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

Attorney General Sessions Announces Rescission of Obama Administration Policies on Marijuana Enforcement; Financial Institutions Lose Grounds to Permit Financial Transactions with Marijuana Businesses

In a single-page memorandum issued today, Attorney General Sessions tersely rescinded a string of DOJ enforcement policies announced during the Obama Administration — chief among them the “Cole Memo,” described below — which collectively had indicated that although marijuana was still illegal under federal drug laws and the DOJ would continue its enforcement of those laws, the DOJ also would defer to state governments that had developed regulatory regimes legalizing marijuana under defined circumstances.  Although Attorney General Sessions is well known for his personal distaste for marijuana-related activity, he previously had not been entirely clear as to exactly what position his DOJ would take in regards to the Cole Memo and related enforcement.

Although this policy change has many potential implications, its primary relevance to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”), the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and money laundering issues is that the Cole Memo had provided the support for the federal government to issue guidance that, under very defined circumstances, financial institutions could provide services to state-licensed marijuana businesses. Continue Reading Marijuana Enforcement: DOJ Cole Memo Up in Smoke

Most individuals convicted of federal money laundering charges face prison time. These prison sentences are often increased by the judge’s determination that certain sentencing enhancements unique to this crime apply.  This post looks at two of those enhancements—those relating to defendants engaged in the “business of laundering funds” and those involved in “sophisticated laundering”—with a brief review of the relevant statutory guidance followed by analysis of recent cases addressing them. The importance of sentencing issues in money laundering cases is underscored by recent developments. Earlier this year, the United States Attorney General released a memorandum establishing the Department of Justice’s policy for charging and sentencing.  In this memorandum, Attorney General Sessions placed renewed emphasis on sentencing and disclosure to the sentencing court of “all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines.”  Even before this memorandum, however, sentencing data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that in 2016, 78.6% of the individuals convicted of money laundering as their “primary offense” were incarcerated—a figure higher than the previous two years (see 2015 data here and 2014 data here).  The mean prison sentence for these individuals was 41 monthsContinue Reading Unique Issues in Sentencing for Money Laundering Convictions: The “Business of Laundering Funds” and “Sophisticated Laundering” Enhancements

U.S. Money Laundering Charges Stemmed from Foreign Bribes to Foreign Official by Foreign Companies

On August 25, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York sentenced former Guinea Minister of Mines and Geology, Mahmoud Thiam, to seven years in prison, followed by three years of supervised probations, for laundering $8.5 million bribes paid to him by China Sonangol International Ltd. and China International Fun, SA (CIF).  The judge also entered an order for the forfeiture of the full of $8.5 million of laundered funds.  The sentence followed Thiam’s conviction by a jury in May 2017 of money laundering.

Although the alleged money laundering transactions charged in the indictment involved wire transfers from foreign banks to bank accounts held in New York City, all of the bribery which produced the illicit proceeds at issue in the money laundering charges occurred entirely overseas. As we will discuss, this case serves as a reminder that the offense of money laundering centers on a discrete financial transaction, not the underlying illegal activity. This case also illustrates the willingness of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to pursue cases primarily involving conduct which occurred abroad, and also how the DOJ may use the money laundering statutes – assuming that there is a U.S. jurisdictional hook – to pursue certain individuals who would be untouchable under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: the foreign officials themselves who are receiving the bribes. Continue Reading Former Guinean Minister of Mines Sentenced to Seven Years in Prison for Laundering $8.5 Million in Bribes Paid by Chinese Companies in Exchange for Mining Rights

On July 26, FinCEN, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California (“NDCA USAO”), assessed a $110,003,314 civil money penalty against BTC-e a/k/a Canton Business Corporation (“BTC-e”) for willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and a $12 million penalty against Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national who is one of the alleged operators of BTC-e, for his role in the violations.  FinCEN’s press release indicates that this is the first enforcement action it has taken against a foreign-located money services business (“MSB”) doing business in the United States.  As we previously have blogged, FinCEN released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is an MSB under the BSA unless a limitation or exemption applies.

In a parallel criminal investigation, Vinnik was arrested and detained in Greece and charged in a 21-count superseding indictment brought by the NDCA USAO and DOJ’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. The superseding indictment alleges that Vinnik and BTC-e operated an unlicensed MSB doing business in the U.S., in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960, and committed money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, by facilitating virtual currency transactions involving various crimes, including computer hacking, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption, and drug trafficking. The superseding indictment also provides some clues to the fate of the collapsed virtual currency exchange Mt. Gox, once reportedly the largest such exchange in the world. Continue Reading FinCEN Takes First Action Against Foreign-Located MSB—“The Virtual Currency Exchange of Choice for Criminals”—For Willfully Violating U.S. AML Laws

On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a civil forfeiture complaint in the Southern District of Texas seeking recovery of approximately $144 million in assets that allegedly represent the proceeds of foreign corruption and which were laundered in and through the U.S. The complaint’s narrative focuses on Diezani Alison-Madueke, who is Nigeria’s former Minister for Petroleum Resources.  The 52-page complaint, which contains additional attachments, is very detailed – but nonetheless interesting reading – so we will discuss here only three salient points:

  • The most eye-catching property subject to forfeiture, the spectacular yacht Galactica Star (which you can inspect here), apparently has no discernible nexus to the U.S. – except that the funds used to acquire the yacht allegedly were transferred through correspondent bank accounts at financial institutions which process their U.S. dollar wire transactions through the U.S.
  • The complaint emphasizes the continued enforcement focus on high-end U.S. real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering from abroad.
  • The complaint purports to quote a recording of a conversation allegedly made by Ms. Alison-Madueke herself, in which she allegedly offers a co-schemer some critiques on his approach to laundering illicit funds.

Continue Reading Alleged Nigerian Oil Industry Corruption and Civil Forfeiture: More Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Law; More High-End Real Estate; and Advice on Laundering

The District Court for the Eastern District of New York has denied motions for acquittal and new trial by a Florida attorney convicted at trial of assisting in an undercover money laundering “sting” operation.

Although the sting operation was orchestrated by an undercover FBI agent, it was modeled on a similar, uncharged and actual scheme to launder the proceeds of fake stock certificates in which the attorney allegedly had participated previously, and which had been run by the defendant’s former client – who introduced the attorney to the undercover FBI agent.  As is typical for money laundering prosecutions of third-party professionals, the key issue was knowledge. Continue Reading “Sting” Money Laundering Scheme and Cooperating Client Ensnares Attorney