NatWest pleaded guilty to three offences under the Money Laundering Regulations
Over five years, the Bradford company Fowler Oldfield deposited £365m with the bank, including £700,000 that was taken into a branch in black bin bags, a court heard.
The jeweller was initially marked as “high-risk”, but that was downgraded in December 2013. It was eventually shut down following a police raid in 2016.
NatWest, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, pleaded guilty in October to three offences under the Money Laundering Regulations 2007, between November 2012 and June 2016.
At Southwark Crown Court on Monday, NatWest was fined £264,772,620 and ordered to pay £4,297,466 in costs with a confiscation order of £460,047.
This is the first time a financial institution has faced criminal prosecution by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) under anti-money laundering laws in the UK.
Prosecutor Clare Montgomery QC said there “was a rapid escalation in the amount of cash” deposited from November 2013 onwards, and figures reached up to £1.8m a day.
By 2014, Fowler Oldfield was the “single most lucrative” client in Bradford.
The company used around 50 bank branches across the country to make deposits, with a Southall branch receiving £42m in cash between January 2015 and March 2016, but no reports that it was suspicious were made.
In the Walsall branch, £700,000 was paid in a single day, using “black bin liners of cash”, said Ms Montgomery.
NatWest’s Halifax branch received £750,000 over three days, and branches in Piccadilly and New Bond Street had “several millions” in deposits, worried that it was more cash than they could deal with.
The court heard that concerns were raised at a cash centre when Scottish notes were detected, which were said to have smelled “musty” as if they had been “stored under the floorboards”.
Ms Montgomery said the National Crime Agency requested information about the customer over fears the money could be linked to the drugs trade but the bank declined and the concerns did not result in a suspicious activity report (SAR) or trigger a further review.
“Throughout the indictment period, it is accepted NatWest sought to discharge its obligations under the regulations and that it failed to do so,” judge Mrs Justice Cockerill said.
“It is not suggested there has been any deliberate flouting of the rules or any criminal intent.”
The judge added: “Although in no way complicit in the money-laundering which took place… without the bank’s failings, the money could not have been laundered.”
Fowler Oldfield had a predicted annual turnover of £15m when it was taken on as a client by the bank, but £365m was deposited, including £264m in cash, the court heard.
John Kelsey-Fry QC, defending, said “the bank realises the seriousness of any failure to successfully discharge” it’s obligations, expressing “deep regret” on behalf of the board.
“It did not escape the bank’s system, it did not go under the radar,” he said.
The court heard that between 2008 and March 2017, NatWest had recorded direct cash deposits as cheque deposits on the bank’s automatic monitoring system, which affected around £165m in payments from Fowler Oldfield.
Fowler Oldfield was the subject of a total of 11 internal money-laundering reports and 10 automated transaction monitoring alerts.
But Ms Montgomery said: “So far as each of those reports were concerned, none of them led to an SAR being filed.”
NatWest’s chief executive officer, Alison Rose, said: “NatWest takes its responsibility to prevent and detect financial crime extremely seriously.
“We deeply regret that we failed to adequately monitor one of our customers between 2012 and 2016 for the purpose of preventing money- laundering.
“While today’s hearing brings an end to this case, we will continue to invest significant resources in the ongoing fight against financial crime.”