Dirty money needs laundering if it’s to be of any use – and the UK is the best place in the world to do it.
By Oliver Bullough and cross-posted from The Guardian
Kleptocrats, fraudsters and crooks steal hundreds of billions of pounds, dollars and euros from the rest of us every year, but that gives them a problem: how can they stop the rest of us knowing what they’ve done with the proceeds? They have to stop their haul looking suspicious, to cleanse it of any criminal taint, or face losing their hard-stolen cash.
Money laundering, as this process is known, is notoriously difficult to uncover, investigate and prosecute. Occasionally, however, an insider breaks cover – someone such as Howard Wilkinson, who blew the whistle on perhaps the largest money-laundering scheme in history, the movement of €200bn of suspect funds through the Estonian branch of Denmark’s biggest bank between 2007 and 2015, most of it earned in the dodgier corners of the former Soviet Union, some perhaps belonging to Vladimir Putin himself.
“No one really knows where this money went,” Wilkinson, a former Danske Bank employee, told Denmark’s parliament last year. Once the money had got into the global financial system, “it was clean, it was free.”
Britain’s most famous money launderer is HSBC, thanks to its systematic cleansing of the earnings of the Latin American drug cartels over the second half of the last decade, for which it was fined $1.9bn by the US government in 2012. But that was a tiny operation compared to the Danske Bank scandal. If gathered together, the suspect funds moved through the bank’s Estonian outpost could buy HSBC, with more than enough left over to buy Danske Bank too.
The scandal has been big news in Denmark and Estonia, but barely grazed public consciousness in the UK. This is strange, because Britain played a key role. All of the owners of the bank accounts that first aroused Wilkinson’s suspicions had their identity hidden behind corporate structures registered in the UK – including Lantana Trade LLP, the one that may have been connected to Putin. That means this is not just a Russian, Estonian or Danish scandal, but something far closer to home. In November, Wilkinson told a European parliament committee that the countries hosting these companies are just as culpable. “Worst of all is the United Kingdom,” he said. “The United Kingdom is an absolute disgrace.”…