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Bank with close ties to Bush administration engulfed in scandal
By Joseph Kay
24 August 2004
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The Justice Department announced on Friday that it is launching a criminal investigation into Riggs Bank. In recent months, the Washington-based bank has become engulfed in a scandal related to charges of money-laundering, corruption and terrorist financing.

Riggs, which touts itself as "the most important bank in the most important city in the world," has been known for decades as the bank of the Washington elite, including politicians, foreign ambassadors and the wealthy. It has held presidential accounts stretching back to the time of the Civil War, and is a prominent fixture in the political and social establishment of the nation's capital.

Or rather, it was a prominent fixture. In July, PNL Financial Services agreed to buy Riggs for $779 million. The sale will become final by early next year.

The bank's prominent embassy and international operations will be shut down in an attempt to bury a scandal that has the potential of becoming much larger. That an institution like Riggs could so quickly disintegrate is an indication of the extent of the corruption that has overtaken American finance and government.

There are three separate activities for which Riggs has come under investigation: (1) its relationship with the Saudi royal family and the potential financing of two of the September 11 hijackers through an account owned by the wife of the Saudi ambassador; (2) its relationship with the corrupt and dictatorial regime of the oil-rich West African country of Equatorial Guinea; and (3) its banking business with the former military dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet.

The Saudi accounts

The public revelations concerning the bank's relationship with Saudi Arabia came mainly through the publication of a Newsweek article on December 2, 2002 ("The Saudi Money Trail"). The news magazine reported that in January 2000, two of the hijackers who were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon—Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar—received monetary aid and other assistance from Omar al-Bayoumi.

Alhazmi and Almihdhar are at the center of suspicions of US government complicity in the 9/11 attacks—and for good reason. The CIA had identified the two as early as January 2000 as Al Qaeda operatives, and the Washington Post reported in June 2002 that the FBI also knew of the two from January of 2000. Yet they were allowed to enter the US and live openly in San Diego for 18 months prior to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Newsweek reported in September 2002 that the roommate of Alhazmi and Almihdhar in San Diego was an FBI informant.

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