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BNP pleads guilty again in $9 billion U.S. sanctions accord

By Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - BNP Paribas, for the second time in nine days, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions, as part of a nearly $9 billion settlement in which the French bank admitted to breaking embargoes against Sudan, Cuba and Iran.

Prosecutors had accused the bank of processing billions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of the Sudanese and others barred because of human rights abuses, support for terrorists and other national security concerns.

U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield accepted the plea at a hearing in Manhattan federal court. The plea was entered by the bank's general counsel, Georges Dirani.

BNP Paribas admitted to having conspired from 2004 to 2012 to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The U.S. Justice Department unveiled the record settlement on July 1, when the bank pleaded guilty in New York state court to charges of falsifying business records and conspiracy brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

Schofield accepted BNP's plea and approved the settlement as fair and appropriate, saying the "severity of the defendant's conduct more than warrants" the size of the penalties. She scheduled sentencing for Oct. 3.

"No financial institution is immune from the rule of law," Schofield said. The plea comes as the Justice Department steps up investigations of other banks for possible money laundering or sanctions violations.

Banks under scrutiny include France's Credit Agricole SA and Societe Generale, and Germany's Commerzbank AG and Deutsche Bank AG, according to sources and public disclosures.

In an unprecedented step, regulators banned BNP for a year from conducting certain U.S. dollar transactions, a key part of the bank's global business. It also agreed to forfeit $8.83 billion and pay a $140 million fine, a record for violating U.S. sanctions.

The criminal charges and plea marked a rarity for a major financial institution, as U.S. authorities sought to combat criticism after the financial crisis that some banks had become "too big to jail."

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office spearheaded the BNP investigation, said in a speech in March that it is "dangerous" to presume that the collateral consequences of charging financial institutions mean they should never be prosecuted.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Aruna Viswanatha in Washington; Editing by Chris Reese and Andre Grenon)

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