, several times); and charging illegal overdraft fees (nearly every large bank in the country).

And the U.S. continued to handle institutional financial crimes the way it always had: by politely ignoring them, or, at worst, by charging the offender a penalty that typically amounted to just a few days’ worth of revenue (what the feds always describe as “historic” fines).

Take JPMorgan Chase, which has been fined or sued at least 10 times between 2011 and 2013. It paid $5.29 billion for its share of the subprime mortgage crisis; almost $300 million for misleading investors about shaky mortgage-backed securities; $150 million to pension funds whose money it invested in a risky “structured investment vehicle.” And that’s just a snapshot of a 10-month period last year. Financial analyst Joshua Rosner estimates that since 2009, JPMorgan’s “litigation expenses” have amounted to about $16 billion. (The figure inched up in July, when the bank was fined $410 million for manipulating electricity prices in California and the Midwest.)

Or take HSBC, which for years did a brisk business laundering money for Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. Despite the nation’s reputation as a cartel kind of place, HSBC deemed Mexico a “standard” risk for money-laundering, meaning that all wire transfers to and from the country, no matter how large or frequent, were allowed to proceed without any internal review.

The Treasury Department found that hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money flowed through HSBC branches in the United States and Mexico. Drug traffickers deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in cash at single branches, using boxes designed to fit precisely through HSBC’s bank windows.

Bart Naylor, a financial policy advocate for Public Citizen, a consumer group that for years has begged the feds to take a harder line on bank crimes, says financial crime doesn’t just hurt the economy; it deeply affects the lives of ordinary people.

“That teenage girl you knew in high school that became an addict to crack cocaine? That was made possible by HSBC and Standard Chartered taking money-laundering as unseriously as they did,” says Naylor. “Shut off money-laundering, you can go a long way toward solving the drug problem and the subsequent gun violence.”

The feds, Naylor asserts, have responded with “candy-ass deferred prosecution agreements,” in which bankers accept no responsibility and no one goes to jail.

“I call it the immaculate-conception theory of a crime,” Naylor says. “A crime was committed, but by no person and no corporation.”

In a March appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Holder admitted as much, saying that some banks have become “so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them,” especially because a criminal charge would have “a negative impact on the national economy.”

Standard knew that in Benjamin Lawsky it faced a different adversary. A day before a scheduled hearing on whether its New York license would be revoked, the bank settled, paying a $340 million fine to DFS.

The feds followed with their own sanctions months later, fining Standard $100 million and forcing it to forfeit $227 million more, punishment for “illegally moving millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of sanctioned Iranian, Sudanese, Libyan, and Burmese entities.” According to the New York Times, the Justice Department, having concluded that the bank had broken no laws, had been on the verge of letting Standard completely off the hook before Lawsky intervened.

True, Lawsky had only managed a fine. But the settlement also forced Standard to install a monitor for two years to watch out for money-laundering violations, and hire permanent monitors to audit “internal procedures.”

Lawsky’s critics lapsed into a sulky silence. “The industry is not happy with how Ben went after Standard Chartered,” says Neil Barofsky, a former federal regulator who oversaw the controversial bank-bailout program. He and Lawsky worked together as prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.

“He didn’t follow the playbook: a lengthy internal investigation where you accept all the bank’s arguments, then settle for pennies on the dollar,” Barofsky says. “Ben said, ‘This is egregious conduct, I’m going to take your license.'”

But the costs of that threat—not to mention stealing the feds’ thunder—were clear. “When you do something like that, you’re going to piss off everyone,” Barofsky adds. “You’re going to upset the bankers, because the advantageous status quo is being disrupted. You’ll upset the regulators because they’re being exposed as not doing their jobs, taking the easy road out, or a road that’s acceptable to the banks, or helpful when officials want to take a spin through the revolving door.” (That is, when federal regulators leave their government jobs for cushy bank jobs, a phenomenon several investigations have concluded is especially common at the Securities and Exchange Commission.)

Though Lawsky didn’t end up taking Standard’s license, the fact that he threatened to was something new and terrifying for the banks.

“This industry is so cosseted, no one’s even suggested that before,” Naylor says. “We are so captured by the banking industry, we don’t even know it.”

If the Standard affair was equivalent to DFS lobbing a grenade into a tea party, the department’s founding was a bit like setting off a stink bomb in the middle of a landfill. No one really noticed.

DFS’s backstory is deadly dull, full of phrases like “fiduciary power” that tend to make eyes glaze over. Briefly, it goes like this: Once upon a time, before there was a Department of Financial Services, New York had a Banking Department and an Insurance Department, both of them hundreds of years old. In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed a law jamming the two together. That May, Ben Lawsky, who had briefly served as Cuomo’s chief of staff (as well as several other positions in his cabinet), was appointed superintendent of DFS.

Although DFS oversees banking and insurance, performs investigations, and metes out fines, it can’t put people in jail. That was a change for Lawsky, who got his start as an aide to Senator Chuck Schumer on the Judiciary Committee, and as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice. His formative job, though, was that prosecutor’s spot in the Southern District, where he developed skills that made him uniquely equipped to take on banks.

“One of the things you learn is to question everything,” Barofsky says. “Things have to be proven to you, and [you can’t] be fearful of authority or others.” (Barofsky learned the same skill set. After resigning from the bailout program, he became one of the financial system’s greatest critics, calling it a “gaping chest wound.”)

DFS started small, with a series of mundane moves throughout 2011: warning New Yorkers to watch out for home-repair scams in the wake of Hurricane Irene, announcing it would crack down on workers’ compensation fraud, and investigating sketchy doctors for fraud.

Lawsky played nice with the banks at first, opting for persuasion over force. When Ocwen Financial Corporation wanted to buy a mortgage company owned by Goldman Sachs, Lawsky said the deal could go through only if Ocwen forgave some of the money owed by homeowners facing foreclosure, people who were 60 days delinquent on their loan payments. Goldman and Ocwen agreed.

But last year, with the sudden announcement of the Standard investigation, the tone shifted perceptibly, and the targets became more numerous: not just banks, but also predatory payday lenders and abusive debt collectors.

This year, Lawsky hammered three insurance companies—Narragansett Bay, Tower, and Kingstone—after they failed to process homeowners’ claims in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. So began an astonishing show of force for a tiny state agency with only 40 full-time investigators.

“He’s done an outstanding job,” says Michael Greenberger, a former regulator with the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Greenberger is now a professor at the University of Maryland’s law school—when he’s not testifying before Congressional committees on “dysfunctions” in the country’s financial markets. “He’s has taken this financial-division department and really made some wondrous thing out of it, including making the federal government look like they don’t know what they’re doing.”

A year after settling with Standard, Lawsky wasn’t quite done with the bank. This June, DFS went after Deloitte, one of the nation’s largest corporate auditors. Deloitte was supposed to be monitoring Standard for shenanigans. Instead, DFS charged, it was in cahoots with the bank, watering down reports and removing recommendations on how to prevent money laundering.

“At times, the consulting industry has been infected by an ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ culture and a stunning lack of independence,” Lawsky said in a press release announcing his assault. “Today, we are taking an important step in helping ensure that consultants are independent voices—rather than beholden to the large institutions that pay their fees.”

Deloitte agreed to a $10 million fine, relatively small potatoes. But there was a bigger hit in store: It agreed to a one-year ban on consulting for New York banks, a devastating timeout that forced the auditor to forgo some huge contracts.

Two days later, DFS lit up the Bank of Tokyo–Mitsubishi UFJ for laundering money for Iran and Burma. The department accused the bank of conducting about $100 billion worth of illegal transactions, fining it $250 million. A year earlier, the Treasury Department had negotiated a mere $8.5 million settlement in its own case.

“Terrorism needs money to survive,” Lawsky told the New York Post. “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure banks don’t facilitate the flow of funds that could be used by terrorists and enemy nations.”

It was a good summer at DFS. But as the heads have piled up, Lawsky has gotten skittish about talking to the press. Almost every press release issued by DFS credits Governor Cuomo first. Lawsky isn’t usually mentioned until the third or fourth paragraph.

Where he once gave expansive interviews in his office on State Street, posing for photographs behind his giant, shiny desk, securing an interview with Lawsky these days involves weeks of chasing and a little party-crashing. The Voice only managed to reach him by dropping in on a midsummer talk he gave at the Yale Club.

That morning, Lawsky spoke to a crowd of financial journalists and industry types in a place so lush, white, and hushed, it feels like being inside a roll of expensive toilet paper. When Lawsky told the crowd that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wall Street–basher-in-chief, was “brilliant” and “someone worth listening to,” the silence was profound.

Afterward, Lawsky briefly spent time taking reporters’ questions and pressing the flesh. In person, the 43-year-old civil servant is almost comically clean-cut, the type of man you imagine stepping out of the shower completely dry, clad in a suit and polished wingtips. He doesn’t deny he has been hard to reach the past few months.

“I’m shy,” he says, chortling dryly at his own joke before quickly turning serious. “No. I think that—you know, I don’t think DFS should be about a cult of personality. I don’t want it to be about any one person.”

He comes off distinctly unpolitician-like; he doesn’t try to deflect conversation about hostilities between himself and federal regulators and doesn’t seem to have a canned, sunny answer about it. These days, he says flatly, the relationship between DFS and the feds is “fine.”

True, “We shook things up with Standard Chartered. We said, ‘We think this should be done in a different way.’ But I think since then things have settled down.”

Tensions between regulators are to be expected, Lawsky says. “But in a healthy competition, everyone is sorta pushing each other to do more and be a better regulator. And that’s much better than the alternative, which is unhealthy competition, where it’s who can be the lightest-touch regulator. Then you have standards moving downward.”

Art Wilmarth, a law professor at George Washington University and a student of federal-versus-state regulator strife, says there’s a history of the feds resenting the more aggressive actions of states like New York. Lawsky may be smart to keep his head down, out of the line of fire.

“The best he can hope to do is embarrass his federal colleagues so they sort of have to fall into line,” Wilmarth suggests. “Eliot Spitzer did that for two or three years in the early 2000s. And there’s no question he paid a price. I think he picked up a lot of enemies on Wall Street.”

If it’s tough to pin down Lawsky for an interview, it’s nearly impossible to get the financial industry to speak his name—at least not on the record.

Told that a background conversation would have to be paired with an on-the-record statement for this story, Deloitte spokesman Jonathan Gandal countered by agreeing only to “fact-check” the article and “consider” submitting a statement for publication. (Deloitte did not provide the latter.)

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, one of Wall Street’s largest trade groups, also declined to comment.

Following numerous requests over the course of several weeks, the New York Bankers Association relayed a one-paragraph statement calling Lawsky “diligent” and adding that he “maintains an open door policy, and always listens to our concerns.” Several other banking associations and trade groups didn’t reply to multiple interview requests.

“We don’t discuss our regulators publicly and we’re still under a consent order,” says Julie Gibson, a spokeswoman for Standard Chartered. When pressed, she adds, “They’ve got all the cards. It’s not a relationship of equals. If you make them mad, then, you know . . .”

She opts not to finish that thought.

As he stood in the Yale Club’s overstuffed ballroom, Lawsky had to be aware of his new position: feared and loathed in some corners, respected in others, but very closely watched. He has the capacity now to make people nervous, as he clearly did during his speech when he mentioned that DFS was about to turn its attention to the state’s pension funds.

“Our predecessor agency did somewhat limited reviews and published them rarely,” he said. “We’re going to change that and significantly step up the scrutiny.”

The comment generated a flurry of news reports; one Capital New York reporter immediately tweeted that Lawsky’s words were “a warning shot.”

The same thing happened in early August, when DFS announced it would look into Bitcoin, the online currency that’s basically unregulated in the offline world. When DFS homes in on a target these days, people listen.

But Lawsky also seems uncharacteristically nervous about coming across as “anti–Wall Street,” taking pains during the Yale Club event to make it clear he’s as pro-business as anybody.

“I think taking real, appropriate, and sometimes tough action is not anti-business. It’s pro-business because it protects our system, keeps up consumer confidence and ultimately helps prevent another meltdown,” he told the crowd.

Yet his agency is essentially fighting a guerrilla war: running out of the jungle, picking off the targets it can reach, then retreating. It’s outmanned by a financial system—an entire economy—that’s been bent and twisted to serve the needs of the insurance and finance industries, with enthusiastic help from politicians who rely on donations from those sectors and regulators seeking lucrative landing spots at these firms someday. From this angle, Lawsky’s job starts to look like a morbidly depressing game of Whac-A-Mole.

Lawsky refuses to see it that way, though he does cop to feeling a little sad on occasion.

“I’ll tell ya, I was a little depressed reading the papers this morning,” he says, drumming at the Yale Club’s white tablecloth. The New York Times had just produced a riveting story about Goldman Sachs manipulating the price of aluminum, while electricity price-gouging allegations had been leveled at JPMorgan.

“It makes you wonder how much progress we’re making,” he muses.

That said, he has no desire for his office to wield the hammer of criminal prosecution. “I know what it is to have that power, that very heavy burden, to put people in jail,” Lawsky says. “And if you make a mistake, it’s a very big deal to get it wrong. As I said, I’m very aware of the powers that DFS has. They’re extraordinary powers, and we try to wield them humbly and carefully. So I don’t sit around and say I wish I had the power to put people in jail. That’s other people. That’s the job of the attorney general of the United States. We have a lot of criminal prosecutors who have a lot of power and a lot of resources and a lot of people.”

Yet Attorney General Holder isn’t using those powers, and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will. Last month, the big buzz in the financial world was over the impending arrests of two former JPMorgan traders who allegedly tried to hide $6 billion in lost trades. It’s the closest thing America gets to real punishment on Wall Street: two guys, nowhere near the top of the bank hierarchy, who may or may not actually go to prison. (One of the traders, Javier Martin-Arajo, was finally arrested in Spain at the end of August; he’s currently fighting extradition to the U.S. The other, Julien Grout, is in his native France, which historically has been reluctant to ship off its citizens to the U.S.; his lawyer told the press his client “has not yet decided” whether he’ll return to face charges.)

Barofsky is still betting on Lawsky. He says the culture of Wall Street can be changed, but only with fines so large and punishments so strict that banks and insurers simply have no choice but to take them seriously.

“The banks didn’t get this type of political and economic power overnight,” he says. “They spent decades amassing it. You’re not going to just snap your fingers and undo the status quo like that. It’s a grind.”

People like Lawsky and Elizabeth Warren, Barofsky says, “are making incremental success. That’s good. I’m extraordinarily confident that we’ll get past this era of bank dominance and universal banks. Hopefully it’s before the next crisis. It’s an unsustainable model, so one way or another it’s going to go down. It’s just a question of whether we’ll be smart enough to do it before we repeat what we did in 2008, only perhaps on a larger scale. And the best way to avoid repeating it is with regulators like Ben Lawsky.”

Lawsky is more modest. “We’re trying to make reforms that make the system better. Are we gonna fix every problem out there? No; I’m not self-delusional enough to think that the world will become a great place. And, look, in every society there are good apples and bad apples. And I think sometimes the problems are just the result of bad apples, and we’re always gonna have some bad apples.”

Adds the lone-wolf regulator: “I’m hopeful.” He says it with evident sincerity. “I’m a hopeful person.”