A senior Treasury official concurred, saying he could recall no meeting in which member of his agency attempted to persuade the Justice Department to settle the case.
Justice officials added that, while they stopped short of a criminal prosecution, they do not believe HSBC got off easy. They were forced to pay a record fine, agree to government monitoring, agree to continue to cooperate with investigators, and to become "the gold standard" in complying with U.S. money laundering laws.
But advocates who want to see greater efforts to stop banks from moving money for those suspected of criminal activity said they have not been impressed. "This thing stinks to high heaven," Blum said.
Stefanie Ostfeld, a policy advisor with Global Witness, an international advocacy organization that works to root out financial crimes and corruption, told ABC News, "If we want to change the behavior of bankers, the punishment needs to fit the crime."
"Senior bankers must be held legally responsible," Ostfeld said. "At the very least, they should be prevented from working in the industry and their bonuses should be clawed back. In the most serious cases, like HSBC, senior bankers should face jail time."
In what may have been a preface of what is to come, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took her first crack at the subject during her first Banking Committee hearing earlier this month, when she grilled regulators.
"If they can break the law and drag in billions in profits, and then turn around and settle, paying out of those profits — they don't have much incentive to follow the law," she said. "It's also the case that every time there's a settlement and not a trial, it means that we didn't have those days and days and days of testimony about what those financial institutions have been up to … Can you identify when you last took [one of] the Wall Street banks to trial?"
Thomas J. Curry, the comptroller of the currency, was among those being questioned. He could not name an instance. "We have not had to do it as a practical matter to achieve our supervisory goals," he said.