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2021 Excellence in Collaboration and Partnerships finalist

The FinCEN Files

About the Project

The FinCEN Files began with an unprecedented cache of secret government documents and grew into the largest reporting collaboration in history.

The partnership, which began with BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ultimately included more than 400 journalists from 110 news outlets in 88 countries: https://www.icij.org/investigations/fincen-files/fincen-files-media-partners/

Working together, the partnership delivered an unparalleled view of global financial corruption, banks that enable it, and government agencies that watch as it flourishes.

Our investigation revealed that five global banks — JPMorgan, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon — continued to profit from suspect transactions even after they paid fines to U.S. authorities for previous misconduct and in some cases signed deferred prosecution deals.

We showed, transaction by transaction, how easily some of the world’s most notorious criminals used the U.S. banking system to legitimize the profits from deadly drug wars, the cash that funds terror attacks, and the fortunes embezzled from developing countries.

Even amid a global pandemic and a convulsive U.S. presidential election, this project was an international bombshell.

On the first day of publication alone, the partnership put out more than 100 stories. The impact was immediate: Investors drove the stock price of JPMorgan and other big banks down sharply. Governments around the world launched inquiries. Lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe demanded action. New York’s top banking regulator acknowledged dirty money is “wrapped within the guts of financial institutions.”

The FinCEN Files investigation began when BuzzFeed obtained, through a whistleblower, a remarkable collection of highly secret government documents on file with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The documents included more than 2,100 “suspicious activity reports,” which financial institutions are required to submit to FinCEN when they see the hallmarks of illegal activity.

Turning these dense reports into groundbreaking journalism required a massive, coordinated reporting effort. Journalists fanned out across the globe, speaking with thousands of sources: presidential advisers, bankers, cops, even gangsters and arms dealers. Along the way, the partners obtained more than 17,600 additional documents, including audit reports and other records, from dozens of countries.

Pulling off this project also required building trust and an understanding that, together, we could produce stronger, deeper stories with global reach and impact. The virtual newsroom designed by ICIJ — “the iHub” — was key to this process, giving team members a secure place where they could communicate and swap documents across multiple time zones and develop a spirit of teamwork and what we call “radical sharing.”

For this entry, we are submitting stories produced by ICIJ and BuzzFeed. These stories wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration, co-reporting, information sharing, fortitude and fearlessness of all the media partners around the globe. A sampling of stories from other partners can be seen here: https://www.icij.org/investigations/fincen-files/fincen-files-stories-from-around-the-globe/