'World's most important bank' sold after months of scandal

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The Independent US

"The most important bank in the most important city in the world" was the boast of Riggs Bank, pillar of an old-line Washington establishment and banker of choice to the dozens of foreign embassies at the court of the global superpower.

"The most important bank in the most important city in the world" was the boast of Riggs Bank, pillar of an old-line Washington establishment and banker of choice to the dozens of foreign embassies at the court of the global superpower.

Yesterday, 168 years of independence came to an undignified end as Riggs was sold off to a financial group based in Pittsburgh. The sale capped the worst two months in the bank's long history, marked by a record fine for money laundering offences, accusations that it hid money for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and a growing scandal at its embassy banking division, featuring Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea.

This week a Senate subcommittee drew an astonishing picture of how Riggs turned into an offshore state treasury for President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, widely accused of running one of the most corrupt and brutal regimes on earth.

On at least two occasions between 2000 and 2002, the report by the Senate sub-committee for investigations charged, a Riggs employee went to the country's embassy to pick up suitcases stuffed with up to $3m (£1.6m) in $100 bills, in plastic-wrapped bundles. The employee took the cash into a Riggs branch in Washington, and deposited it into an account held by a company in the Bahamas controlled by Mr Nguema.

Over the years vast sums passed through another Riggs account which Equatorial Guinea set up after oil was discovered in the country a decade ago. The money was paid in by US oil companies. At one point $700m was in this "oil account", the largest of more than 60 at the bank held by the impoverished country and its ministers and their families. Mr Nguema himself is said to have siphoned off $11m or more for his personal use.

Two months earlier Riggs was fined $25m for "wilful and systemic" violations of federal laws, over its reporting of cash transactions in Saudi embassy accounts, that have been under investigation for possible links to terrorist financing.

The Saudi embassy, one of the largest in the capital, insists that its 150 accounts have always been perfectly regular. Nor have any criminal charges been brought against Riggs employees. But the bank's dealings with both Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea are still being investigated by a grand jury and other Congressional and federal investigators.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, called the affair "a sordid story of a bank with a prestigious name, that blatantly ignored its obligations under our money-laundering laws".

Separately, the Congressional panel has accused Riggs of helping hide up to $8m of assets held by General Pinochet, including transactions while he was under indictment for human rights crimes in 1998-99, when his financial assets were supposed to be frozen. General Pinochet's family have denied the charges. But the Chilean government promises to investigate the matter. If confirmed, the dealings could bring further legal trouble for Riggs.

In public testimony this week, Ashley Lee, a former federal bank examiner who supervised Riggs between 1998 and 2002, denied that he had told his subordinates to exclude documents relating to the Pinochet dealings from a regulatory data base. After retiring from public service, Mr Lee joined Riggs as an executive vice-president.

In the end, Riggs closed the scandal-plagued embassy division. Earlier this year it hired outside advisers to look for possible takeover buyers for a bank which, for all its misfortunes, remains the largest in the Washington area, with $6bn of assets. Yesterday those efforts bore fruit with a deal selling Riggs to PNC Financial Services Group. The transaction values Riggs at $779m - by co-incidence or otherwise about same amount as coursed through Equatorial Guinea's "oil account" in its heyday.

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