NEW DELHI: An undercover investigation across India has shown up startling videos of bank executives of three leading private banks – HDFC, ICICI and Axis – providing ready assistance to a reporter, posing as a minister’s aide, for laundering black money into white through the banking system in clear contravention of banking norms and laws.
Shaken by the disclosure, the three banks asserted that they were committed to transparent and lawful banking norms, while saying that they have instituted inquiries into the allegations. Finance minister P Chidambaram told the media that he had spoken to the chairman of two banks (the third, he said, was abroad). He added government wasn’t jumping to conclusions of the basis of the disclosure.
The investigative website, Cobrapost, claimed on Thursday at a press conference here that it has collected hundreds of hours of secret video recording showing bank executives suggesting through various ways in the banking system, to launder money. It uploaded at least 45 tale-tell videos on its website and claimed these were of bankers in various cities, including Delhi, Kolkota, Mumbai, Chennai, Jaipur and Hyderabad.
Among the methods of laundering offered by executive on camera was insurance, where big-amount premium payments don’t have to be reported by banks. The executives shown also suggest that the reporter posing as a high networth client deposit his cash in several smaller amounts to evade the attention of tax sleuths. Requirements like PAN card number and other KYC requirements are also offered to be short-circuited. Bank executives were also shown offering large lockers to stash huge amounts of cash (bank lockers can’t be used for storing cash, according to the law.)
The website claimed that, given the number of bank executives who offered to launder money, it seemed this was a common practice in private banks for access to cheap deposits and added that the scale indicated that the top management of the banks could not be completely ignorant of the malpractices.
“Our investigation, conducted across dozens and dozens of branches of these banks and their insurance affiliates, across all five zones of the country, revealed…that these money laundering practices are part of a standard set of procedures within these banks,” the site said in a statement.
“We talk about people stashing ill-gotten money in tax havens like Switzerland. But the fact is Switzerlands are here in India,” it said. The investigation showed that the money laundering services are “being openly offered to even walk-in customers who wish to launder their illicit money,” he said.
“The evidence is graphic, crystal-clear and clinching,” the site said. “The investigation finds the banks and their managements systematically and deliberately violating several provisions of the Income Tax Act, FEMA, RBI regulations, KYC norms, the Banking Act and Prevention of Money laundering Act (PMLA) with utter disregard to consequences, driven by their desire to boost cheap deposits and thereby increasing their profits,” the site said.
The investigation, code named Red Spider, was conducted across India and showed executives of these banks offering various options to wash black money into the banking system. In one instance, an ICICI manager offered to give the politician’s henchman an NRI account if he had a passport showing at least a travel abroad.
Another video that purported to be that of a HDFC bank manager in Delhi showed the executive telling the reporter: “HDFC baitha hi hua hai black money khane ke liye (HDFC is here to eat up all the black money).” The site said ways suggested to transform the black money into white were “both imaginative in their range and brazen in their approach.”
The bank officers were also shown offering to invest large amounts of cash in insurance products and gold, or to route the cash into various investment schemes of the bank. The officers suggested that the money be split into tranches to get it into the banking system without being detected, and many also suggested using “benami” accounts to facilitate the conversion. For a fee, some executives even offered to use accounts of other customers to channelize the black money into the system.
Some of these bank executives suggested that the black money be used to get demand drafts either from their own banks or from other banks to facilitate investment without it showing up in the client’s account. They also suggested they can open and close multiple accounts at will to facilitate the investment of black money.