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US attorney general says banks may face criminal cases soon

The U.S. Justice Department is pursuing criminal investigations of financial institutions that could result in action in the coming weeks and months, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a video, adding that no company was "too big to jail.''

The comments, made in a video posted on the Justice Department's website on Monday, came as federal prosecutors push two banks, BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse, to plead guilty to criminal charges to resolve investigations into sanctions and tax violations, respectively, according to people familiar with the probes.

While Holder did not name any banks, he said he is personally monitoring the ongoing investigations into financial institutions and is "resolved to seeing them through.''

"I intend to reaffirm the principle that no individual or entity that does harm to our economy is ever above the law,'' Holder said in the video. "There is no such thing as 'too big to jail.'''

French bank BNP Paribas warned last week it faces fines from U.S. authorities in excess of $1.1 billion over allegations that it violated U.S. sanctions against Iran and other countries.

The Swiss finance minister met Holder on Friday to discuss a U.S. probe into Swiss banks that allegedly helped Americans evade U.S. taxes, which includes Credit Suisse.

While units of financial institutions have agreed to plead guilty to breaking U.S. criminal laws, such agreements have usually involved foreign subsidiaries who have little contact with U.S. regulators.

Japanese units of UBS AG and Royal Bank of Scotland plc, for example, pleaded guilty in the past two years to resolve criminal charges that their traders manipulated the Libor benchmark interest rate.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivers the keynote address to the National Association of Attorneys General Traning and Research Arm's symposium on the reduction of crime at the The Westin Georgetown hotel May 5, 2014 in Washington.
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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivers the keynote address to the National Association of Attorneys General Traning and Research Arm's symposium on the reduction of crime at the The Westin Georgetown hotel May 5, 2014 in Washington.

A criminal conviction of an entity regulated in the United States could lead authorities to potentially revoke a charter or undertake other punitive measures.

In his video, Holder said prosecutors are working closely with regulators to address the issues before taking action.

"Rather than wall off banks from prosecution, the potential for such severe consequences simply means that federal prosecutors conducting these investigations must go the extra mile to coordinate closely with the regulators that oversee these institutions' day-to-day operations,'' he said.

"This cooperation will prove key in the coming weeks and months as the Justice Department continues to pursue several important investigations,'' he said.

The Justice Department has come under fire for bringing few marquee cases against major financial institutions or their executives in the wake of the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

In March 2013, Holder told a U.S. Senate committee that it can "become difficult'' to prosecute major financial institutions that have been accused of wrongdoing because they are so large that a criminal charge could pose a threat to the economy. He quickly backtracked on those comments.

The Justice Department has pursued other criminal investigations of financial institutions in the past few years, but many have resulted in deferred or non-prosecution agreements, under which a bank is not actually indicted.

—By Reuters

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