Second Part in a Two-Part Series

The Tale of an AML BSA Exam Gone Wrong

As we have blogged, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the decision of the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) to issue a cease and desist order against California Pacific Bank (the “Bank”) for the Bank’s alleged failure to comply with Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations or have a sufficient plan and program in place to do so.

In our first post, we described how the Ninth Circuit rejected the Bank’s constitutional challenge to the relevant regulation, and accorded broad deference to the FDIC in its interpretations of its own regulations, expressed in the form of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council Manual (“FFIEC Manual”).  This post discusses the Court’s review of the Bank’s challenge under the Administrative Procedures Act to the FDIC’s factual findings of AML program failings.

The California Pacific opinion provides a significant piece of guidance for banks questioning the adequacy of its BSA compliance program: consult and abide the FFIEC Manual.  Furthermore, it demonstrates that no shortcuts are permitted when it comes to establishing and maintaining a BSA compliance program.  The BSA and the FDIC’s regulations contain firm guidelines and the FFIEC Manual puts banks of all sizes on notice of what compliance is expected of them.  The independence of both the AML compliance officer and of testing; adequate risk assessments of customer accounts; and the correction of prior regulator findings of AML deficiencies are key. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Outlines BSA Compliance Obligations and How One Small Bank Failed to Meet Them

Court Defers Heavily to the FDIC and the FFIEC Manual

First Part in a Two-Part Series

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the decision of the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) to issue a cease and desist order against California Pacific Bank (the “Bank”) for the Bank’s alleged failure to comply with Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations or have a sufficient plan and program in place to do so.

This decision, California Pacific Bank v. FDIC, provides a nearly step-by-step analysis of what is required of banks under the BSA and a vivid illustration of an Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) program that did not pass muster in the eyes of a regulator.  It highlights the general rules that banks of all sizes, but particularly smaller community banks, must keep in mind concerning their compliance programs – size does not matter and you are on notice of what compliance entails.

Importantly, and before upholding the FDIC’s factual findings regarding the Bank’s violations, the Ninth Circuit first rejected the Bank’s claim that the regulation at issue (which required the Bank to implement an AML compliance program which complied with the “four pillars” of such a program) was unconstitutionally vague. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit found that the FDIC has broad discretion when interpreting this regulation, described by the Court as “ambiguous.”

This post will summarize the case and the key role played by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council Manual (“FFIEC Manual”) in both the Court’s rejection of the constitutional challenge and the broad deference which the Court accorded to the FDIC and its interpretation of its own regulations.  The second post will turn to the Bank’s alleged AML program failings and the Bank’s challenges to the FDIC’s many factual findings. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects Constitutional Challenge to AML Compliance Program Regulation

But Bank Customer’s Foreign Tax Evasion Scheme Still May Merit a SAR FilingThe Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) recently advised that a financial institution is not required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) based solely upon a customer’s inquiry into or participation in a foreign tax regularization program.  FinCEN issued this statement on February 21, 2018 in response to Florida International Banker’s Association’s request for guidance (“FIBA Request”) in 2016, which initiated the request because a number of its members expressed an interest in tax regularization programs and sought clarification on the AML implications of such programs.

This issue, perhaps seemingly esoteric, involves a basic question of increasing practical importance, particularly in light of the Panama Papers related international scandals, and global criticism of the U.S. as a potential haven for foreign tax cheats and money launderers: does the possibility of foreign tax evasion by a bank client necessarily trigger the need to file a SAR? Foreign tax evasion can represent potential violations of U.S. law, such as the federal mail or wire fraud statutes, which in turn may support a prosecution theory that related financial transactions involving foreign tax evasion and the U.S. financial system represent potential U.S. money laundering violations (for a detailed article on this issue, please see here). Continue Reading FINCEN Advises That Participation in a Foreign Tax Regularization Program By Itself Does Not Trigger SAR Filing Obligation

As we previously have blogged, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) became one of the first regulators to wade into the regulation of cryptocurrency when it released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is a Money Services Business (“MSB”). As a MSB, and according to FinCEN, an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency therefore is a “financial institution” subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and its various AML-related requirements, unless a limitation or exemption applies.  Accordingly, the Department of Justice has prosecuted operators of cryptocurrency exchanges for a failure to register with FinCEN as a MSB, and FinCEN has brought civil enforcement proceedings against such exchanges for alleged failures to maintain adequate AML programs and file required Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARS”), among other alleged BSA violations.

Recently, regulators of all stripes across the globe have been moving swiftly to regulate cryptocurrency in various ways (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has been very vocal and aggressive in claiming that many if not all Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) involving cryptocurrency represent securities subject to the jurisdiction and supervision of the SEC, and already has filed several enforcement proceedings involving ICOs. Moreover the SEC just yesterday issued a statement that it considers exchanges for cryptocurrency to also be subject to its jurisdiction. Likewise, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) has asserted that cryptocurrencies are commodities subject to its jurisdiction; this week, a federal court agreed with this assertion in a CFTC enforcement action.  The CFTC claims that its jurisdiction reaches beyond cryptocurrency derivative products to fraud and manipulation in the underlying cryptocurrency spot markets.

But there is a potential problem with all of these regulators simultaneously rushing in to assert their respective power over cryptocurrency businesses, and it is a tension that does not seem to have attracted much public attention to date. Specifically, BSA regulations pertaining to the definition of a MSB, at 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(ff)(8)(ii), flatly state that a MSB does not include the following:

A person registered with, and functionally regulated or examined by, the SEC or the CFTC, or a foreign financial agency that engages in financial activities that, if conducted in the United States, would require the foreign financial agency to be registered with the SEC or CFTC[.]

How can certain cryptocurrency businesses be subject to the claimed jurisdictions of FinCEN as well as the recent regulatory newcomers to this area, the SEC and the CFTC? Continue Reading FinCEN Letter to U.S. Senate Committee on Finance Purports to Thread Needle of Potentially Competing Jurisdictions by Regulators over Cryptocurrencies

On February 23, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) signaled that the inter-governmental body “will step up its efforts in monitoring the use of cryptocurrencies in money laundering.”  While the 37-member international body remains without an official policy for implementation, the pronouncement nonetheless demonstrates the heightened Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) concern from regulators across the globe concerning illicit uses of cryptocurrency.

Notably, the FATF’s pronouncement comes on the heels of recent enforcement-related measures taken in various countries.  As we previously have blogged, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  More recently, France’s top financial markets regulator issued a statement that online trading platforms for cryptocurrency derivatives fall under the European Union’s central legislation regulating financial markets.  In the U.K., the Parliament’s Treasury Committee announced on February 22 that it has launched a probe to examine both the impact of cryptocurrencies on financial institutions and how best to police the new technology.  Meanwhile, South Korea’s ban on anonymous trading of cryptocurrencies—part of the country’s new policies which represent the first AML guidelines for cryptocurrencies among the nations of the FATF—took effect on January 30.

The United States is also part of this growing global focus on cryptocurrencies and related concerns involving AML and money laundering.  For example, during his recent remarks at the Financial Services Roundtable’s Spring Conference on February 26, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that the Department of Justice is developing a “comprehensive strategy” to address the concern that cryptocurrencies may be used for money laundering.

Given regulators’ intense focus on the burgeoning industry, it is likely that cryptocurrencies will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Notably, in a February 7 letter to Nicolas Dujovne, the current president of the G20 and Argentina’s Minister of Finance, the finance ministers and central bank governors of France and Germany requested that cryptocurrencies be placed on the agenda.  Moreover, during a recent event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. will work with G20 nations to ensure cryptocurrency accounts do not “become the Swiss-numbered bank accounts.”

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I am honored to be part of a panel on March 1, 2018 at the Florida Tax Institute in Tampa, Florida regarding potential money laundering risks, reporting obligations and related ethical issues facing U.S. tax professionals with foreign clients bringing money and assets into the United States.  The panel, entitled Working with Inbound Investors & Businesses – Some Things You May Not Think About May Hurt You, will be moderated by Fred Murray of the University of Florida Levin College of Law and also will include attorneys Jeffrey A. Neiman, A. Brian Phillips and Shawn P. Wolf.

This is a key topic with real-world implications. We previously have blogged about potential AML and money laundering issues facing U.S. lawyers, who are under increasing scrutiny in light of: evolving international standards on professionals as AML gate keepers; global criticisms of the United States as a possible haven for money launderers and tax cheats; and scandals — such as the Panama Papers — involving legal professionals as the alleged facilitators of laundering and tax evasion by their clients.

Specifically, both the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) and the European Parliament have called for U.S. lawyers to meet higher standards in performing due diligence to detect clients’ potential money laundering, and found U.S. lawyers to be “non-compliant” with entity transparency standards. Further, the U.S. Congress has tried to enact legislation over the years to address the issue of beneficial ownership and the role of lawyer (see our discussion of the Corporate Transparency Act here). More recently, and as we have blogged, the ABA’s Task Force on the Gatekeeper and the Profession has prepared and discussed a new ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct that would impose basic “client due diligence” requirement on lawyers.  The panel should be interesting.

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Alleged Illicit Activity Included Transactions Promoting North Korea’s Missile Program and an Institutional Commitment to Laundering Money

On February 13, 2018, FinCEN announced that it had proposed a special measure naming ABLV Bank, AS (“ABLV”) an institution of primary money laundering concern pursuant to Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act.  We previously have blogged about FinCEN’s powers pursuant to Section 311 of the U.S. Patriot Act to designate institution “of primary money laundering concern” and impose a special measure which effectively cuts off the bank’s access to the U.S. financial system by requiring U.S. institutions as well as foreign institutions that create an indirect link between the foreign institution and the U.S. to sever ties with the designated bank.

Finding that ABLV was a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern, FinCEN proposed a prohibition under the fifth special measure restricting domestic financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts with or on behalf of ABLV. FinCEN stated that ABLV executives, shareholders, and employees have institutionalized money laundering as a pillar of the bank’s business practices by orchestrating money laundering schemes, soliciting high-risk shell company activity that enables the bank and its customers to launder funds, maintaining inadequate controls over high-risk shell company accounts, and seeking to obstruct enforcement of Latvian anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) rules in order to protect these business practices.  Indeed, included in the illicit financial activity were transactions for parties connected to the U.S. and U.N.-designated entities, some of which are involved in North Korea’s procurement or export of ballistic missiles.

ABLV shot back last Thursday stating that the allegations were based “on assumptions and information that is currently unavailable to the bank,” but that they were “continuing check into these allegations” and were open to cooperation with U.S. authorities.  As a result of FinCEN’s finding, Monday morning, the European Central Bank (“ECB”) halted all payments by ABLV pending further investigation into the allegations set forth in FinCEN’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”). Continue Reading FinCEN Imposes Section 311 Fifth Special Measure on Latvian Bank ABLV

As forecasted in a blog post last summer, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has again used the money laundering statute to accomplish the otherwise elusive goal of prosecuting foreign officials who allegedly receive bribes. On Monday, DOJ unsealed its Indictment against five Venezuelans employed by or closely connected to Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (“PDVSA”), the Venezuelan state-owned and state-controlled oil company.

The unsealing of the charges against these five Venezuelan individuals marks the latest development in a multi-year effort by DOJ to investigate and prosecute bribery at PDVSA. As DOJ’s press release notes, ten individuals have already pleaded guilty in the investigation thus far.  Key among these individuals are Roberto Enrique Rincon Fernandez and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, two American businessmen who pleaded guilty in 2016 to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (the “FCPA”) for paying bribes to PDVSA.  In connection with their pleas, the two admitted to paying PDVSA bribes in order to win lucrative energy contracts and to be given payment priority over other PDVSA vendors during a time when PDVSA faced a liquidity crisis.

Last October, more than one year after these guilty pleas, Spanish police announced the arrests of four of the five individuals named in Monday’s Indictment.  The arrests were described as “part of a months-long sting ordered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”  Currently, three of the defendants remain in Spain pending extradition, the fourth was extradited to the United States and made his initial appearance last Friday, and the fifth remains at large.

As noted above, the Indictment is notable for using the money laundering statute to accomplish what the FCPA statute cannot—bringing charges against a foreign official. Last summer, we blogged about the conviction and sentencing of Guinea’s former Minister of Mines and Geology.  There, we noted the FCPA generally prohibits individuals and businesses from paying bribes to foreign officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business.  However, “foreign officials” cannot be charged under the FCPA or with conspiracy to violate it.  Therefore, a foreign official could not be prosecuted for his conduct in soliciting or receiving bribes under the FCPA. Continue Reading DOJ Employs Money Laundering Statute to Prosecute Venezuelan Oilmen for Foreign Bribery

The Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) announced last week that seven states have agreed to a multi-state compact that, according to the CSBS, “standardizes key elements of the licensing process for money services businesses (MSB).”

The seven states consist of Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.  The CSBS expects other states to join the compact.  Under the compact, if one participating state has reviewed key elements of a company’s operations in connection with the company’s application for money transmitter license (IT, cybersecurity, business plan, background check, and compliance with the federal Bank Secrecy Act), the other participating states will accept that state’s findings.

The CSBS describes the compact as “the first step among state regulators in moving towards an integrated, 50-state system of licensing and supervision for fintechs.”  It is expected to significantly streamline the MSB licensing process.

As we have blogged, 18 U.S.C. § 1960 makes it a crime to operate a money transmitter business without an appropriate license in a State, and/or without having registered with FinCEN as a MSB under 31 U.S.C. § 5330.

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