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Listen To The Second Episode Of Our FinCEN Files Podcast — How HSBC Never Cleaned Up Its Act

What happened after HSBC, El Chapo’s Bank, apologized for being dirty.

Posted on September 24, 2020, at 10:55 a.m. ET

HSBC was the poster child of a bad bank. In 2012 the bank was slapped with a $1.9 billion fine and told it needed to clean up its act or face prosecution.

In Episode 2 of Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files, BuzzFeed News reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold describe what really happened with the bank.

If you haven’t listened to Episode 1, start there! And you can find more of our FinCEN Files coverage, including on HSBC, at fincenfiles.com.

Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files

A five-part podcast investigation into how the most powerful banks in the world facilitate the worst of humanity.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

BuzzFeed News

Transcript

Azeen Ghorayshi I’m Azeen Ghorayshi … this is Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files.

Episode 2. Permission Slip.

OK, so last episode we spent a bunch of time kind of … summarizing what this story is. We talked a lot about the documents this reporting is based on … the thousands of suspicious activity reports that BuzzFeed News has gotten access to.

But this time, let’s talk specifics … about one bank … HSBC.

We’ve got BuzzFeed News reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold back with us to tell us this story that involves money laundering and pyramid schemes and strippers and um … let’s just get into it.

Here’s Anthony:

Anthony Cormier HSBC became notorious for permitting a network of narco traffickers, terror groups, and sanctioned countries. Corrupt states. To launder money. More than a billion dollars, according to one count.

Azeen Ghorayshi In 2012, after a lengthy federal investigation the government told HSBC … you have to knock this off.

AP We are here today to announce the filing of criminal charges against HSBC bank.

ABC News The government says the bank did business with known drug lords, Iran, even banks associated with Al Qaeda.

PBS It was charged with violating sanctions laws by conducting business with Iran, Sudan, and Cuba.

ABC News When the most ruthless of the Mexican drug cartels wanted to hide their money, they went to HSBC.

AP They failed to comply with the legal requirements incumbent on all U.S. financial institutions, to guard against being used for money laundering.

Azeen Ghorayshi HSBC was the poster child of a bad bank. The bank was slapped with a big fine … 1.9 billion dollars ... and an independent monitor was installed to make sure HSBC wasn’t engaging in criminal activity … and was addressing internal problems that allowed for it in the past.

But even at the time … there was criticism that the federal government was going easy on HSBC.

CBS News It is a case that has everything, everything except an arrest.

ABC News This is a signal to other banks that if you do this kind of stuff, you’ll get a parking ticket, you’ll pay the fine, and you’ll move on.

CBS News Now the bank has to demonstrate to a federal monitor that they’re in compliance with all laws for 5 years.

Azeen Ghorayshi That whole backstory … HSBC’s egregious violations and the US government’s response … was well known. Our story starts after that, when Anthony and Jason and other reporters at BuzzFeed News start digging through this pile of secret documents. And what starts to become clear to them ... is that HSBC was banking some of the same kinds of customers that had gotten them into trouble in the first place.

Anthony Cormier You know when we began to look at it, we discovered that it was still struggling to capture all of the money laundering going through its accounts, it was failing to stop or leave clients who were accused of you know, misconduct.

Azeen Ghorayshi The promise that HSBC made to clean up its act … it came under something called a deferred prosecution agreement. It’s a tool that’s used a lot when banks are caught engaging in suspicious activity.And it’s what it sounds like – the Justice Department told HSBC we’ll defer the prosecution … to see if you keep your nose clean. If you do, no one goes to jail … the bank can go about its business.

Anthony Cormier This is on paper, a way for you know a bad actor or bad corporate entity to change its ways, to institute new policies, to hire new staffers, to exit clients.

Azeen Ghorayshi That whole process of getting right starts with the installation of an independent monitor.

Anthony Cormier An outside entity is going to come in and essentially act as a probation officer or a parole officer. This person's gonna report back to the government on your progress. It's going to tell the government what it sees on a day to day basis. It's going to sort of exhume all of the skeletons inside the bank and hopefully get rid of them. Right?

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi In this case, the team that’s monitoring HSBC is led by a guy named Michael Cherkasky.

Anthony Cormier A really respected former prosecutor. A guy who had gone after the mob. Gone after terrorists. He in fact made LAPD reform. Had made the teamster's reform as a monitor.

Azeen Ghorayshi So Cherkasky and his team start looking under the hood at HSBC, and they find all sorts of things that need to change. One big thing is HSBC’s electronic monitoring system is a mess. And as a result, a lot of shady transactions could potentially keep going through undetected. The monitors say that needs to change, and HSBC forms a group called the Financial Crime Compliance team.

Anthony Cormier So the Financial Crime Compliance Team is a group of consultants and staffers that are brought in to essentially do the work that the monitor was spotting. Right, to make the fixes. To improve the way that their computer systems work. To make sure that they were capturing all of the suspicious transactions. Essentially these were the folks on the ground who were making the bank better. And things there seemed to devolve rather quickly.

Azeen Ghorayshi Anthony and Jason’s investigation led them to a whistleblower within the Financial Crime Compliance Team, who alleged that the culture of the team was … not exactly professional.

Anthony Cormier They are using cocaine. They are getting drunk every night. They are regulars at a local strip club called Majingos. This person reports to HR and to legal that the members of this team are so hungover the next day that they're falling asleep on the phone. That they're crashed out in bathrooms. And that they are not meeting the demands of the monitor. In fact at one point this person writes that the most recent monitor's report should set hairs running on fire because it's very clear that this Financial Crime Compliance Team is not going to get the job done.

Azeen Ghorayshi Basically, this source was telling people inside HSBC … I think this team is too messed up and unfocused to get this job done. There’s more emphasis on partying than on work. And the worry was that if they didn’t solve this… then dirty money is going to continue to flow through the bank. And HSBC would not be able to keep the promises it made in order to avoid prosecution.

The whistleblower’s complaints were colorful, though …

Anthony Cormier The partying culture at this office on this team was so profound that it was in fact named. There were Mad Mondays and there were Wacky Wednesdays. You know, they're supposed to fix the system and what do they do? They're partying with strippers.

In one of their emails it's like - it's so crazy. This person writes to HSBC's HR and legal department and says, "Look! If you just go down to the strip club, the women at Majingos will know us by name. Just go down there. I'm telling you.

MUSIC

Anthony Cormier Many of the employees at HSBC that we've spoken with felt that the bank was paying lip service to the government. That it was only going to do the minimum required of it, to skate by.

Azeen Ghorayshi Again, HSBC was under that deferred prosecution agreement for 5 years. At one point two years into the process … the whistleblower who complained about the Financial Crimes Compliance Team wrote a memo to higher ups at HSBC that said, quote, ...

“HSBC is no more safe or compliant than 2 years ago. There has been an appalling amount of time and money spent to achieve so little.”

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi So there's a really, really crazy example of what one of these financial schemes actually looked like in your story. Jason, can you tell me about Phil Ming Xu.

Jason Leopold This is just one of the great examples where we were able to take what was in the public record and marry it up to our documents. And so a year after HSBC enters into this deferred prosecution agreement. A little over a year that is. The Securities and Exchange Commission cracks down on this massive pyramid scheme. This pyramid scheme that was headed by a guy named Phil Ming Xu who lived in Southern California. And he had a company called WCM and WCM777. Very, very religious individual. And this pyramid scheme basically was - he was selling third party cloud computing services which would include web hosting and data storage. And he promised these investors a hundred percent return within like a hundred days.Um. His presentations are still on YouTube.

Um. His presentations are still on YouTube.

PMX Clip WCM777 dot com is a social capital company. The company is to serve the people and glorify god.

Azeen Ghorayshi Can I ask what this company name means? What is the 777?

Jason Leopold Yeah. 7 7 7 is God's number. It's the opposite of 6 6 6. The devil. I only know this from my heavy metal days, by the way. So there was a band, named Stryper who was a Christian heavy metal band. And they had 7 7 7. And I was like "what is 7 7 7?" And it's the opposite of 6 6 6. God's number.

Azeen Ghorayshi Wow, this is the best way to find out the answer to this question.

PMX CLIP: Hi brothers and sisters we are very glad to be with you, let’s build a community of love and transform the world and prepare for this coming ending time. The collapse of Babylon City, the collapse of world economy.

Anthony Cormier And he's up there in front of this crowd of mostly Asian and Latino immigrants. And he's telling them, "I got the vision. But I need your money."

Jason Leopold And they gave him. They gave him money. Lots and lots of money. More than 80 million dollars. And he used it to enrich himself.

Azeen Ghorayshi Phil Ming Xu bought golf courses in Southern California … diamonds … houses that he claimed he was going to use as places of worship for his investors.

Eventually … the whole scheme comes crashing down.

Jason Leopold You know the SEC cracked down on him as well as California regulators and regulators around the world. And he moved his money from LA to HSBC in Hong Kong.

Azeen Ghorayshi So Phil Ming Xu was a client of HSBC, and while he’s under investigation he moves millions of dollars out of the U.S and into accounts in Hong Kong.

Jason Leopold And so we have these suspicious activity reports that shows that the bank suspected that he was running a Ponzi scheme. And this was happening while the monitor was in place.

Azeen Ghorayshi Wow

Jason Leopold Obviously HSBC is just a massive bank - not saying the monitor should have known everything that was taking place. But again - what we're able to report is they kept moving his money. They allowed him - Phil Ming Xu - to drain his accounts of seven million dollars while regulators and officials from other governments were trying to get information from the bank.

Anthony Cormier Yeah. The tick-tock on this is pretty remarkable. So it's 2013. California regulators go to the bank - HSBC - and they say "We need some information about WCM777." And the bank's legal department writes back and says, "We're unable to locate any accounts with information stated in the subpoena." Four weeks later though. Four weeks. HSBC files the first of three suspicious activity reports about the company and the owner.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi This is a curious sequence of events that comes up a lot in the Suspicious Activity Reports BuzzFeed News has dug into. It *appears* … fairly often … that certain banks don’t start filing SARs on suspicious transactions *until* some external investigation is under way. *Then,* suddenly, they start filing a bunch of them.

In the case of Phil Ming Xu, the SARs started pouring out of HSBC’s U.S. headquarters as the investigations into him and World Cloud Media 777 were heating up.

Anthony Cormier So they're in their headquarters in Virginia, and they're describing the company in October 2013 - as reportedly being involved in a quote unquote "Ponzi activity." And they note that there are 800 wire transfers for 6 million dollars. Listen to this - the next month - Massachusetts regulators publicly announce that THEY intend to shut down World Cloud Media in their state. January. California and Colorado do the same. You think HSBC stops moving their money? Absolutely not. The Hong Kong branch continues to do it. And they continue to tell the US government about this activity through suspicious activity reports. So even after there's official action again and again and again. Even after the bank's own internal investigators raise the specter of this company, Hong Kong continues to move the money and the bankers just continue to file SARs.

Azeen Ghorayshi So SARs, which are supposed to empower the banks to help fight money laundering and terror financing, can end up functioning as something more like a permission slip to bank the bad guys.

Jason Leopold There’s no obligation that the bank has to shut down the accounts. They simply file this suspicious activity report, and just continue moving money. And you know it's like a defensive filing. That's at least how it's referred to within the industry. Right, Anthony?

Anthony Cormier Yeah. Sure. Just to be clear, banks file SARs for all sorts of reasons. But if you look at certain instances -- when they started filing individual SARs, what the timing was related to outside investigations, what the bank continued to do after they filed …it’s hard not to suspect that the filing is a kind of inoculation. They’re just alerting the government to it so they don’t get in trouble. It's as though they are saying, ‘Look, I’m doing this. I’m following the rules. Now it’s all on you to look into it… or not.”

MUSIC

Anthony Cormier And from the government’s side … again, this is just my interpretation from looking at specific instances … there seems to be a kind of complicity … like an unspoken agreement … as long as you go through the motions, we’re not going to come down too hard on you.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi As criminals using the global banking system to launder money go, Phil Ming Xu is fairly tame. But his example’s a pretty clean one of how this dance between the banks and the government agencies overseeing them might work.

According to a report filed by Michael Cherkasky’s team at the end of their five-year monitoring period … HSBC continued to bank seriously bad actors and organizations throughout their Deferred Prosecution Agreement.

There was a money laundering operation. They moved at least 900 million dollars through HSBC Hong Kong from Russia to the West.

Anthony Cormier They were banking a powerful Panamanian family who the bank thought was transacting with suspected criminals. We see an individual suspected of operating as a money laundering organization for paramilitary operations and other drug traffickers in Latin America. Again and again in these documents we're seeing individuals and entities who later pop up on the radar as being involved in some pretty gross financial schemes.

Azeen Ghorayshi So where is everything now? I mean, what is happening today with HSBC?

Anthony Cormier So let's - we'll wrap up the end of their term, right? They've got a five year agreement. Basically in late 2017. There's a big decision. Justice Department has to decide whether to act on any of the things the monitors found. Or to let HSBC sort of go and end the agreement. And the monitor's team gathers together in their headquarters overlooking Bryant Park.

Azeen Ghorayshi Bryant Park is a big public square in Midtown Manhattan.

Anthony Cormier And many of the team members are frustrated. They're sort of talking internally about the many things that they've found and how they don't really feel like HSBC has made the right type of progress. They're seeing these suspicious clients. They're seeing, reporting potential terror financing. But late in the game, December 2017, like a lightning bolt, Justice Department announces - HSBC is getting off. The deferred prosecution agreement is over.

MUSIC

Anthony Cormier And as you can imagine inside HSBC, there's quite a bit of celebration. Lots of people are like, this is, way to go. Public announcements. And to their credit, HSBC did make some progress and they tout that progress. But what we know is that. What is it, Jason? A month after the end of the deferred prosecution agreement in this case?

Jason Leopold Yeah. January 2018. They entered into another deferred prosecution agreement for a different kind of financial crime. But yeah. Another deferred prosecution agreement then. And then some time later, another deferred prosecution agreement. So you know the idea that deferred prosecution agreements would be a deterrent, you know I think that we see that it has not worked that way.

Azeen Ghorayshi HSBC is not alone. Since 2010, at least 17 other banks have been similarly punished for violating anti-money laundering and sanctions laws … but there is no evidence to show that the punishment resulted in meaningful change. Executives didn’t go to jail. Banks weren’t shut down.

Anthony Cormier The Justice Department says we’re going to force them to clean up their act, we’re going to force them to behave. But when we examined it, we found that’s simply not true. And what we discovered is this act, this tool, there is nothing in there with actual bite. Because the Justice Department is unwilling to move against individual entities.

Azeen Ghorayshi And - sorry - I realize this is a very basic question, but why not?

Jason Leopold You get different reasons when you talk to different people. I mean, you know Eric Holder - the former Attorney General, testified that perhaps these banks are too big to fail. Uh, when we took a look behind the scenes, to see what was taking place as the government was working on this deferred prosecution agreement, what we saw was an intense lobbying campaign by the UK,. UK government officials, and others that felt that if any executives were jailed or if the US government was too heavy handed with you know in prosecuting HSBC, that it would amount to a global economic disaster.

Azeen Ghorayshi In a letter to then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ... George Osborne … the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the U.K. … that’s the equivalent of the US Treasury Secretary … he wrote in part:

It is not my intention to interfere with criminal or regulation action and procedures in the US. He continued, However, I would appreciate your assistance in ensuring that enforcement action does not have unintended consequences.

Azeen Ghorayshi Osborne acknowledged that criminal convictions might mean that HSBC could no longer operate in the US. Quote:

Questions about HSBC’s continued ability to clear US dollars would risk destabilizing the bank globally, with very serious implications for financial and economic stability.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi There’s one more piece of the puzzle. One more thing that would tell us more about what actually happened at HSBC. Michael Cherkasky, the monitor who was installed to keep HSBC in line, wrote a nearly 1,000 page report that documents his entire investigation. But that report has been kept from the public.

BuzzFeed News has filed a FOIA lawsuit to obtain the report. The Justice Department is fighting the suit in court and is trying to keep the report secret. HSBC weighed in on the lawsuit too, which is not something private companies ordinarily do. It doesn’t want the report released either.

In response to BuzzFeed News’s reporting, a DOJ spokesperson says, “The Department of Justice stands by its work, and remains committed to aggressively investigating and prosecuting financial crime—including money laundering—wherever we find it.”

HSBC says they do not comment on suspicious activity reporting and gave BuzzFeed News a statement which reads in part, quote:

Starting in 2012, HSBC embarked on a multi-year journey to overhaul its ability to combat financial crime across more than 60 jurisdictions. During that period, the Monitor fulfilled his role of identifying issues and making recommendations for improvement, and concluded that HSBC became a safer bank each year as a result of the Bank’s efforts. The statement continues, At the end of 2017, the Justice Department, having received all of the Monitor’s reports, determined that HSBC met all of its obligations under the DPA. HSBC is a much safer institution than it was in 2012.” End quote.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi We’ve got a little bit more about how all this reporting came together, right after a break.

===

Azeen Ghorayshi OK. So HSBC is one story that emerged from the documents … we’re going to get to more. But first … I think it’s worth explaining how BuzzFeed News took a pile of very hard to decipher government financial reports and came to believe … that terrorists and drug cartels and criminals of all kinds were able to use the banking system ... to launder dirty money and finance illegal activities all over the world.

It’s an exciting story that plays out a little like Ocean’s Eleven. If Ocean’s Eleven was about a bunch of spreadsheet-making, number-crunching financial reporters.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi So I want to take you back to where we were at the end of episode 1. Anthony and Jason … they have this pile of super-secret documents … the Suspicious Activity Reports ... from FinCEN … They’ve reported out some stories related to Donald Trump, his orbit, and their connections to Russia. But they suspect that there’s another story, beyond Trump, contained in those documents. It’s just very hard to figure out what it is.

First, there are thousands of pages of documents. And those documents are covered with numbers. Dollar amounts, but also, maybe, a phone number or an address connected to a client. But not always.

Whatever story was in those documents, Jason and Anthony knew they needed to find a way to tell it.

Enter John Templon … one of BuzzFeed News’s data guys.

John Templon I mean the first thing that I was thinking is, just how to standardize this.

Azeen Ghorayshi John’s the kind of reporter who looks at a challenge like this and calls it a really interesting data problem.

John Templon It was clear just from looking at the material that there was so much there and trying to figure out like how do we standardize this and find the really interesting stuff in it was a really interesting data problem.

Anthony Cormier I think John began to look at the scope of it and said oh screw, oh my goodness, we’re done. What are we going to do here? And the issue is not the raw number, it’s the complexity therein. So these are not a million pages of emails, these are very nuanced, complicated documents.

Azeen Ghorayshi And dense.

Anthony Cormier They are.

Azeen Ghorayshi SARs are hard to read … and they’re only a piece of the story. A SAR will tell you what info the bank has on the customer … maybe their phone number or their address … what branch of the bank the suspicious activity occurred at.

John Templon And then a few pages in there is a narrative. And that is the bank literally describing why it is flagging this. And if you’re lucky it is saying exactly transaction by transaction what happened. And the particular reasons that they think things are suspicious.

John Templon Sometimes that’s as simple as a transaction that seems like it doesn’t quite add up.

John pulled out his laptop while we were talking to help explain.

John Templon For instance I’m looking at an example where there’s $27 million in transactions and they all say that they’re for one invoice around fluorescent lamps.

Azeen Ghorayshi 27 MILLION DOLLARS?

John Templon Yes, I don’t know why anyone needs $27 million for one contract for fluorescent lamps.

Azeen Ghorayshi So John took all that information in these documents and started to systematize it, – What bank names keep popping up? Who are the people the banks are filing SARS on? With that information … he built the first searchable database of the SARs

John Templon And I feel like that blew people’s minds at the time cause they were like, oh we’ve just been opening one of these PDFs and like searching and hoping we’d find the person we were looking for. And I was like, that’s not.

Azeen Ghorayshi That's not going to crack this.

John Templon Yeah, it’s going to take you forever to do it that way.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi Around this time … is where I entered the picture.

They needed some extra boots on the ground to help them link up the documents to people out in the real world. Anthony threw me on a story about a shady loan a bank had given to a Russian businessman who was linked to a vast money laundering conspiracy in Russia. He was suspected of cleaning this money the tried and true way: funneling it into expensive Manhattan real estate.

I ended up chasing sources all around the city -- late one night in Staten Island, I knocked on the door of a former bank loan manager and confronted him about why he approved the loan … a lawyer called 911 on me after I showed up at her office in Sheepshead Bay… and I tried, but mostly failed, to convince about a dozen security guards in ritzy high rises to let me talk to their wealthy residents.

That story was exciting. But after I finished, Anthony and Jason wanted to go bigger. How many stories like that one were in our thousands of pages of SARs? And taken together, what did it all say?

Which is why we needed our colleague … reporter Tom Warren.

Tom Warren The first time I saw the documents you know I was in New York and uh, you know like in Indiana Jones when they open up the ark and you’re just like, here it comes. Do you know what I mean? You know like the top of your head is going to be blown off.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi Tom knows banking, and -- unlike most people -- it gets him really excited. The first time he came to New York to work on this he was like the guy in A Beautiful Mind … he was scrawling flowcharts on a whiteboard wall, mapping all these connections, writing so much that he had to stand on a chair to scribble some more names higher up close to the ceiling … because he ran out of room. I’ve often heard his enthusiasm described as “infectious.”

Anthony Cormier That was a real inflection point for us.

Azeen Ghorayshi Is he crazy or is he...he saw things I definitely didn't see.

Anthony Cormier He saw the forest, right. We were looking at a bunch of trees and in comes someone from 30,000 feet and he goes “oh boy! That looks interesting”.

Azeen Ghorayshi Also someone who loves forests

Anthony Cormier Helps. It helps.

Azeen Ghorayshi In order to find his way through the forest, Tom did exactly what a character like him would do in the movie. He sat down at the computer … put on headphones and got to work.

Tom Warren Yeah, yeah put on some drum and bass, very loud, as fast as possible and just go through the material page after page.

Azeen Ghorayshi I mean drum and bass is very fast. I can't imagine listening to that for more than 10 minutes and reading these things.

Tom Warren Yeah, I find it a bit soothing. *laughter*

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi But even with Tom on the team and John’s database ... the information in these SARs is immense and varied. It covered more than $2 trillion in transactions reported by almost 90 financial institutions, all pinging around every corner of the globe. We needed more help.

And then … John was at a conference … and he ran into someone from ICIJ – the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. ICIJ is the famous news organization made up of hundreds of journalists around the world who have broken major stories … most notably The Panama Papers which revealed the ways in which the global elite hide their money in tax havens like Panama.

So John has this interesting data problem … and he’s talking to someone from ICIJ … who is really good at dealing with interesting data problems. And in the moment it occurs to him … maybe they can help, maybe BuzzFeed and ICIJ could collaborate on this gigantic reporting project.

John Templon And so I was like, “Can we get coffee?

Azeen Ghorayshi But the thing is, journalists are inherently competitive people. We’re always trying to beat one another to the punch. Until the minute we release them into the world, we tend to guard our stories with our lives. You want to protect your scoop, protect your sources, everything. So opening up to other newsrooms, especially other newsrooms we don’t even know, kinda goes against our strongest instincts.

On the other hand, ICIJ had pulled it off before. They invented this kind of literally global news collaboration, and they had shown — most famously with the Panama Papers — that it can actually work. If BuzzFeed was willing to share the thousands of SARs they had with ICIJ’s 400 plus reporters around the world, they could tackle this story in a way they’d never be able to do on their own.

At that coffee, John didn’t say much. He certainly didn’t say that BuzzFeed News had SARs.

John Templon I didn’t say anything about like the specifics, but I said, “I have this large data, international data set that I’m trying to figure out what to do with that’s a whole bunch of documents.

Azeen Ghorayshi He got a sense that ICIJ was interested, and so he came back and talked with his editors. Including Ariel Kaminer.

Ariel Kaminer I think we all saw that this was really a way to do that in a transformative scale. Not just more than we could do on our own, but powers of 10. So we decided to go for it.

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Ariel Kaminer And then they said the next step is we should get everybody together in one place.

Azeen Ghorayshi But how do you get over 400 reporters from around the world into a room without calling attention to it?

Ariel Kaminer They said, there’s a very big international investigative reporting conference in Hamburg in September. You know everybody will have travelled from around the world to get to that.

Azeen Ghorayshi It was the perfect cover. They’d all just make their return flights for a few days after the conference ended, and that’s when we’d meet.

So a bunch of us from BuzzFeed, including me, flew out to Hamburg to attend this clandestine conference after another conference.

Even the meeting location provided cover. It all took place inside the Hamburg Temple, an old synagogue which had been shut down by the Nazis and is now owned by a German TV station. Just for extra dramatic effect, the first meeting took place on Rosh Hashannah.

Ariel Kaminer There were people there from Korea and India and Burkina Faso and Brazil and Venezuela and it’s a big deal.

MUSIC

Azeen Ghorayshi And then when the event actually kicked off, you guys were sitting down on the stage level and all the reporters were up in these like bleacher seats Do you remember like looking up and seeing everyone?

Anthony Cormier I do, I remember thinking how are going to make all these people happy? Cause they’re all journalists and like they’re all going to kvetch about something. Here are all these really great reporters, we’re going to try to satisfy everyone? How’s that going to work?

Azeen Ghorayshi Because these people all came to journalism from crazily different circumstances. Some people had all the protections of a free press. Other people were out there risking their lives every day to tell the truth about dictators and police states. But they were still at it.

Ariel and Anthony got up to give speeches. When it was Jason’s turn, something unexpected happened.

Jason Leopold I looked out, I knew I had to discuss this and I wanted to discuss it and I was going to give a little bit of backstory about these records. But I looked into the audience and I … just to kind of share my paranoia, you know there was a moment where I wondered if there was an undercover FBI agent in the audience listening to figure out what our plans were, what we were doing. Um, so, I scrapped what I was going to say.

Azeen Ghorayshi Oh wow, I didn't even know that.

Jason Leopold Yeah, yeah I was really worried. And so, you know I was trying to play it cool like yeah hey! This is great. Great to be here folks. But it was ... a bit paranoia inducing.

Azeen Ghorayshi Now, with the ICIJ … BuzzFeed had an army of reporters who were going to be looking for things in the documents too.

Ariel Kaminer Like, the folks who were there from India were able to say, oh look at this name. Which you know meant nothing to us, I didn’t know the name. This person is India’s #1 most wanted criminal.

Azeen Ghorayshi Anthony saw it too with the Venezuelan team of reporters.

Anthony Cormier I mean they were able to very quickly tick off politicians, shell companies, gold, AG entities. Like somebody flagged one of the largest beef producers in the world. And I had no idea, that that was a company.

MUSIC

Anthony Cormier It’s a very weird place to be in cause normally we’d be locked in a room in the newsroom with like blackout curtains and you couldn’t come in and we’re not going to share anything. And in this case like we’re choosing the opposite of that? We’re sharing?!

Azeen Ghorayshi Next time on Suspicious Activity: Inside the FinCEN Files … this collaboration bears some fruit. On Deutsche Bank.

BuzzFeed News’ FinCEN Files investigation exposed massive financial corruption on a historic global scale. Want to support our journalism? Become a BuzzFeed News member.

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