Frozen Account Ruffles Nuns
Published on Wednesday, February 8, 2006 by the Tampa Tribune (Florida)
Frozen Account Ruffles Nuns
by Elaine Silvestrini and Howard Altman
 

ST. LEO - The nuns of the Holy Name Monastery say they have been swept into the net cast by the nation's antiterrorism laws.

The sisters say the monastery's main bank account was frozen without explanation in November, creating financial headaches and making the Benedictine nuns hopping mad. They were told the Patriot Act was the cause.

"I think the Patriot Act is unwise, let's say, and that if it happened to us, it can happen to anybody," said Sister Jean Abbott, the monastery's business manager. "I think people need to know that nobody is safe from, in some cases, really ridiculous scrutiny."

The nuns didn't know anything was amiss until Nov. 10, when their checks started bouncing without warning and the account wouldn't accept deposits, including paychecks from state agencies where some of the sisters hold jobs.

Two of the bounced checks had gone to other charities, Abbott said. Others went to pay Visa and utility bills. In all, the account was frozen for a week. In that time, 22 checks were returned with an ominous but baffling stamp: "Refer to Maker."

Before everything was straightened out, the nuns ran up $399.56 in fees, which were later reimbursed by their apologetic local bank, Abbott said. The mess took nearly three months to remedy, she said.

"It was annoying," Abbott said. "I wasn't angry with our local bank because they were doing the best they could." The corporate entity that owns the bank is another issue.

Sister Mary Clare Neuhofer said it was Wachovia.

Kevin Bezner, a spokesman for Wachovia, declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.

Problems Began With 80-Year-Old

Abbott said she was told the troubles started because one 80-year-old nun who is a signatory to the account didn't have her Social Security number and photo ID on file.

"Clearly an international spy," Abbott said wryly.

None of the nuns has given the bank that information, Abbott said. "We've been in business 116 years. No one's ever asked."

Against the Patriot Act from the start, the sisters have members of Congress on speed dial, Abbott said. "They'll be hearing from us now that this is all settled."

Among the lesser-known parts of the USA Patriot Act are banking provisions designed to help law enforcement agents track potential terrorists and money launderers. The law holds financial institutions accountable if money is funneled through them to terrorist organizations.

Consequently, experts say, banks have set up a variety of rules intended to ensure they know who their customers are.

But legal experts familiar with the Patriot Act disagree about what the act requires.

One thing is clear. "The Patriot Act does not require that nuns' bank accounts be frozen," said Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "The Patriot Act has a lot of problems, but that's not one of them."

But Hansen said he has no reason to doubt that the nuns were told the Patriot Act was behind their troubles. "It is our experience that there are a lot of things these days where people say, 'The Patriot Act made us do it.' Often it's true, but it isn't always true."

Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the Patriot Act requires banks to verify client information on all new bank accounts but not on existing accounts. Many banks, however, are checking information on existing accounts as well.

"They don't want to look at their rolls and see Osama bin Laden and then risk the wrath of Congress," he said.

Situation Doesn't Make Sense

Peter Djinis, a Virginia lawyer, formerly headed the regulatory program of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, better known as FinCen, a bureau of the Treasury Department. He said the nuns' situation doesn't make sense.

"The Patriot Act under these circumstances would not require a bank to freeze anything," Djinis said. "It required the Treasury Department and federal banking agencies to establish minimum customer identification standards for setting up new accounts." That information includes the person's name, address, birth date and Social Security number. No account could be opened after Oct. 1, 2003, without that information.

The point is to allow investigators to track transactions with accurate information about the parties involved, Djinis said. Its aim is to keep accounts from being established under false names.

"It's very confusing to me, unless they had some reason to suspect that the information supplied by those poor, hapless nuns was not reliable," Djinis said.

Louis Harvey, president of Dalbar Inc., a securities research firm in Boston, said banks are required by law to make sure their records are in order. He said there are good reasons the bank didn't notify the monastery its account was under scrutiny.

"Let's assume that it was not nuns and it was some money-laundering scheme run by terrorists," Harvey said. "The last thing in the world you'd expect the bank to do is notify the terrorists."

He said banks look for patterns of activity, such as large transactions that could raise red flags. But exactly what constitutes a pattern of activity is unclear, Harvey said. The rules are vague by design.

When a bank detects suspicious activity, he said, it freezes the account and refers the matter to federal regulators.

Anne Marie Kelly, a spokeswoman for FinCen, said banks are required to file suspicious activity reports, also known as SARS, but not to freeze accounts. That would be up to the bank, she said, and possibly the Office of Comptroller of the Currency.

A spokesman for the comptroller's office declined to comment Tuesday.

"Last year, we had what we called defensive filings of SARS, a number of banks filing on a number of accounts that upon review were not deemed suspicious," Kelly said. "This could have been an example of that."

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