BERLIN—The two towers of Deutsche Bank loom large on Frankfurt’s skyline—although they are still dwarfed by the city’s other main private bank, where the long-running gag in the urinals on the 40th floor is for smartly-dressed executives to imagine that they are peeing on Deutsche. Such is the macho, competitive world of Frankfurt finance. And these days the staff at Deutsche must feel as if they’re getting rained on from all sides.
Thursday at 9:00 a.m., a group of police squad cars drove up behind the DB headquarters. Then the team of federal agents, tax authorities, and prosecutors poured in through the front entrance. They were there to gather evidence on employees who are suspected of helping clients launder money from illegal activity through offshore tax havens.
The ongoing investigation was triggered by data first made public in the Panama Papers leaks of 2016, a trove of documents detailing the creation and use of offshore bank accounts by everyone from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cellist friend to the late film director Stanley Kubrick. Speaking yesterday to the newspaper Rheinische Post, German Minister of Justice Katarina Barley described this new case of potential money laundering as “a great injustice that comes at the expense of us all” and emphasized “the law applies to everyone, also to every bank.”
The raids apparently came as a surprise to Deutsche, which, significantly, controls $364 million of President Donald Trump’s debt and has a very long rap sheet of alleged misconduct. With its shares tanking on the stock market, the bank has been trying to revamp its image. And in fact, some of Deutsche’s ongoing public relations crisis stems from being Trump’s long-term lender.
In the late '90s Wall Street would no longer touch Trump, but Deutsche was said to be dreaming of American success and—more specifically—breaking into the New York real estate market. Since then, the bank has continued to let Trump borrow money, and even gave a multimillion dollar loan to his son-in-law Jared Kushner right before the U.S. elections.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating Deutsche Bank for a money laundering scheme—in which the bank allegedly was helping sanctioned clients in Moscow smuggle billions of dollars out of Russia—and for obvious reasons there were issues about a conflict of interest with the U.S. president. Indeed, the relationship between Trump and Deutsche is still something that Rep. Maxine Waters, the incoming head of the House Financial Services Committee, would like to know more about.
For all Trump’s talk against foreign corporations in the U.S., some German newspapers reported last year that two-thirds of the campaign donations that German companies made in the U.S. elections went to Donald Trump’s campaign—although Deutsche Bank appeared to have made most of its donations to the various other Republican candidates at the time.
Yesterday in Frankfurt, Deutsche Bank said that it would “cooperate fully“ with the public prosecutor’s office but insisted that “as far as we are concerned, we have already provided the authorities with all the relevant information regarding the Panama Papers.“ But this week’s raids (the cops and lawyers were back on the scene Friday) might actually mark the first of many new cases to tackle illegal activity around offshore bank accounts.
The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which first uncovered the Panama Papers story, reported Thursday that the German federal investigation team has shared the documents and data that it collected from the “Panama papers” and related tax havens with various other countries. And Deutsche Bank certainly is not the only bank that may be guilty—500 banks are implicated in the Panama Papers worldwide.
The name of the federal investigation team—”Olet“—is inspired by a famous Latin phrase attributed to the Emperor Vespasian. His son criticized him for taxing urine, gathered in cesspools and used as an industrial chemical in those days. Vespasian held up a gold coin: “Pecunia non olet,” he said: money doesn’t stink. At least it’s not supposed to stink this much.