BitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, the firm paid a fine of $1.9 billion. Authories made no arrests, and HSBC still turned a $13.5 billion profit that year.
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi detailed the crimes HSBC helped fund, including “tens of thousands of murders” and laundering money for Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. By contrast, Silk Road users have only been shown to have bought and sold drugs. (The six murders-for-hire commissioned by alleged former Silk Road head Ross Ulbricht were never carried out.) In fact, by moving transactions online, Silk Road likely decreased the violence associated with the drug trade.
Again, no individual associate with HSBC paid any money or spent a day in jail. Shrem is currently in custody. Why is there such a disparity? Clearly the size, scope, violence or effect of the crime can’t justify the discrepancy in response. The Justice Department explained it by saying that HSBC is, in essence, Too Big to Jail.
"Had the US authorities decided to press criminal charges," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer during the announcement of the HSBC settlement. "HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized."