It would be the Wall Street equivalent of a parole violation: Just two years after avoiding prosecution for a variety of crimes, some of the world’s biggest banks are suspected of having broken their promises to behave.
A mixture of new issues and lingering problems could violate earlier settlements that imposed new practices and fines on the banks but stopped short of criminal charges, according to lawyers briefed on the cases. Prosecutors are exploring whether to strengthen the earlier deals, the lawyers said, or scrap them altogether and force the banks to plead guilty to a crime.
That effort, unfolding separately from a number of well-known investigations into Wall Street, has ensnared several giant banks and consulting firms that until now were thought to be in the clear.
Prosecutors in Washington and Manhattan have reopened an investigation into Standard Chartered, the big British bank that reached a settlement in 2012 over accusations that it transferred billions of dollars for Iran and other nations blacklisted by the United States, according to the lawyers briefed on the cases. The prosecutors are questioning whether Standard Chartered, which has a large operation in New York, failed to disclose the extent of its wrongdoing to the government, imperiling the bank’s earlier settlement.
New York State’s banking regulator is also taking a fresh look at old cases, reopening a 2013 settlement with the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ over accusations that the bank’s New York branch did business with Iran, according to the lawyers who were not authorized to speak publicly.
The regulator, Benjamin M. Lawsky, the lawyers said, is negotiating a new settlement deal with the bank that, if it goes through, would involve a penalty larger than the $250 million it paid last year. Mr. Lawsky suspects that the bank initially played down the scope of its wrongdoing.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, the influential consulting firm that advised the Japanese bank on that case, is also under investigation, according to the lawyers briefed on the matter. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is examining whether the firm watered down a report about the bank’s dealings with Iran before it was sent to government investigators.
Those developments, not previously reported, are part of a broader revisiting of settlements with some of the world’s biggest banks, an effort that has focused on foreign banks but could eventually spread to American institutions.
As reported earlier by The New York Times, prosecutors are also threatening to tear up deals with banks like Barclays and UBS that were accused of manipulating interest rates, pointing to evidence that the same banks also manipulated foreign currencies, a violation of the interest rate settlements. The prosecutors and banks have agreed to extend probationary periods that would have otherwise expired this year.
The reopening of these cases represents a shift for the government, the first acknowledgment that prosecutors are coming to terms with the limitations of how they punish bank misdeeds. Typically, when banks have repeatedly run afoul of the law, they have returned to business as usual with little or no additional penalty — a stark contrast to how prosecutors mete out justice for the average criminal.
When punishing banks, prosecutors have favored so-called deferred-prosecution agreements, which suspend charges in exchange for the bank’s paying a fine and promising to behave. Several giant banks have reached multiple deferred or nonprosecution agreements in a short span, fueling concerns that the deals amount to little more than a slap on the wrist and enable a pattern of Wall Street recidivism.
Even now that prosecutors are examining repeat offenses on Wall Street, they are likely to seek punishments more symbolic than sweeping. Top executives are not expected to land in prison, nor are any problem banks in jeopardy of shutting down.
Still, fearing a certain fallout from the new round of scrutiny, banks have bolstered their legal teams. Standard Chartered, for instance, has retained one of the most lauded litigators in the country, Theodore V. Wells Jr., to work on the reopened sanctions case, according to the lawyers briefed on the matter.
The decision to revisit the cases also draws attention to consulting firms that helped shape the original settlements. When determining the extent of wrongdoing at a bank, the government often relies on assessments from consultants that are handpicked and paid by the same bank.
The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi case demonstrated the potential pitfalls of that approach. When Mr. Lawsky made his initial $250 million settlement with the bank last year, the punishment was based partly on an outside consultant’s estimate of the illegal dealings. But the New York State regulator has since uncovered emails indicating that the consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers, watered down the report under pressure from the bank, according to regulatory records.
In August, Mr. Lawsky imposed a $25 million penalty on PricewaterhouseCoopers, which said at the time that the report was “detailed” and “disclosed the relevant facts.”