By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Danske Bank A/S and four former top executives were sued on Wednesday by a U.S. shareholder that accused Denmark's largest bank of defrauding investors and inflating its share price by hiding and failing to stop widespread money laundering at its Estonian branch.
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan by a New York pension fund that is seeking class-action status and damages for investors in Danske's American depositary shares from Jan. 9, 2014 to Oct. 23, 2018.
Danske was accused of being "intentionally less than forthcoming" to Danish regulators even after a whistleblower alerted the Copenhagen-based bank to suspected money laundering, while overstating its legitimate profitability and ability to thwart misconduct.
The bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment after market hours in Europe on behalf of the defendants, who include former Chief Executive Thomas Borgen, former Chairman Ole Andersen, and two former chief financial officers.
Borgen resigned last Sept. 19, when Danske said an internal probe had uncovered about 200 billion euros (US$231 billion) of payments made from 2007 to 2015 through its small Estonian branch, and that many payments appeared suspicious.
Andersen was replaced in December.
Authorities in Denmark, Estonia, Great Britain and the United States are investigating the payments, including in a criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice. Danske has said it has been cooperating with authorities.
The Sept. 19 report came one year after Danske expanded its probe into the Estonian branch, following what it called "a root cause analysis concluding that several major deficiencies led to the branch not being sufficiently effective in preventing it from potentially being used for money laundering."
According to the complaint, the market value of Danske's ADRs fell by more than $2.54 billion as investors learned of the full scope of the scandal.
It is common for shareholders to sue companies in the United States after what they consider unexpected share price declines.
The lawsuit is led by the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 773 Pension Fund of Glens Falls, New York. Its law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd specializes in securities fraud.
The case is Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 773 Pension Fund vs Danske Bank A/S et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-00235.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)