New York State Encourages Banking for State-Licensed Medical Marijuana Businesses – Whereas a Maine Company Runs Into Trouble, Despite State Law Legalizing Medical Marijuana

To state the obvious, growing and dispensing marijuana is still illegal under federal law.  As a result, being involved in even a state-licensed marijuana business can be risky. Moreover, obtaining financial services for such a business is sometimes impossible, primarily due to the federal anti-money laundering (“AML”) obligations imposed upon financial institutions by the Bank Secrecy Act (as we have blogged).

This post discusses two recent developments related to state-licensed medical marijuana operations, which serve as contrasting bookends to the spectrum of potential risks and opportunities presented by such businesses.  On the risk-end of the spectrum, we discuss the recent difficulties encountered by a Maine business, and how dubious the seeming safe harbor of state legalization of marijuana can be in some cases. On the opportunity-end of the spectrum, we discuss recent guidance issued by the New York Department of Financial Services, which has declared its support and encouragement of state-chartered banks and credit unions to offer banking services to medical marijuana related businesses licensed by New York State. Continue Reading The Medical Marijuana Industry and AML: Opportunities and Risks

Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Addresses Virtual Currency and Touts Regulatory Leadership and Value of SAR Filings

The Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) recently released a special report on professional money launderers (“PMLs”) who provide money laundering expertise and services to their crime-committing clients. The Report describes the functions and characteristics of a PML and the services they provide. Although the FATF has issued many reports on potential vulnerabilities in anti-money laundering efforts, this Report focuses on the affirmative threats posed by money laundering regimes.

The Report is primarily descriptive, and contains examples of enforcement actions involving PMLs across the globe. A non-public version of the Report, available to Members of the FATF and the FATF Global Network, sets forth practical recommendations for the detection, investigation, prosecution, and prevention of PML-related laundering, including “appropriate regulation,” law enforcement coordination, and international co-operation and information exchange. Presumably, the Report will provide additional fuel to efforts across the world to close perceived regulatory gaps involving the collection of beneficial ownership information, and the potential role of professionals, including lawyers, in assisting others to launder illicit funds. Continue Reading FATF Report: Professional Money Laundering and Related Threats

Conduct Performed Without Knowledge Still Can Lead to the Most Serious Penalties

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), the most onerous civil penalties will be applied for “willful” violations. That mental state standard might sound hard for the government to prove.  For example, in criminal and civil tax fraud cases under the Internal Revenue Code, “willfulness” is defined to mean a voluntary and intentional violation of a known legal duty – a very demanding showing. But as we will discuss, two very new court opinions discussing a required BSA filing – a Form TD F 90-22.1, or Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, otherwise know as a FBAR – remind us that, under the BSA, a “willful” violation does not require proof of actual knowledge. A “willful” BSA violation only needs to be reckless, and the government can prove it through the doctrine of “willful blindness” or “conscious avoidance.”

The fact that courts in civil FBAR cases have been holding that “willfulness” can mean “just recklessness” is not a new development, and it is well known to those practicing in the tax fraud and tax controversy space. This blog post will not attempt to delve into the long-running offshore account enforcement campaign that has been waged by the IRS and the DOJ; the related case decisions; or the related voluntary disclosure programs for offshore accounts (for those interested in this fascinating but complicated topic, the Federal Tax Crimes blog is one of many excellent resources). Rather, the point of this post is that the case law now being made in the FBAR and offshore account context will have direct application to more traditional Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”)/BSA enforcement actions, because the civil penalty statute being interpreted in the FBAR cases is the same provision which applies to claimed failures to maintain an adequate AML program and other violations of the BSA.  Thus, the target audience of this post is not people involved in undisclosed offshore bank account cases, but rather people involved in day-to-day AML compliance for financial institutions, who may not realize that some missteps may be branded as “willful” and entail very serious monetary penalties, even if they were done without actual knowledge.  This may be news to some, and it underscores in particular the risks presented by one the topics that this blog frequently has discussed: the potential AML liability of individuals. Continue Reading The BSA Civil Penalty Regime: Reckless Conduct Can Produce “Willful” Penalties

Earlier this month, the District Court for the Central District of California imposed a prison sentence of one year and a day, with three years of supervised release, on defendant Theresa Lynn Tetley, who had pleaded guilty to: (i) the unlicensed operation of a digital currency exchange due to failure register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960(a) and (b)(1)(B), and (ii) a money laundering charge, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(3)(B), arising out of an undercover “sting” operation run by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation involving the attempt to conceal proceeds supposedly obtained by selling drugs.  Tetley also was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and forfeit 40 Bitcoin, $292,264 in cash, and 25 gold bars that were the alleged proceeds of her illegal activity.

The Court imposed a sentence significantly lower than the sentence of 30 months requested by the government, a recommendation which already was lower than the advisory sentencing range recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) of 46 to 57 months in prison, as calculated by the U.S. Probation Office.

Tetley, a 50 year old woman living in Southern California, is a former stockbroker and real estate investor. She operated her digital currency exchange under the alias “Bitcoin Maven” for over three years, running an unregistered Bitcoin for cash exchange service.  According to the government, her service “fueled a black-market financial system” that “purposely and deliberately existed outside the regulated bank industry” and which catered to an alleged major darknet vendor of illegal narcotics.  According to the defense, however, the defendant “departed from a lifetime of integrity and good deeds and showed terrible judgment by failing to comply with federal registration requirements and buying bitcoins from individuals who represented themselves as engaged in criminal activity.”

In this post, we will drill into this sentencing and the parties’ respective positions, which provide a window into the prosecution and sentencing of alleged crimes involving both digital currency and undercover money laundering operations — and into the process for the sentencing of federal crimes in general, and how other factors which are entirely unrelated to the facts of the specific offense can be important.  Further, the Tetley case is interesting in part because it represents a sort of “hybrid” case — seen from time to time in money laundering cases involving professionals — which straddles both the typically very different realms of “pure” financial crime cases and illegal narcotics cases.  The government sentencing memorandum is here; the defense sentencing memorandum is here. Continue Reading Unlicensed Bit Coin Exchange Operator Sentenced to One Year and a Day for Attempted Money Laundering in Undercover Sting Operation and Failure to Register with FinCEN

The ABA Journal is accepting nominations for the Web 100, its annual list of the top legal blogs, podcasts, and social media. If you enjoy reading Money Laundering Watch, we would be very grateful if you will show your support by nominating our blog for the 2018 edition of the list.  The nomination process is easy to do.

Since its launch in 2017, Money Laundering Watch has become the go-to place for the latest insights into the world of money laundering, anti-money laundering, the Bank Secrecy Act, and related topics. We strive to provide unique, substantive and accessible analysis.  Here are just a few past highlights, reflecting the fascinating spectrum of the topics we cover:

Nominations are due by August 7. We are honored to be read by so many people from throughout the world and from so many sectors, including business and finance, law, government, academia, and journalism. We greatly appreciate your support now and throughout the year!

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

Second Part of a Two-Part Series

As we blogged yesterday, British Columbia’s (“B.C.”) Attorney General David Eby recently released an independent and very detailed report examining money laundering in B.C.’s gaming industry and providing 48 recommendations to combat the problem. See Peter M. German, QC, Dirty Money: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos conducted for the Attorney General of British Columbia (Mar. 31, 2018) (“German Report”).  As we noted yesterday, when discussing the U.S. regulatory system, the German Report favorably cites the Nevada Gaming Commission and Nevada Gaming Control Board, whose Enforcement Division “acts as a first line of defence against organized crime and bulk cash buy-ins[,]” and further observes that the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “[i]n partnership with Internal Revenue Service, acts as the enforcement arm for most money laundering issues.”

The U.S.’s more robust, streamlined AML regulatory regime, although hardly perfect, stands in stark contrast to the dysfunction alleged in the German Report that plagues B.C.’s current framework. In this post, we describe the U.S. AML regulatory regime for the gaming industry, and the recent enforcement actions which it has produced.  Although the pace of AML enforcement has been somewhat sporadic, it appears to be increasing over time in regards to the gaming industry.  Certainly, attention by regulators — as well as by the industry itself — to AML/BSA compliance has increased over the last several years.

Continue Reading The U.S. Casino and Gaming Industry: AML/BSA Regulation and Enforcement

U.S. Regulatory Regime Favorably Cited in Report for B.C. Attorney General

First Part in a Two-Part Series on Gaming Industry and AML

British Columbia’s (“B.C.”) Attorney General David Eby recently released an independent and very detailed report examining money laundering in B.C.’s gaming industry and providing 48 recommendations to combat the problem. Eby appointed Peter German, a former deputy police commissioner and leading expert on money laundering, to conduct a six-month investigation into allegations of money laundering in the Lower Mainland casinos after reports emerged that one Vancouver-based casino accepted $13.5 million in $20 bills over the course of one month in 2015.  See Peter M. German, QC, Dirty Money: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos Conducted for the Attorney General of British Columbia (Mar. 31, 2018) (“German Report”)

Following German’s investigation, which included over 150 interviews with industry and government insiders in B.C., Ontario, and the United States, German issued the German Report to detail his findings and recommendations. The report reveals that a multitude of alleged criminal syndicates, tied primarily to China, have used Vancouver-area casinos to launder money.  It highlights the anti-money laundering (“AML”) challenges faced by a predominantly cashed-based industry, and also underscores the systemic issues that have made B.C.’s gaming industry an alleged breeding ground for money laundering: a dysfunctional, fragmented regulatory regime that lacks independence.  To streamline and strengthen B.C.’s regulatory framework, the German Report recommends creating an independent gaming regulator analogous to the regulatory regime in the United States.  The German Report focuses on the Nevada Gaming Commission and Nevada Gaming Control Board, whose Enforcement Division “acts as a first line of defence against organized crime and bulk cash buy-ins[,]” whereas the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “[i]n partnership with Internal Revenue Service, acts as the enforcement arm for most money laundering issues.”

In announcing the German Report, Eby blamed the former Liberal government for “turn[ing] a blind eye to the escalating money laundering in B.C. casinos.” He also stated his acceptance of all 48 of these recommendations.

In this post, we will describe the findings and recommendations of the German Report.  In the next post, we will contrast the B.C. regulatory regime described in the German Report with the AML regulatory regime in the United States involving the gaming industry, and the recent enforcement actions which it has produced.

Continue Reading British Columbia’s Gaming Industry Reportedly Faces Serious Money Laundering Vulnerabilities

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced last week that it was disbanding the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, established under the Obama Administration. In its place, pursuant to an Executive Order, the DOJ plans to establish the Task Force on Market Integrity and Consumer Fraud (“Task Force”). The purpose—according to a DOJ press release—is to deter fraud on consumers and the government. Additionally, the Task Force will focus on money laundering, “including the recovery of proceeds;” fraud related to digital currency; tax fraud; health care fraud; securities and commodities fraud; and other financial crimes.

The Task Force is a multiagency effort. Although the DOJ will lead the group under Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Executive Order directs him to include a host of other federal agencies, including the Secretary of the Treasury, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Chairperson of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

This is a potentially important development regarding government enforcement, including as to money laundering. We and our colleague Alan Kaplinsky therefore discuss the new DOJ task force in detail here.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.