|Photo Credit: Sara Harris|
The seedy strip mall with the potholed parking lot.
The dimly lit warehouse, weeds proliferating out front.
The restaurant that stays open even though no one eats there—and always seems to have a lot of guys with crooked noses coming in and out.
In the popular imagination, these are the places we think of when someone says the words “money laundering.”
In reality, chances are excellent the most notorious money launderer in your neighborhood is the gleaming, solidly constructed, scrupulously landscaped office of a large, international bank.
My latest standalone thriller, The Last Act, is inspired by the malfeasance of one such financial institution.
The action of the novel centers around Tommy Jump, an out-of-work actor who is approached by the FBI and offered the role of a lifetime: He must go to prison and befriend a disgraced former banker who knows the location of documents related to money laundering that can be used to bring down a ruthless Mexican drug cartel.
It’s all loosely based on the real-life case of Wachovia. During the mid-2000s—when, coincidentally, I was a Wachovia customer—the bank had a relationship with currency exchange houses in Mexico wherein anyone could walk in off the street with a wad of cash and, for a small fee, change it into American greenbacks that were then shunted into an account at Wachovia.
It was practically an invitation to launder money and according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, several Mexican drug cartels happily availed themselves of it.
The DEA discovered this arrangement after it had already been bumping along for a few years, and only when Mexican authorities seized a DC-9 plane, owned by the Sinaloa cartel, that was laden with $100 million worth of cocaine. The DEA started following the money—how did a criminal syndicate manage to buy a commercial airliner?— and soon found Sinaloa had done it the same way I was buying my breakfast cereal at the time.
With an account from Wachovia.
Wachovia, which has since been taken over by Wells Fargo, later agreed to pay a $160 million fine for failing to apply proper anti-money laundering controls on $378 billion worth of transfers between itself and the currency exchange houses.
Let’s write that again: $378 billion. As in more than a third of a trillion dollars.
A lot of it was surely legitimate guest workers sending money back to their families, that sort of thing. But some of it? Apparently not so much.
And Wachovia is far from alone. Not long after its malfeasance was uncovered, UK-based HSBC paid a $1.9 billion fine for its role in laundering drug money. French-based BNP-Paribas and, most recently, Dutch-based Danske Bank had also paid huge fines.
It turns out criminals today are just like everyone else: They want to be able to move their money easily, with the touch of a button. And they have found willing partners in these banks, which collect large fees for their services as they remain willfully blind about the griminess of the money they’re handling.
Oh, sure, the banks say they have cleaned up their acts. But I can almost guarantee that even if they have, some other bank out there hasn’t.
Why? Because as of this writing—after having laundered many untold billions of dollars for these criminal syndicates—not a single executive from any of these banks has served so much as a day in prison.
They haven’t even faced criminal charges.
All of the banks have received what is known as a deferred prosecution agreement. Basically, it’s the government slapping them on the wrist and saying, “Now you cut this out! Or else!”
That’s where my novel—in which the banker gets tossed in jail—diverges from reality.
Because otherwise who could believe anything so preposterous?
The Last Act by Brad Parks
Former Broadway star Tommy Jump isn’t getting the roles he once did. As his final run as Sancho Ponza draws to a close, Tommy is getting ready to give up the stage, find a steady paycheck, and settle down with his fiancée. Cue Special Agent Danny Ruiz. An old school friend of Tommy’s, now with the FBI, Ruiz makes Tommy an offer that sounds too good to refuse. All Tommy has to do is spend six months in prison, acting as failed bank robber ’Pete Goodrich’. Inside, he must find and befriend Mitchell Dupree, who has hidden a secret cache of documents incriminating enough to take down New Colima, one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. If Tommy can get Dupree and reveal where the documents are hidden, the FBI will give him $300,000, more than enough to jumpstart a new life. But does he have what it takes to pull off this one final role?
International bestseller Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His UK debut, Say Nothing, was Sunday TimesThriller of the Month. The Last Actreleases from Faber & Faber on March 12. For more, visit www.BradParksBooks.com.