Alleged Illicit Activity Included Transactions Promoting North Korea’s Ballistic 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.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

Yesterday, the SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its 2018 examination priorities, released in order to “improve compliance, prevent fraud, monitor risk, and inform policy.”  OCIE announced five priorities, with Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) programs being one of them.  This emphasis on AML is consistent with the SEC’s increasing willingness to bring enforcement actions relating to AML and the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  As we also discuss, here and in our sister blog, cyberadviser, another priority announced by OCIE is cybersecurity, an issue which increasingly overlaps with AML issues. Continue Reading SEC Targets AML as Exam Priority

This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs held hearings focused in part on Anti-Money Laundering  (“AML”) and the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  We discuss highlights of the testimony of the Chairpersons of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), as well as testimony from a senior official at the Justice Department and a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, concerning upcoming changes to beneficial ownership requirements and the current regulatory landscape of the cryptocurrency industry. Continue Reading AML/BSA Focus by U.S. Senate Committee Testimony – From Beneficial Ownership to Cryptocurrency

Twelve minutes ahead of the deadline set by Congress back in August, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a highly anticipated report listing Russian oligarchs and senior political figures.  That sound you heard at 11:48 last night?  A host of wealthy Russians heaving sighs of relief.

The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” (CAATSA) which was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support last summer, instituted new sanctions against Russia related to its interference with Ukraine and its alleged tampering with the 2016 presidential election.

But it also required the Treasury Department to issue, no later than yesterday, a report identifying Russian oligarchs with close ties to Vladimir Putin. The report was to identify “the most significant senior political figures and oligarchs in the Russian federation . . . as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.”  The report was required to detail the relationship between identified oligarchs and President Vladimir Putin or “other members of the Russian ruling elite,” “any indices of corruption with respect to those individuals, “their net worth and known sources of their (and their families’) income, and the non-Russian business affiliations of those individuals.”

In addition to reporting on individuals, the report was to identify “Russian parastatal entities,” their leadership structures and beneficial ownership, and the scope of their non-Russian business affiliations.

In anticipation of the report, Russians who feared their inclusion on the list fretted and maneuvered; some reportedly liquidated holdings or approached former Treasury and State Department officials for help staying off the list.

But for all their worry, the report included so many individuals, whose net worth and official position were already public record, that it seems unlikely, in itself, to negatively impact those listed.  Indeed, the methodology for inclusion set forth in the report does not suggest that ties to Putin’s regime or any suspected wrongdoing were taken into account in creating the list.  Instead, the report states that Treasury included on the list of oligarchs “those individuals who, according to reliable public sources, have an estimated net worth of $1 billion or more.”  Similarly, the list of senior political figures merely includes “i) senior members of the Russian Presidential Administration; ii) members of the Russian Cabinet, cabinet-rank ministers, and heads of other major executive agencies; iii) other senior political leaders, including the leadership of the state Duma and Federation Council, other members of the Russian Security Council, and senior executives at state-owned companies.”

And, the unclassified report (which, exclusive of the appendix listing oligarchs and political figures, comes in at under two pages) explicitly states that the report “is not a sanctions list, and the inclusion of individuals or entities . . . does not and in no way should be interpreted to impose sanctions on those individuals or entities.” It goes on to stress, “Inclusion in this report also does not constitute the determination by any agency that any of those individuals or entities meet the criteria for designation under any sanctions program.”

Putin made light of the list, joking that it was “offensive” that he was not included, and, though he characterized the list as an “unfriendly act,” called for no retaliation. Echoing the sentiments of many U.S. observers, Putin reportedly remarked, “What is the point of this?  I don’t understand.”

The White House also announced last night its determination that no new sanctions are needed on Russia, since those already in place are already “serving as a deterrent.”

But though the Treasury report was somewhat anticlimactic, it is not the end of the story on the ongoing efforts to address the concerns Congress raised in CAATSA. Treasury conducted a classified briefing last night with the Senate on U.S. diplomatic efforts related to the Russia sanctions.

And, a portion of last night’s Treasury report remains classified (as CAATSA allows). Since CAATSA required the report to detail several issues that were not included in the unclassified portion of the report, we can assume that that information is included in the classified report.  As mentioned above, those required details include the oligarchs’ relationship to Putin, indices of corruption, the sources of their (and their families’) income, and their non-Russian business affiliations.  Furthermore, CAATSA required Treasury to provide a list of Russian parastatal entities and set forth “the exposure of key economic sectors” to named oligarchs and entities, “the likely effects of imposing debt and equity restrictions on Russian parastatal entities,” and of adding them to OFAC’s list of blocked persons, and “the potential impacts of imposing secondary sanctions with respect to Russian oligarchs, Russian state-owned enterprises, and Russian parastatal entities.”

Furthermore, OFAC announced on Friday new individuals and entities subject to sanctions related to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.  That announcement came not long after several other sanctions designations about which we have previously blogged.  Thus, whether yesterday’s report will result in additional people or entities being subject to sanctions remains an open question.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

As we blogged earlier this week, Congress is considering a new draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), in committee in the Senate.  The CTIFA proposes the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.

We previously discussed CTIFA’s proposed requirement for legal entities to submit to FinCEN a list their beneficial owners (“BOs”) and the creation of a central directory of these BOs. Today, we discuss CTIFA’s many other major proposed revisions to the BSA. These include:

  • Raising the minimum monetary thresholds for filing Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”) and Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”), and requiring a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined;
  • Expanding the prohibition against disclosing SAR-related information to third parties, including in private litigation;
  • Codifying absolute civil immunity for SAR filing;
  • Expanding the scope of voluntary information sharing among financial institutions;
  • Allowing FinCEN to issue no-action letters; and
  • A grab-bag of other proposals, including a safe harbor for AML-related technological innovation; requiring a review of whether FinCEN should assume a greater role in AML/BSA examinations of financial institutions; requiring a review of the costs to the private sector for AML/BSA compliance; and requiring an annual report to the Secretary of the Treasury (“the Secretary”) regarding the usefulness of BSA reporting to law enforcement.

Continue Reading Congress Contemplates Broad AML/BSA Reform

Congress is considering a new draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), currently in committee in the Senate.  The CTIFA proposes the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.

This post is the first entry in a two-post series discussing the CTIFA. Here, we summarize recent Senate hearings on the bill and AML reform, which suggest that the CTIFA enjoys political momentum. We also discuss what is arguably the most dramatic change proposed by the CTIFA: requiring legal entities to submit to FinCEN of a list their beneficial owners (“BOs”) – a requirement backed up by civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance — and the creation of a directory of these BOs, which would be accessible to local and international law enforcement and financial institutions. This proposal in part seeks to ease the burdens faced by financial institutions in complying with FinCEN’s Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) regulation, which takes effect on May 11, 2018 and requires financial institutions to determine BO for legal entities.

In our next post, we will discuss CTIFA’s many other proposed revisions to the BSA. These include: expanding the scope of voluntary information sharing among financial institutions; raising the minimum monetary thresholds for filing Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”) and Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”); expanding the prohibition against disclosing SAR-related information to third parties, including in private litigation; codifying absolute immunity for SAR filing; allowing FinCEN to issue no-action letters; creating a safe harbor for AML-related technological innovation; requiring a review of whether FinCEN should assume a greater role in AML/BSA exams of financial institutions; and requiring an annual report regarding the usefulness of BSA reporting to law enforcement. Continue Reading Congress Proposes National Directory of Beneficial Owners of Legal Entities

Last week, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) released its semiannual risk report (“Report”) highlighting credit, operational, and compliance risks to the federal banking system.  The Report focuses on issues that pose threats to those financial institutions regulated by the OCC and is intended to be used as a resource to by those financial institutions to address the key concerns identified by the OCC.  Specifically, the OCC places cybersecurity and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) among the top concerns highlighted in the Report.  The Report further observes that the total number of enforcement actions by the OCC against banks — instituted for any kind of alleged violations — have declined steadily after peaking in 2009. Continue Reading OCC Report: Cybersecurity and Money Laundering Threats are the Key Risks Facing Banks

We are really pleased to announce that Ballard Spahr has launched CyberAdviser, a new blog focused on the latest news and developments in privacy and cybersecurity law.

It will offer insights into the latest governance and compliance matters, investigations, civil and criminal litigation, regulatory and legislative developments, industry trends, emerging technologies, and other cyber issues that may be just a click away. CyberAdviser is produced by the members of our Privacy and Data Security Group—a nationwide team of more than 50 attorneys who provide a wide range of legal services to help clients identify, manage, and mitigate cyber risk.

CyberAdviser will serve as an excellent counterpart to the issues we discuss in Money Laundering Watch. To demonstrate the (increasingly) frequent overlap between AML and privacy and cybersecurity issues, our colleague Kim Phan is posting today in both blogs about a new report issued by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency regarding the cybersecurity and money laundering threats currently facing banks.

Please visit CyberAdviser and subscribe to receive regular updates.  Click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.