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Another use for hashtags: to hide money transfers to sanctioned states

  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm which assures investors and regulators alike that businesses’ books are on the up-and-up, will pay a $25-million fine and be barred from certain work with Wall Street banks for two years after misleading regulators, the New York Times reports.

The firm was hired by a major Japanese bank, Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, to examine its procedures for transferring money and reassure regulators that they don’t violate US economic sanctions on countries such as Iran and Sudan. But the report produced by PwC and submitted to the government glossed over procedures designed to hide how the bank was helping its clients avoid the rules, even instituting a policy of stripping Iranian names out of transaction records. The report was changed after bank executives objected to a previous version of the document.

AP Photo/Erik Schelzig
Not where you want to see your accountant.

One of the strangest changes between the original draft and the final draft concerned the bank’s methods to avoid the flagging of potentially suspicious transactions. PwC uses uses software to pore over bank records, but when the bank prepared its records for scrutiny, hashtags and other characters were inserted into the text, resulting in notations like “#Sudan” instead of “Sudan.” Those modified terms would not be picked up by PwC’s software, and while this problem was noted in PwC’s draft report, the warning was excised by the time the final version was sent to regulators.

Firms like PwC, including competitors Deloitte and Promontory, are often expected to act objectively, but the conflict of interests are apparent—they rely on the banks they scrutinize for the majority of their business. Deloitte was caught in a similarly compromising position after it removed incriminating references from an audit conducted on behalf of Standard Charter’s troubled international transactions business.

While the fine and the prohibition from consulting will mean less revenue for the influential global partnership, PwC’s real loss here is prestige: The company essentially sells its reputation for sternly crossing t’s and dotting i’s, and suggestions of laxity—or an outright cover-up—could make that product less valuable.

Update (8/26): PwC’s US advisory leader Miles Everson sends along the following statement after his firm was fined $25 million and banned from Wall Street consulting for two years after removing key information from a report to financial regulators:

This matter relates to a single engagement completed more than six years ago in which PwC searched for and identified relevant transactions that were self-reported to regulators by PwC’s client. PwC’s detailed report also disclosed the relevant facts that PwC learned subsequent to its search process.
PwC is proud of its long history of contributing to the safety and soundness of the financial system by serving as subject matter experts in banking regulatory and compliance matters and the firm is committed to improving continuously and meeting changes in regulatory expectations. This resolution reinforces that commitment.

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