November 21, 2018 / 1:31 AM / a month ago

Australia's CBA chair defends claim she raised governance concerns

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s (CBA.AX) chairwoman on Wednesday defended her testimony to a financial sector inquiry that she had raised governance concerns with senior management, even though lawyers said there were no records of her doing so.

FILE PHOTO: The Commonwealth Bank (CBA) corporate logo is pictured outside the bank's headquarters in Sydney, Australia, August 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

Catherine Livingstone was also grilled over why the head of the scandal-hit retail division was later appointed CEO, and why executive bonuses were only affected after events were reported in the media rather than when the board became aware of them.

In her second day in the witness stand at the quasi-judicial inquiry, Livingstone said she had confronted management at a board meeting in late 2016 after regulators warned the bank about breaches of anti-money laundering and terror-financing laws (AML/CTF).

“Do you accept that they (the minutes) don’t record a very significant exchange that you say occurred at this meeting but which we have no record of?” barrister assisting the inquiry Rowena Orr asked.

“I do accept that, but I am also aware that I am giving evidence under oath. To the best of my recollection, it was at the October board meeting that I challenged management in relation to the AML/CTF reports,” Livingstone said.

Australia’s largest bank in May agreed to pay a record A$700 million ($506 million) fine to settle charges brought in late 2017 over tens of thousands of breaches of money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws.

The scandal led to a scathing report by the banking regulator, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), about the bank’s governance shortcomings.

Livingstone, who became CBA chairwoman a few months before the breaches became public, said the board had cut directors’ pay in response to the scandal but that former chairman David Turner had refused a request to return 40 percent of his final year’s fees.

Turner could not immediately be reached for comment.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The money-laundering allegations and other scandals severely damaged CBA’s brand and led to the departure of former CEO Ian Narev in April.

But that was just the beginning of the reputational and financial damage for Australia’s biggest bank, which now faces mounting legal and compliance costs amid a slowdown in its core mortgage business.

From its first hearings in February, the Royal Commission inquiry has revealed systemic wrongdoing and a pervasive culture of greed at CBA and Australia’s other big banks.

On Tuesday, Chief Executive Matt Comyn also blamed previous management for the bank’s failings although at the time he was head of retail banking overseeing one of the most scandal-hit divisions.

Asked at the inquiry on Wednesday whether Comyn was an appropriate choice to replace Narev, Livingstone said his character and ability to admit mistakes were factors that helped the board decide in his favor.

She acknowledged that since the 2011 financial year the bank had not reduced an executive’s short-term bonus because of “a risk-related issue” unless it had been made public.

The barrister asked what message that sent.

“Well, clearly that there will only be consequence if there is a public event, a media event,” Livingstone said.

Westpac Banking Corp (WBC.AX) Chief Executive Brian Hartzer is testifying on Wednesday afternoon. The heads of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ.AX), National Australia Bank (NAB.AX), and investment bank Macquarie Group Ltd (MQG.AX) are expected to testify before the end of the month.

Reporting by Paulina Duran; Editing by John Mair and Stephen Coates

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