Vagueness of Libyan Sanctions Order Left Banks Scrambling to Comply

By Brian Monroe

A White House executive order issued late Friday in response to violence in Libya called on financial institutions to freeze assets tied to the North African nation’s government, but failed to specify one thing: how were compliance officers to know which accounts to block?

Over the past weekend, officials from more than a dozen U.S. and international banks scrambled to agree on a shared “master list” of Libyan commercial and private banking clients whose assets needed to be seized, according to individuals familiar with the matter. By Monday, the banks had frozen $30 billion tied to the government of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, the largest asset freeze in the history of the U.S.

“The first response when we found out late Friday was ‘okay, what does this all mean?'” said a compliance officer at a large bank in the northeast U.S. “The second thing we thought was ‘well, where can we get a list or who can we work with to come up with an industry standard?'”

The effort to cobble together a sanctions list, with the assistance of compliance counterparts at other institutions, took through Sunday, the individual said. “We did all the homework for the government.”

The executive order called on financial institutions to freeze the assets of Gadhafi and his four children, in addition to their family members, associates and unnamed senior government officials. The order also required banks to block the accounts of individuals and companies that contributed to human rights abuses in the country.

How to determine who may have taken part in political oppression, or who has an ownership stake in a Libyan company proved difficult without further elucidation from the U.S. Treasury Department, according to a person familiar with the department’s bank oversight.

“Banks need names,” the person said.

The resulting list-a consolidated document derived from defunct Libyan sanctions lists discontinued in 2004, Libyan political figures listed on vendor and internal databases and related international wire codes-specifies nearly 200 entities working within Libya’s oil, travel and financial sectors, or for the state, according to copy of the list obtained by

Such a high degree of cooperation among financial institutions is “rare,” but in this case was required, said a compliance officer at a West Coast bank who took part in the discussions. Compliance officials at the institutions drafted the list following a series of phone calls and emails, the person said.

The economic prohibitions against Libya are wider and vaguer than most targeted sanctions issued by the Treasury Department, and “are of such a magnitude that, in order to better protect themselves, banks had to pool their resources,” said Cari Stinebower, a former general counsel assigned to Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

All banks instituting the Libyan sanctions are “facing the same challenge, so it’s not a competitive disadvantage for one to help the other,” said Robert Rowe, vice president and senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based American Bankers Association.

Financial institutions involved with the discussions included Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, among others, according to individuals familiar with the matter. The banks shared information on Libyan accounts tied to investment funds and individuals named on governmental websites, they said.

A Bank of America spokesperson declined to comment on specific clients, but said if the bank did have “customers, accounts or transactions implicated by the Libyan sanctions program, we have taken action” in accordance with the Treasury Department’s rules and guidance.

Calls to JPMorgan were not immediately returned, and a spokesperson for Wells Fargo did not respond by deadline.

The U.S. previously blacklisted Libya’s leaders from the early 1980s through September 2004, but in June 2006 removed the country from the federal list of State Sponsors of Terrorism after Gadhafi’s government agreed to renounce ties to terrorists, compensate victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and terminate plans for a nuclear weapons program.

The longstanding leader has been accused by the United States since Friday of violently oppressing protestors demanding his ouster.

Topics : Sanctions
Source: U.S.: OFAC
Document Date: March 1, 2011