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And Here Come the Lawyers: Securities Fraud Suits Commence Private Litigation Phase of Danske Bank Scandal

More Allegations of Nordic Malfeasance Surface as Private Party Lawsuits Beset Danske Bank and SwedBank Gets Sucked into Unfolding Scandal

“Something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.” – Olav Haazen

In what is perhaps the least surprising development in the sprawling, continuously unfolding Danske Bank (“Danske”) money laundering scandal, investor groups have filed private securities fraud actions against the Denmark-based bank and its top executives: first in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York then, most recently, in Copenhagen City Court in Denmark. These suits coincide with an announcement from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) that it, too, was opening its own probe of potential securities and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) violations at Danske that could result in significant financial penalties on top of what could be the enormous private judgments. More significantly, the Danske shareholder suits and SEC investigation illustrate a second front of enormous exposure from a securities fraud standpoint for banks involved in their own money laundering scandals and a rock-solid guaranteed template for future investors similarly damaged by such scandals.

As we have blogged herehere and here, the Danske scandal – the largest alleged money laundering scandal in history – has yielded criminal and administrative investigations in Estonia, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom and by the United States Department of Justice. Those investigations have focused primarily on Danske’s compliance with applicable AML regulations, as well as the implementation and effectiveness of those regulations. The SEC and civil plaintiffs now have opened a new line of inquiry focusing less on the institutional and regulatory failures that yielded the scandal and responsibility for them and more on the damage those failures have caused Danske investors.

Meanwhile, banking stalwart Swedbank is reacting, with mixed success at best, to allegations that suspicious transactions involving billions of Euros passed from Danske’s Estonian branch through Swedbank’s own Baltic branches — allegations which have produced a controversial internal investigation report, a law enforcement raid, the loss of the bank’s CEO, and plunging stock value.

Background

The Danske story has been told many times. Between 2007 and 2016, at least 200 billion Euros were laundered through Danske’s Estonia branch primarily by actors connected to the former Soviet Union. During that time, numerous red flags allegedly were ignored by Danske operatives permitting countless suspicious transactions to flow through the bank unabated. Ultimately, a whistleblower alerted Danske management of his concerns over the suspicious transactions, prompting an internal investigation that ultimately revealed the massive scope of the money laundering operation.

The Securities Fraud Angle

While initial investigations have examined how a substantial European bank and the regulators responsible for overseeing it could miss or ignore thousands of suspicious transactions channeling hundreds of billions of illicitly-gained Euros to the West, the bank’s investors and the SEC are attempting to hold the bank accountable for misleading investors concerning what it knew of the Estonian money laundering and what it meant to the bank’s overall bottom line. When the results of the Danske internal investigation were announced in October 2018, revealing for the first time the full scope of the scandal, Danske’s share value cratered. Ultimately, Danske’s share price halved and investors in Denmark holding direct shares in the bank and foreign investors holding depositary shares lost almost $9 billion.

Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 773 Pension Fund v. Danske Bank, et al.

On January 9, 2019, the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 773 Pension Fund filed a class action complaint (the “SDNY Action”) on its own behalf and on behalf of purchasers of Danske Bank American Depositary Receipts (“ADRs”) between January 9, 2014 and October 23, 2018. An ADR is a security that allows American investors to own and trade shares of a foreign company, created when a foreign company wants to list its shares on an American exchange. The company first sells its shares to a domestic branch of an American brokerage. Then those shares are deposited with a depositary bank, a United States bank with foreign operations that acts as a foreign custodian that, in turn, issues depositary shares to the purchasing broker. The depositary shares are then sold on an American exchange. Depositary shares are derivatives – they represent a security issued by the foreign company and their value derives from the share value of the foreign company. Thus if, for instance, the foreign company became embroiled in a money laundering scandal of unprecedented magnitude, and if that scandal had a deleterious effect on the company’s stock, it would create a coextensive loss in value to the ADR. As it happens, the American class of Danske investors who brought the SDNY Action have alleged this precise scenario.

The SDNY Action presents a standard Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 fraud claim (as well as a claim for control person liability under Section 20(a) of the 1934 Act) against Danske and its chief executives centered on the bank’s alleged knowledge of and failure to disclose the Estonian money laundering since 2014. According to the complaint, the deception took two forms.

First, in 2014, Danske executives became aware that billions of dollars in illegal transactions were flowing through the Estonian branch and generating significant profits for the branch and the bank generally. Yet, armed with the knowledge that its “outsized profits” were the result of illegal money laundering, Danske issued annual reports in 2014 to 2016 to its investors in which it “attributed the results to Danske Bank’s purported ongoing operation and strategic prowess, rather than to the money laundering that the whistleblower had already disclosed to Dansk Bank’s senior executives.” Danske’s concealment of the true basis for its financial performance permitted its shares to trade at artificially inflated prices. Share prices were further inflated when Danske, relying on its financial performance (driven by its processing of stolen Russian money) sought and obtained several corporate debt rating increases that facilitated its raising hundreds of millions of dollars by issuing and selling bonds in the European bond markets.

Second, in February 2017, rumors began to spread concerning Danske’s Estonian bank operations. Danske initially downplayed these rumors, releasing a statement that “[s]everal media today report on a case of possible international money laundering, and Danske Bank is mentioned as one of the banks that may have been used. For Danske Bank, the transactions involved are almost exclusively transactions carried out at out Estonian branch in the 2011-2014 period.”   The statement continued to tout the significant steps Danske had taken since 2014 to combat money laundering and the success of those efforts. Later, in September 2017, as reporting increased on Danske’s involvement in money laundering, it issued another release, stating that it had “expanded its ongoing investigation into the situation at its Estonian branch” and following “a root cause analysis concluding that several major deficiencies led to the branch not being sufficiently effective in preventing it from potentially being used for money laundering in the period from 2007 to 2015.”

From there the scandal broke in waves of investigations, fines, management departures, scaled-down and closing operations, and an ever-increasing total figure culminating in a Wall Street Journal report in October 2017 on Danske’s investigations pegging the total amount of illicit transactions at 200 billion Euros involving upwards of 15,000 non-resident customers.

According to the SDNY Action plaintiffs, between February 2018, “when Danske Bank ADRs traded at their Class Period high of $20.90 per share” and October 2018, when the magnitude of the scandal was revealed, “Danske Bank lost $11.40 per share in value, or 54%, erasing more than $2.793 billion in market value.” As luck would have it, the plaintiffs further note that “[a]s the U.S. SEC, DOJ and Treasury and Estonian Authorities continue to investigate, Danske Bank has built a reserve of $2.7 billion – equivalent to 85% of its 2017 net profit – to cover potential fines and reportedly continues to add to that reserve.”

The Danish Front

And Danske might be right to “continue to add to that reserve.” On March 14, 2019, a group of institutional investors filed a lawsuit against Danske in Copenhagen City Court on behalf of “[a]n international coalition of public pension funds, governmental entities, and asset managers” from Asia, Australia, Europe and North America (the “Copenhagen Action”). The Copenhagen Action was brought by the Delaware law firm Grant & Eisenhower and Florida securities fraud firm DRRT and was filed on behalf of all investors who purchased Danske securities since December 31, 2012.

Grant & Eisenhower explains in its press release, “[t]o date, more than 169 institutional investors, including many of the world’s largest pension funds, suffered substantial losses at the hands of Danske Bank unchecked laundering of funds passing through its branch in Estonia. The claimant group seeks $475 million USD in damages.” The Copenhagen Action follows the arc of the SDNY Action. As the lead attorney on the matter, Olav Haazan, describes: “Although the criminal laundering scheme flowed through the little Estonian branch, our lawsuit asserts that something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. . . . Danske Bank’s management engaged in a concerted cover-up of its enormous money laundering exposure, while continuing to paint a rosy picture to investors. For years, leadership made no disclosures about the problem and then misrepresented the extent of its participation in the scheme, while touting the bank’s anti-money laundering policies and procedures.”

Mr. Haazan has promised a second filing by June 1 by another group of aggrieved investors.

What – Me Worry?

Danske held its annual shareholders meeting over the course of five days after the Copenhagen suit was filed. Predictably, investors were displeased. Yet, Danske’s new Chairman, Karsten Dybvad struck a defiant tone in the face of potential civil exposure in the billions of dollars. Responding to the lawsuits, Dybvad told investors, “[i]t is our fundamental position that the bank has lived up to its information obligation. As such we don’t find any basis for lawsuits or for a settlement.” Nevertheless, according to Dybvad, “[t]he executive board has decided to waive the bonuses that could have been paid for 2018.”

Enter Swedbank

Howard Wilkinson, the Danske insider whose report launched a thousand investigations, testified that, while Danske’s role in facilitating money laundering was clear, where that money ultimately went is unknown. He went on to speculate that with the uncertainty surrounding any subsequent transactions from Danske involving laundered funds, Danske’s involvement is likely “the tip of the iceberg.” Recent events involving Swedbank have begun to take us further from the summit.

In late February, reports from Swedish broadcaster SVT revealed that between 2007 and 2015, suspicious transactions involving billions of Euros passed from Danske’s Estonian branch through Swedbank’s own Baltic branches. Swedbank’s shares fell nearly 20% on this news. Swedbank then hastily commissioned an internal investigation that yielded a widely lambasted and heavily redacted report from Forensic Risk Alliance concluding that an undisclosed number of suspicious Danske customers were also Swedbank customers and those customers moved some amount of money through Swedbank. From there, the Swedbank story has predictably exploded in size and scope.

First, on March 26, 2019, Swedish broadcaster SVT, which initially reported on the Swedbank scandal, reported that as much as 23 billion Euros in suspicious transactions flowed through the Swedbank Estonian operations. The following day, SVT reported that Swedbank was under investigation for withholding information from U.S. investigators about suspicious transaction and customers, including Paul Manafort and deposed Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych. Later that day, Sweden’s Economic Crime Authority raided Swedbank’s headquarters related to an insider trading probe investigating whether the bank informed its largest shareholders of the February SVT report in advance.

Later still that day, news broke that Swedbank is under investigation by the New York Department of Financial Services for providing investors with misleading information concerning the money laundering scandal. Finally, March 27, 2019 was capped with an announcement that the Economic Crime Authority was also investigating whether Swedbank misled investors and the market through communications made in the months preceding the emergence of the scandal. The bank’s shares plunged an additional 12%.

Responding to the onslaught, Swedbank CEO Birgette Bonnensen – former head of Swedbank’s Baltic operations – issued a press release intended to reassure shaken investors. Noting that “[t]his has been a very tough day for Swedbank, our employees and our shareholders” Bonnensen stated that “Swedbank believes that it has been truthful and accurate in its communications,” adding “I will do everything in my power to handle the current situation.” Ms. Bonnensen was fired by the Swedbank board the following day.

Swedbank halted trading on the Stockholm exchange that day, but not before its shares fell another 7.8%, bringing its total decline since February to over 30% – wiping away approximately 7 billion Euro of its market value.

Adding to the intrigue swirling around the Swedbank story, a legal fight has broken out between Swedbank and Swedish prosecutors concerning the contents of a sealed envelope – a report prepared by Norwegian lawyer Erling Grimstad, who was commissioned by the bank to examine its activities after the scandal came to light in February. Swedbank contends the report is protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege and the bank will not waive the privilege until “all foreseeable consequences are known and assessed,” stating further “[i]t is incomprehensible that the prosecutor doesn’t respect the law and instead uses media to cast suspicion over the management of the bank by implying that the management is hampering the investigation.”

In just over a month, Swedbank went from Danske spectator to the subject of its own now 135 billion Euro Estonian money laundering scandal. More details will follow when the inevitable shareholder complaints are filed.

Copyright © by Ballard Spahr LLP

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About this Author

Terence Grugan, Attorney, Ballard
Attorney

Terence M. Grugan is an associate in the firm's White Collar Defense/Internal Investigations and Commercial Litigation Practice Groups. In his white collar practice, Terence represents individuals and entities who are targets, subjects, or witnesses in criminal, regulatory, or administrative government investigations, including investigations conducted by the Department of Justice, Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission, state attorneys general, local, state, or federal inspectors general, and local law enforcement. Terence has defended clients from...

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