A Lebanese bank with links to Canada is being accused by U.S. law enforcement agencies of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars every month for an international drug ring with ties to Hezbollah.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Treasury alleged Thursday that the Lebanese Canadian Bank SAL, with 35 branches in Lebanon and an office in Montreal, has been "facilitating the money-laundering activities of an international narcotics-trafficking and money-laundering network."
The DEA alleges the network moves illegal drugs from South America to Europe and to the Middle East via Africa and launders hundreds of millions of dollars monthly through accounts at the bank.
The bank has been charged under the U.S. Patriot Act. It's the first time Treasury officials have used the Patriot Act since it targeted a North Korean Bank six years ago.
U.S. officials also say Lebanese-based militant organization Hezbollah has links to both the Lebanese Canadian Bank and the international narcotics ring.
The Beirut-based bank launders the money via consumer goods around the world, including used-car dealerships in the United States, the DEA alleges.
"The Lebanese Canadian Bank for years has participated in a sophisticated money-laundering scheme involving used cars purchased in the United States and consumer goods overseas," the DEA's Michele Leonhard said in a news release.
No Canadian concerns
The DEA says its concerns are not connected to any activity in Canada.
In an email exchange, the DEA's Lawrence Payne told CBC the allegations have absolutely no relation to any of the bank's Canadian operations.
"It's all Lebanon. Nothing to do with Canada despite bank's name and a small Montreal branch," said Payne.
The bank's Canadian representative, Bechara Moussa, invited a Canadian Press reporter into his downtown office on the 15th floor of Place Ville Marie, a prestigious office tower in the heart of Montreal.
"I have nothing to tell you ... all I can say is I will transmit this information to my supervisors and certainly when they will be aware of it, they will certainly issue a statement," Moussa said.
"The bank has nothing to hide because already there have been rumours in this sense in the past and everything has been refuted .... It's not new."
Moussa said he is a Canadian citizen and has been working in his current job since 2009.
The Treasury Department was reportedly moving Thursday to cut off the bank's access to U.S. financial markets. Treasury officials have the power under the Patriot Act to require U.S. financial institutions to end any dealings with any other banks suspected of money-laundering.
"This action seeks to protect the U.S. financial system from the illicit proceeds flowing through LCB and to deprive this international narcotics trafficking and money laundering network of its preferred access point into the formal financial system," said Stuart Levey, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
"Any financial institution that collaborates in illicit conduct on this scale risks losing its access to the United States."
As of 2009, the bank had assets of more than $5 billion, officials said.
U.S. Treasury and DEA officials attributed the bank's involvement in the money laundering to a failure to control vulnerable transactions, including cash deposits and cross-border wire transfers, and lack of due diligence on high-risk customers such as currency exchange houses.