royp@ballardspahr.com | 215.864.8336 | view full bio

Priya focuses her practice on white collar defense, internal investigations, and complex civil litigation. She counsels clients in AML and BSA matters, as well as matters involving allegations of tax fraud, violations of the False Claims Act and Anti-Kickback Statute, violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, securities violations, and other fraud and regulatory offenses and abusive acts and practices.

But Noncustomer Plaintiffs May Face Uphill Battle Proving Digital Currency Exchange’s Actual Liability

Earlier this week, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, in an unpublished opinion, that Coinbase Inc., an online platform used for buying, selling, transferring, and storing digital currency, could not compel arbitration on a former customer of Cryptsy, a now-defunct cryptocurrency exchange, in his proposed class action suit alleging that Coinbase helped to launder $8 million of Cryptsy customers’ assets. Leidel v. Coinbase, Inc., Dkt. 17-12728.

In so holding, the Court found that the plaintiff’s allegations emanated not from the User Agreement between Coinbase and Cryptsy’s CEO, Paul Vernon, but from extra-contractual duties “allegedly” found in federal statutes and regulations, specifically the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  As we previously have blogged, courts have held that financial institutions generally do not owe a duty of care to a noncustomer and that no special duty of care arises from the duties and obligations set forth in the BSA absent a special relationship or contractual relationship. Moreover, there is no private right of action stemming from the BSA. Nor does the BSA define a financial institution’s standard of care for the purposes of a negligence claim.

Coinbase is registered as a Money Services Business with FinCEN, and is otherwise required to comply with the BSA. However, if courts treat Coinbase as it would any other financial institution (which we have no reason to believe that they would not), Plaintiff, having avoided the contractual arbitration provision, has an uphill battle to show that Coinbase had a duty of care to noncustomers to prevent AML failures. Continue Reading Coinbase Cannot Force Noncustomers to Arbitrate Suit Alleging Violations of BSA/AML Duties

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

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

FinCEN recently announced the launching of the “FinCEN Exchange” to enhance information sharing with financial institutions.  We previously have blogged about the potential benefits of a public-private partnership between law enforcement and financial institutions for both parties as a way to enhance law enforcement’s efforts to disrupt and intercept money laundering and terrorist financing as well as a financial institution’s ability to identify and accurately report suspicious activity. Information sharing has become a key issue in global conversations about reform of Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) regimes.

The FinCEN Exchange represents a direct response to financial industry requests for more guidance and information from government to help identify and report suspicious activity. Although it is a positive step towards improving the system for reporting suspicious activity, the FinCEN Exchange presumably will create expectations by the government that problems identified by the Exchange will be captured by suspicious activity reporting going forward.  Hopefully, the converse also will occur, and expectations regarding the reporting of activity identified as low priority will be lowered, so that industry truly may focus its current resources and not be compelled to expend even more resources on AML compliance. Continue Reading Information Sharing Exchange Launched by FinCEN to Improve Suspicious Activity Reporting

As 2017 winds down, we are taking a look back at the first year of Money Laundering Watch.

We want to thank our many readers around the world who have made Money Laundering Watch such a success since we launched it less than a year ago. The feedback we receive from financial industry professionals, compliance officers, in-house and external lawyers, AML/BSA consultants, government personnel, journalists, and others interested in this field is invaluable, and we hope you will continue to share your perspectives with us.  We pride ourselves on providing in-depth discussions of the important developments in this ever-evolving area and their potential implications.

2017 has been a busy year in the world of financial corruption. We are highlighting 12 of our most-read blog posts, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined this year.

We also would like to thank the other platforms that host our blog: Digital Currency & Ledger Defense Coalition, Money Laundering Bulletin, and Federal Tax Crimes.

We look forward to continuing to keep you informed in 2018.  If you would like to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch, please click here. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

Describing him as a “longtime Mexican Drug Kingpin,” the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of Treasury has designated Raul Flores Hernandez and the “Flores Drug Trafficking Organization,” or  “Flores DTO,” as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act).  OFAC also has used the Act to designate 21 other Mexican nationals and 42 entities, including a casino, a soccer club, a music production company, and various bars and restaurants, for allegedly supporting or being controlled by Flores and the Flores DTO. According to the government’s press release, Flores “has operated for decades because of his longstanding relationships with other drug cartels and his use of financial front persons to mask his investments of illegal drug proceeds[.]”

Although Mr. Flores may not be well known outside of Mexico, other individuals designated by OFAC certainly are. OFAC designated soccer superstar Rafael “Rafa” Márquez Alvarez, who plays defense for the Atlas Fútbol Club in Guadalajara, Mexico, and who served as captain of the Mexican team in four FIFA World Cups from 2002 to 2014.  Mr. Márquez is not necessarily beloved throughout the United States, where he is remembered for having head-butted a U.S. player during the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.  OFAC also designated Norteño singer Julio Cesar Alvarez Montelongo, better known as Latin Grammy-nominated musician Julion Alvarez. According to OFAC, “[b]oth men have longstanding relationships with Flores Hernandez, and have acted as front persons for him and his DTO and held assets on their behalf.”  As for the rest of the Flores DTO, OFAC asserts that it is comprised of “a significant number of Flores Hernandez’s family members and trusted associates, upon whom he heavily relies to further his drug trafficking and money laundering activities and to maintain assets on his behalf.” Continue Reading OFAC Targets Alleged Mexican Drug Boss and “His Vast Network,” Including International Soccer Superstar

Part Two of a Three-Part Series

In the second part of this series, we explore the practical effects of the FinCEN and DOJ guidance documents on industries attempting to serve marijuana related business (“MRBs”). On June 27, 2017, the Tenth Circuit issued an interesting and divided opinion showing us how difficult it can be to square the prohibitions in the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) and money laundering statutes with state legislation legalizing certain MRB activity and the seemingly permissive nature of the FinCEN and DOJ guidance documents. Continue Reading Continued and Unexpected Roadblocks to Serving the Marijuana Industry: Fourth Corner Credit Union v. Federal Reserve Bank

Part One of a Three-Part Series

We begin this week with a three-part series on banking and the marijuana industry. States continue to pass medical and recreational use marijuana legislation despite that the fact that the substance remains classified as a Schedule I drug subject to the federal Controlled Substances Act.  Thus, the medical and recreational marijuana industries continue to struggle with access to banking and credit, and those who attempt to serve these industries find themselves subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and the criminal money laundering provisions.  As we will detail this week, the struggle for financial institutions attempting to service the marijuana industry comes not only from the BSA and AML provisions, but in other forms.  We start this week with an overview of the guidance documents issued by the federal government which identify the enforcement priorities and also potential windows for financial institutions to service the marijuana industry.  We will follow up with a discussion of a recent federal court decision illustrating the practical difficulties of squaring the prohibitions of the federal drug laws with permissive state laws and the federal guidance documents.  We will conclude with an exploration of how federal agencies beyond the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), can further muddy these waters by staking out their own regulatory and enforcement priorities.  –Priya Roy Continue Reading Banking and the Marijuana Industry

Proposed Settlement Comes After Court Issues Rulings on Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Criminal Law, Evidence of Intent to Conceal and Tracing of Money Laundering Proceeds

On the eve of trial this past Friday, the government announced an agreement to settle, subject to court approval, a major civil forfeiture action in the Southern District of New York.  In the case, United States v. Prevezon Holdings, Ltd. et al., the government alleged an elaborate scheme involving money laundering and other offenses committed in Russia, Cyprus, and Manhattan. The case gained some notoriety in the press due to lurid allegations of the suspicious death while in pretrial detention in Moscow of a Russian lawyer who had uncovered the tax refund fraud scheme, and the alleged defenestration earlier this year of a lawyer working for the decedent’s family. Although the civil forfeiture complaint filed in 2013 sought to forfeit at least $230 million worth of assets, the parties settled for approximately $5.9 million. In the wake of this settlement, both the defense and the government now appear to be claiming victory.

The buildings located on the Red Square: Kremlin wall (at left) and Saint Basil's Cathedral (at right), Moscow, Russia. UNESCO World Heritage Site

This post will analyze an opinion issued by the court in this case last week, prior to the settlement, denying summary judgment to the defense.  The legal rulings contained therein are perhaps not as suitable for a Hollywood-style thriller as some of the content of the government’s press releases and pleadings, but nonetheless represent important issues in the field of money laundering and forfeiture.  Primarily, we analyze an increasingly common and key question: when can U.S. law apply to conduct occurring primarily overseas?  This question has broad implications for federal criminal law enforcement in general, including for RICO and tax fraud prosecutions, as well as for potential civil lawsuits brought by shareholders or other plaintiffs. Continue Reading Forfeiture Case Based on Alleged Elaborate $230 Million Russian Laundering and Fraud Scheme to Settle

“Sometimes, the third time really is the charm” wrote the District Court for the District of Columbia on April 14, 2017. In its opinion, the court upheld FinCEN’s imposition of the Patriot Act’s fifth special measure against FBME Bank Ltd., a Tanzanian chartered bank operating primarily out of Cyprus.  The court previously had twice blocked FinCEN’s attempt to prevent FBME Bank from conducting banking business in the United States.  However, the district court granted FinCEN’s motion for summary judgment and lifted the stay blocking FinCEN’s final rule.  Last week, the D.C. Circuit refused to reinstate the full stay of judgment pending appeal noting simply that FBME Bank had “not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal,” without addressing any of the specific merits questions that remained before it. Thus, for the time being, the district court’s judgment upholding FinCEN’s rule finding that FBME Bank was “of primary money laundering concern” remains in place.  FBME Bank may no longer utilize correspondent banks in the United States.

FinCEN SealThe potentially broader implications for other banks and future actions are as follows: under the logic of the judgment which the Court of Appeals just declined to stay, FinCEN does not need to look to comparative or other objective benchmarks involving other similarly-situated banks to support a claim in an enforcement action that transactions occurring at the bank in question involved an unacceptably high number of SAR filings, use of shell companies, or other indicia of suspicious activity.  Rather, findings based on selected, absolute data may suffice. Continue Reading Bank Loses Stay of Court Judgment Upholding Broad FinCEN Discretion