WASHINGTON – I have learned not to be surprised by anything these days, but, even so, I did not expect that my wife and I would be flagged as possible financiers of international terrorism.
And here’s the really awkward part: The people who flagged us were right to do so.
My odyssey in the criminal underworld began when I stopped at my local Citibank branch to get some cash. The teller told me my account had been blocked. My wife went to an ATM to take out $200. Denied. Soon I discovered that checks I had written to the au pair and my daughter’s volleyball instructor had bounced.
I began making calls to the bank and eventually got an explanation: The bank was looking into whether my wife and I were laundering money, as they are required to by the Bank Secrecy Act as amended by the Patriot Act.
Money laundering! There isn’t enough money passing through my account to launder a terrorist’s lemonade stand. I grew suspicious: Was it because I had made fun of Steven Mnuchin’s air travel? Or because I flouted the law that makes it illegal to laugh at Jeff Sessions? Maybe Trump is taking this press-is-the-enemy-of-the-people thing seriously.
In reality, the bank seemed particularly suspicious that my wife was the terrorist, which will come as no surprise to anybody who knows us both. She is 5-foot-1 and fearsome. But her weapons are public-opinion surveys and focus groups: She’s a Democratic pollster.
The bank needed answers. Did she work for the government? How much money does she make? Is she a government contractor?
Our answers momentarily satisfied them. But a week later they came back with a more peculiar question: Is my wife politically influential? This created a dilemma: Would an affirmative answer result in personal questioning by Gina Haspel at a black-site prison?
I am not writing this column from Gitmo, so I surmise that our latest answers were satisfactory. Still, I have not tried to board a plane since then.
I’d like to complain about crazy federal regulations and corporate heavy-handedness, but the truth is Citibank, though perhaps clumsy, was doing what it should be doing. “Know your customer” regulations are important because they prevent organized-crime networks, terrorists and assorted bad guys from moving money.
Banking regulations generally are a hassle, and expensive. But they protect us – not just from terrorists such as my wife and me but from financial institutions that would otherwise exploit their customers and jeopardize economic stability the way they did before the 2008 crash.
This is why what’s happening in Congress now is disappointing. Years after the passage of Dodd-Frank, there is a need for regulatory relief, particularly for small community banks. Instead, the banking bill that passed the Senate this week allows big banks to return to much of the recklessness that made the 2008 crash possible.
If reducing the regulatory burden on small banks were the goal, there is a lot of “low-hanging fruit” lawmakers could pluck, says Scott Astrada, director of federal advocacy for the pro-consumer Center for Responsible Lending. But this is “outside the realm of what this Congress wants to focus on.” Among the changes that have broad support but aren’t in the bill: getting federal agencies to pick up more of the burden on small banks for money-laundering enforcement. “Why aren’t we doing that instead of taking a community banking bill and packing it with provisions that benefit multinationals and Wall Street banks?”
The regulatory dragnet that caught me is a sign of progress. Six years ago, federal regulators warned Citibank that it wasn’t doing enough on money laundering. In January, the feds announced a $70 million fine against Citibank for failing to take sufficient action. Other banks have received similar punishments.
Now the bank is finally casting a wide net to find bad guys. Bank officials explained to me that a screening service it uses flagged my wife and me because my wife’s stepmother is a member of Congress. Because she’s an “SPF” – senior public figure – her immediate family and close associates can be flagged for extra scrutiny. When my wife didn’t initially respond to the bank’s inquiries, our account was frozen. That’s more or less how it should work.
Of course, it would help if the president and his family were held to the same standard.
Because of Jared Kushner’s relationship to a senior public figure, Citigroup’s chief executive visited him at the White House last year, and soon after, the Kushner family received a $325-million business loan from Citi, according to the New York Times.
Because of my relationship to a senior public figure, my $60 check to the volleyball instructor bounced.
That makes me mad. But not so mad that I should be put on the no-fly list.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.