Estonian “Non-Resident Portfolio” Produces Colossal Money Laundering Scandal

This week Danske Bank released a report detailing the results of its much anticipated internal investigation into allegations of money laundering perpetrated in its Estonian branch. The results of the investigation dwarfed even the boldest predictions. The report found between 2007 and 2015 the Estonian branch processed a staggering 200 billion Euros, or $234 billion, in suspicious transactions by thousands of non-resident costumers. The report finds the AML procedures at the Estonian branch were “manifestly insufficient and inadequate,” resulting in numerous breaches of legal obligations by the Estonian branch. The report details a numerous red flags that allegedly should have alerted the parent Danske Bank Group (“Group”) to the issues.

However, the report also concludes that the Group’s Board of Directors, Chairman, Audit Committee, or Chief Executive Officer did not violate any legal obligations in failing to detect or stop the suspicious transactions. Despite this finding, the CEO, Thomas Borgan, resigned the same day the report was released. Borgan stated, “Even though I was personally cleared from a legal point of view, I hold the ultimate responsibility. There is no doubt that we as an organization have failed in this situation and did not live up to expectations.” The consequences of this colossal money laundering scandal are unlikely to stop with Brogan’s resignation.

This blog post will summarize the scope of the report, findings of suspicious activity, the causes and red flags of potential money laundering violations, and outline the known and anticipated consequences of this scandal for Danske Bank. Continue Reading Danske Bank CEO Resigns on Heels of Report Detailing an Astounding $234 Billion in Suspicious Transactions in Money Laundering Scandal

 

FinCEN Cites Low Risk of Money Laundering and High Regulatory Burden of Rule

On September 7, 2018, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued permanent exceptive relief (“Relief”) to the Beneficial Ownership rule (“BO Rule”) that further underscores the agency’s continued flexibility and risk-based approach to the BO Rule.

Very generally, the BO Rule — effective as of May 11, 2018, and about which we repeatedly have blogged (see here, here and here) — requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identities of the beneficial owners of legal entity customers at account opening. FinCEN previously stated in April 3, 2018 FAQs regarding the BO Rule that a “new account” is established – thereby triggering the BO Rule – “each time a loan is renewed or a certificate of deposit is rolled over.” As a result, even if covered financial institutions already have identified and verified beneficial ownership information for a customer at the initial account opening, the institutions still must identify and verify that beneficial ownership information again – and for the same customer – if the customer’s account has been renewed, modified, or extended.

However, the Relief now excepts application of the BO Rule when legal entity customers open “new accounts” through: (1) a rollover of a certificate of deposit (CD); (2) a renewal, modification, or extension of a loan, commercial line of credit, or credit card account that does not require underwriting review and approval; or (3) a renewal of a safe deposit box rental. The Relief does not apply to the initial opening of any of these accounts.

The Relief echoes the exceptive relief from the BO Rule granted by FinCEN on May 11, 2018 to premium finance lenders whose payments are remitted directly to the insurance provider or broker, even if the lending involves the potential for a cash refund. Once again, although the Relief is narrow, FinCEN’s explanation for why the excepted accounts present a low risk for money laundering is potentially instructive in other contexts. Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Exceptive Relief from Beneficial Ownership Rule to Certain Account Renewals

According to the Financial Flow from Human Trafficking report recently published by the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) and the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, human trafficking is estimated to generate $150.2 billion per year. Human trafficking remains one of the fastest growing and most profitable forms of international crime affecting nearly every country in the world. The FATF report examines the financial flow associated with human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor, sexual exploitation, and the removal of organs, and the common and unique ways that the proceeds from these types of exploitation are laundered.

The FATF report identifies issues related to designing better efforts to detect money laundering related to human trafficking. First, the more exposure the offender and/or the victim have to the formal financial sector or government, the greater the opportunities for identifying signs of money laundering. Second, no single indicator alone is likely to confirm money laundering from human trafficking. Third, wider contextual information can prove useful in identifying signs of trafficking. Fourth, human trafficking may be easiest to identify at the victim level or at the lowest level of a criminal organization; at higher levels of criminal organizations, the indicators may be more opaque and suggest a variety of crimes. Continue Reading Recent FATF Report Provides New Guidance for Identifying Money Laundering Related to Human Trafficking

In the wake of this week’s revelations of years-long and significant alleged money laundering failures involving ING Bank and Danske Bank, European regulators have circulated a confidential “reflection paper” warning national governments and the European Parliament about shortcomings in the European Union’s (“EU”) anti-money laundering (“AML”) efforts and providing recommendations to strengthen these efforts.  The reflection paper recommends centralizing the enforcement of AML rules through a powerful new EU authority to ensure that banks implement background checks and other AML measures, and setting a deadline for the European Central Bank to reach agreement with national authorities to allow for the sharing of sensitive data.

Continue Reading Recent Nordic Scandals Involving ING Bank and Danske Bank Underscore the European Union’s Vulnerabilities to Money Laundering

On August 29, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) a story that other news outlets later have picked up: the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is investigating whether Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman at the center of the alleged embezzlement of $4.5 billion from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (“1MDB”), is paying – via two intermediaries – his U.S.-based lawyers with allegedly tainted funds. The report states that there is no indication at this time that the U.S. attorneys were aware that the funds could have originated from money Mr. Low allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB. Rather, the investigation centers on Low’s potential use of intermediaries to facilitate the payments. The DOJ already has filed civil forfeiture complaints seeking to recover almost $1.7 billion in various high-end assets from Mr. Low and others allegedly bought with the embezzled funds, and it reportedly is investigating Mr. Low individually for potential criminal charges.

In light of this report, and the growing attention paid to the potential money laundering risks faced by third-party professionals and lawyers in particular (on which he have blogged: see here, here, here, here, here, here and here) now is a good time to consider how U.S. money laundering and forfeiture laws may apply to attorneys for their work when they receive potentially tainted fees from clients. As we discuss, the criminal and civil forfeiture laws have a potentially broad reach, even in regards to legal payments. Continue Reading Use of Tainted Assets to Pay Attorney Fees: A Primer on the Pitfalls

Congress enacted the safe harbor provision of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), codified at 31 U.S.C. §5318(g)(3)(A), to shield financial institutions, their officers and employees from civil liability for reporting known or suspected criminal offenses or suspicious activity by filing a Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR. More particularly, the safe harbor provides immunity to any “financial institution that makes a voluntary disclosure of any possible violation of law or regulation to a government agency.” This comprehensive protection precludes liability under any federal, state or local law or regulation or under any contract. Nonetheless, despite the broad wording of this provision, courts have disagreed about the scope of the protection it affords.

Specifically, federal courts have disagreed about whether a bank and its officers and employees must have a “good faith” belief that a possible violation of law occurred before filing a SAR. Some courts, particularly those in the 11th Circuit (which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia), have provided immunity only when the financial institution has a “good faith suspicion that a law or regulation may have been violated.” However, the majority of courts have found that the safe harbor provision provides unqualified protection to financial institutions and their employees from civil liability for filing a SAR.

A recent case from the District of Massachusetts, AER Advisors Inc. v. Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC , demonstrates just how unqualified that protection is. AER Advisors Inc. (AER) filed a complaint alleging that Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC (Fidelity) falsely implicated them in a SAR, a SAR that was filed in bad faith. As a result, AER claimed it was subject to multiple investigations by state and federal agencies. Fidelity sought to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it had complete immunity from any liability for any SARs it filed. The court agreed.

The court noted that the extent of immunity varied from circuit to circuit, but in the 1st Circuit where it sits (which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island), financial institutions are afforded immunity under Stoutt v. Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, even when disclosures are fabricated, unfounded, incomplete or malicious. The sweeping coverage is based on the court’s reasoning that “Congress did not intend to include a good faith qualification to immunity because (1) it easily could have written the requirement into the statute; (2) it removed a good faith requirement from an earlier draft of the provision; and (3) any limitation on immunity would discourage disclosure.”

AER also argued that Fidelity should not be granted immunity, because by knowingly reporting false information, it had not actually reported a “possible violation of law.” The court rejected this argument as well, saying that, regardless of what Fidelity actually believed, the SAR, on its face, reported a possible violation of law.

Finally, AER argued that fraudulent SARs should not insulate financial institutions from civil liability. The court rejected this argument as well, finding that financial institutions could be prosecuted criminally for knowingly filing false reports.

So just how safe is the safe harbor provision? It depends on where you sit. For most of the country, the safe harbor affords a financial institution total immunity, even if it maliciously files a false SAR. And, as we have blogged, Congress is contemplating codifying this authority by amending 31 U.S.C. § 5318(g)(3)(B) to provide that the safe harbor provision does not create “any duty or requirement of a financial institution or any director, officer, employee, or agent of such institution to demonstrate to any person . . . that a disclosure . . . is made in good faith.”

So keep filing those SARs. And no matter where you sit, it is obviously best to ensure that the SARs you file are factually supported.

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Public Risks Posed by Unbanked and Cash-Heavy Industry Deemed Insufficient to Outweigh Federal Law Concerns

As we just blogged, the New York State Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) has published guidance to “clarify the regulatory landscape and encourage” New York, state-chartered banks and credit unions to “offer banking services” to “marijuana related businesses licensed by New York state[,]” thereby identifying New York as a state friendly to financial services for marijuana-related businesses. In stark contrast, Ed Leary, Commissioner of the Utah Department of Financial Institutions (“UDFI”), recently articulated the polar opposite position, thereby exemplifying the increasingly bewildering patchwork quilt of approaches to banking and anti-money laundering (“AML”) policy in regards to state-licensed marijuana businesses.

In a presentation on August 17, 2018 to members of the National Association of Industrial Banks and the Utah Association of Financial Services, Commissioner Leary advised that UDFI will not ask any financial institutions regulated by his department to provide banking or payment processing services to cannabis-related businesses. To the contrary, if any examination conducted by UDFI identifies evidence of cannabis-related banking activities, UDFI will cite the conduct as an apparent violation of federal law. Continue Reading Banking and Marijuana, Redux: Utah Department of Financial Institutions Commissioner Declares Opposite Position to New York’s Encouragement of Banking Services for Marijuana Businesses Licensed Under State Law

Director Blanco Emphasizes Investigatory Leads and Insights Into Illicit Activity Trends Culled from Nationwide BSA Data

As we just blogged, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco recently touted the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement and regulatory  activity involving digital currency.  Shortly thereafter, Director Blanco again stressed the value of SARs, this time during remarks before the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo, which caters to the AML concerns of the gaming industry.

It is difficult to shake the impression that Director Blanco is repeatedly and publically emphasizing the value of SARs, at least in part, in order to provide a counter-narrative to a growing reform movement — both in the United States and abroad — which: (i) questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current SAR reporting regime, and (ii) has resulted in proposed U.S. legislation which would raise the minimum monetary thresholds for filing SARs and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”), and require a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Continues to Push Value of SARs and Other BSA Data