September 15, 2004
In our post-9/11 age in which the federal government claims to be busy cracking down on organizations and individuals who aid “terrorists,” will the federal government seize the assets of Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank and its affiliates in response to the bank’s role in supporting international terrorist Augusto Pinochet?
Because of the bank’s relationship with Pinochet, will federal officials round up, jail and bring terror-related indictments against officials associated with Riggs Bank?
Will the federal government seize the assets and arrest the leaders of PNC Financial Services Group if the Pittsburgh-based bank completes its proposed $779 million acquisition of Riggs, a bank with known ties to an international terrorist?
Will the federal government seize the assets of Riggs Bank’s primary shareholder, Joseph L. Allbritton, including Allbritton Communications Co., which owns Washington, D.C. ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Allbritton changed the call letters of the TV station from WMAL to WJLA in the early 1980s to match his initials) and other television stations around the country.
Riggs Bank is under investigation by federal examiners and law enforcement officials, as well as by at least three congressional committees, for years-long violations of anti-money-laundering rules, including its work for Pinochet. The Washington Post reported this week that on at least two occasions in the 1990s, Allbritton and Carol Thompson, Pinochet’s personal account manager at Riggs, flew to Chile on Riggs’ Gulfstream jet to meet with Pinochet.
Pinochet’s terror exploits, of course, are notorious, from his management of the abduction, torture, disappearance, and execution of thousands of political opponents, including several Americans, during his reign from 1973 to 1990. Pinochet also was responsible for a brazen act of terrorism on Embassy Row in Washington when on September 21, 1976, a car bomb planted by Chilean agents killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit, a 25-year-old employee of the D.C. think tank, Institute for Policy Studies. Letelier had been the ambassador to the United States and the Defense Minister under Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile who died during the Pinochet-led coup in 1973.
(Long before its association with Pinochet and before Allbritton gained control of the company, Riggs Bank, which has been around since 1815, was bankrolling terrorist acts, including its financing of the U.S. expansionist war against Mexico in the 1840s.)
Investigators have discovered that Pinochet held at least five secret bank accounts in the United States in addition to the eight discovered at Riggs Bank in Washington. The accounts were opened by Pinochet under his own name and those of two of his children, Lucia and Marco Antonio, in four other U.S. banks, including Citibank in Miami. The accounts were discovered by the U.S. State Department during its investigation of Pinochet’s accounts at Riggs Bank.
A U.S. Senate investigation found Riggs had ignored banking regulations to launder money in Pinochet’s secret accounts between 1994 and 2002. The accounts held between $4 million and $8 million.
The Clinton-era Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 allows the Treasury Department to designate a “terrorist” organization a danger to the security of the country in order to freeze assets. The USA Patriot Act, signed into law by President Bush in October 2001, expanded the civil asset forfeiture power of the federal government by allowing the seizure of assets of people or organizations suspected of aiding terrorists without a prior hearing and without them ever being convicted of a crime.
Perhaps the best known case of asset seizure of a financial organization since 9/11 occurred in December 2001 when the FBI and the Treasury Department seized the assets of The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The action was part of the federal government’s policy designed to choke off financial support for “global terrorism.” At the time, Treasury Department Secretary Paul O’Neill named the Holy Land Foundation as a “Hamas operated” organization.
On July 27, 2004, a federal grand jury in Dallas returned a 42-count indictment against the foundation. Charges included conspiracy, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, tax evasion and money laundering. The indictment alleges that the Holy Land Foundation provided more than $12.4 million to individuals and organizations linked to Hamas—which is active in Israel and Palestine, not the United States—from 1995 to 2001. The indictment also names specific officers of the Holy Land Foundation: president Shukri Abu Baker; chairman, Ghassan Elashi; and executive director, Haitham Maghawri and four others: Mohammad el-Mezain, Akram Mishal, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulraham Odeh. Five of the seven have been arrested. Maghawri and Mishal have not been found and are considered fugitives.
Given that Riggs Bank, which for years billed itself as “the most important bank in the most important city in the world,” managed millions of dollars that Augusto Pinochet acquired while he was the leader of Chile and was committing acts of international terrorism, will the federal government seize the assets of Riggs Bank and its affiliated companies and arrest all of the bank’s top officials and shareholders? Or is there a different set of rules for well-heeled, politically connected corporate officials caught red-handed helping long-time terrorist allies of the U.S. government?