STOCKHOLM — A three-year-old money-laundering scandal continues to cast a dark shadow over Sweden’s banking sector.
On Tuesday, the former chief executive of Swedbank, one of Sweden’s big three lenders, was charged with fraud relating to statements she made in 2018 and 2019 about anti-money-laundering controls at her bank.
Amid media reports that dirty money had been flowing through Swedbank’s Estonian operations, Birgitte Bonnesen — the CEO — sought to play down the concerns, telling investors and journalists that the bank had the situation under control.
In reality, as later investigations by Swedish authorities and lawyers appointed by Swedbank itself showed, the bank’s anti-money-laundering regime had been too lax and had allowed money to flow from countries including Russia into Europe via Estonia without adequate checks.
Sweden’s Economic Crime Authority said in a statement accompanying its decision to prosecute Bonnesen that comments she made in 2018 and 2019 broke Swedish law.
“The former CEO of the bank intentionally or through gross negligence … disseminated misleading information about the bank’s measures to prevent, detect, and report suspicions of money laundering in Swedbank’s operations in Estonia,” lead prosecutor Thomas Langrot said.
Bonnesen denies the charges, her lawyer Per E. Samuelson told Swedish news agency TT.
No trial date was given in the prosecutor’s statement.
For Scandinavia, the charging of Bonnesen is the latest development in a painful reckoning with years of missteps by some of the region’s largest banks in their dealings with customers in the Baltic states.
Like Denmark’s Danske Bank, Swedbank was keen to build up operations in Estonia in the early 2000s as the small Baltic state joined the EU and later the eurozone. Among other opportunities, both banks saw a chance to earn fees managing funds moving through the Baltic banking system.
But from 2017 onwards, when Danske and later Swedbank began facing testing questions from authorities — in Estonia and their home countries — about the origin and destination of some of these funds, they struggled to give adequate answers.
Bonnesen — like her counterpart at Danske, Thomas Borgen — was ultimately ousted from her position as CEO, and both Swedbank and Danske faced heavy fines and vowed to tighten anti-money-laundering controls.
For the European Commission, the scandals at Swedbank and Danske underlined the need for an increased focus on opaque money flows, and in July 2021 Brussels launched a strategy including a proposal to create a new EU authority to combat money laundering.
“The aim of this package is to improve the detection of suspicious transactions and activities, and to close loopholes used by criminals to launder illicit proceeds or finance terrorist activities through the financial system,” the Commission said.
Tuesday’s charges against Bonnesen showed that the job of investigating the missteps of the past is still not complete.
Langrot, the lead prosecutor, said the Swedish Economic Crime Authority’s preliminary investigation had shown that there was a “clear strategy” from Bonnesen and others to stop information about problems with Swedbank’s anti-money-laundering processes in Estonia from reaching the market.
“Another way of saying this is that there is evidence of a cover-up,” he said.
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