Anti-Money Laundering (AML)

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

Mexico City’s downtown and Palacio de Bellas Artes building at twilight

Last week, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) issued a report concluding that Mexico needs to “step up efforts in pursuing money launderers.” The report, which summarized the FATF’s findings from its on-site assessment in early 2017, identified three particularly weak areas in Mexico’s AML regime:  preventative measures; investigation and prosecution; and confiscation.  This post summarizes the report’s findings, and observes that Mexico is not the only nation needing to “step up” its efforts.  Further, given the strong financial and geographic ties between Mexico and the U.S., the AML challenges of Mexico can be the challenges of the U.S. Continue Reading Mexico’s AML Regime Evaluated by the FATF: Systemic Improvement, but Suspicious Transaction Reporting and Law Enforcement Efforts Continue to Struggle

After over a year of negotiations, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  These new regulations will require an increase in transparency by the trusts and trading companies to reveal the holders of virtual currency to thwart potential money laundering, tax evasion, and anonymous funding of terrorism. Primary among these regulations is a requirement to provide beneficial ownership information to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest” to access data on the beneficial owners of trusts.

This focus on beneficial ownership in regards to virtual currency is entirely consistent with the general AML regulatory efforts in the United States and around the globe over the last few years, which have emphasized heavily the need to identify the beneficial owners of financial accounts, real estate and other assets in order to attain a more transparent financial system.

The regulation adopted by the European Parliament and European Council also comes as Bitcoin’s prices surged over 1,700 percent since the start of 2017.  This outstanding growth has increased main stream interest in the virtual currency while also sounding alarm bells as some fear that Bitcoin is a bubble bound to burst.  A key part of the amendment is that access to beneficial ownership information should be provided to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest.”  Continue Reading EU Adopts Regulations Increasing Transparency in Virtual Currency Trading to Combat Money Laundering, Tax Evasion, and Terrorism Financing

We are very pleased to be presenting on the topic of SEC enforcement against broker-dealers and mutual funds relating to alleged underlying Anti-Money Laundering and Bank Secrecy Act violations, and associated private class action lawsuits, at the upcoming meeting of the Securities Regulation Committee of the New York State Bar Association on this Wednesday, December 13, 2017.  This is a topic of increasing importance on which we have blogged repeatedly (see here, here, here and here); FinCEN also has proposed similar AML regulations for investment advisors.  We also will discuss the hot topic of potential SEC enforcement involving digital currency and Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, and the general role of AML in the digital currency industry. The program will begin at 7:00 p.m. and is hosted at the New York City offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.  Thanks again to the Committee for this invitation; we look forward to it.

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In its “Risk Outlook, Autumn Update” (“Update”) released last week, the Solicitor Regulation Authority (“SRA”), a regulator of solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, found that although the legal sector remains at “high risk of exploitation for money laundering,” reports made by legal practitioners to law enforcement of suspicious, money laundering-related activities dropped by nearly 10% last year. The Update then explores the AML risks associated with legal services.See the source image

As we will discuss below, many of the issues addressed by the SRA Update resonate with similar Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) issues which have been brewing recently in the United States — such as the issues of beneficial ownership, the potential use of real estate in money laundering, and lawyers as “gate keepers.”  Of course, however, the very notion of legal practitioners reporting their clients to law enforcement for suspicious activity — a practice which represents a given to the SRA Update in light of U.K. law reporting requirements — remains deeply antithetical to basic notions of client confidentiality and loyalty held by the U.S. legal profession and courts.  We will discuss here this unique convergence of (i) very similar AML issues and concerns confronting the U.K. and the U.S., and (ii) drastically different approaches — at least to date — as to the appropriate duty of lawyers to report the conduct of their own clients to the government. Continue Reading U.K. Regulator Critiques Legal Industry AML Compliance

FinCEN recentlty announced entry of a $2 million assessment against Lone Star National Bank, a private bank operating out of Texas, for the bank’s allegedly willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and inadequate Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) monitoring programs.  The primary violations relate to Lone Star’s alleged failure to comply with due diligence requirements imposed by Section 312 of the USA PATRIOT Act in establishing and conducting its correspondent banking relationship with a Mexican bank.  As a result of Lone Star’s insufficient due diligence and AML program, the Mexican bank was “allowed to move hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in suspicious cash shipments through the U.S. financial system in less than two years.”  The FinCEN’s announcement warns that this “action underscores the dangers that institutions face when taking on international correspondence activities without properly equipping themselves” to manage the enhanced obligations that arise with such relationships.

This new FinCEN assessment underscores the continued regulatory interest in the AML risks presented by correspondent banking relationships. We therefore first will provide a brief overview of correspondent banking relationships and the enhanced regulatory attention often paid to them. Armed with this context, we then will analyze the findings and lessons learned from the Lone Star assessment, including the value touted by FinCEN of Lone Star’s efforts to cooperate with its own investigation. Further, this new assessment suggests that the U.S. government does not always present a consistent voice regarding correspondent banking relationships: although the U.S. Treasury has tried to encourage financial institutions in general to not “de-risk” and thereby terminate correspondent banking relationships, we see that enforcement agencies continue to penalize institutions in individual cases for not mitigating sufficiently the risks of correspondent banking. Continue Reading FinCEN Fines Texas Bank $2M for Alleged Failure to Vet and Monitor Mexican Correspondent Banking Relationship – But Touts Bank’s Cooperation

PANA Issues Recommendations to European Parliament: Tougher Enforcement, Greater Transparency, Improved Information Sharing and Prohibitions Against Outsourcing of Customer Due Diligence

In the wake of the Panama Papers, the European Parliament (“EP”) formed PANA, a Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance, and Tax Evasion. We previously wrote about PANA in May when it was examining the role of lawyers in money laundering and tax evasion schemes. After opening their October 19 meeting with a moment of silence to honor the life of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Coruana Galizia, who recently was killed by a car bomb, PANA approved a draft report and recommendations for review by the EP. The findings and recommendations range from reporting standardization to outsourcing to illicit real estate transactions to attorney-client privilege.

European parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

A few themes emerged from the PANA report:

  • the European Union (“EU”) has strong law, but lacks vigorous enforcement;
  • the EU’s many regulators are stymied by a severe lack of communication, both within nations and between countries;
  • beneficial owners (“BOs”) are mostly unknown because regulated entities are not fulfilling their reporting obligations and the BO register is not robust, accessible, or standardized;
  • intermediaries, like banks, lawyers, accountants, wealth managers, and other financial institutions, are not living up to their obligations because they are engaging in “creative compliance” and leaving compliance responsibility to third parties.

Based on these findings, PANA recommends:

  • uniform definitions and punishments for money laundering and tax-related infractions,
  • “automatic exchange of information,” reciprocity, and “Common Reporting Standards” between regulators to facilitate better information sharing,
  • the creation of a “publically accessible,” standardized BO register that includes the ultimate beneficial owner (“UBO”),
  • the EP pass legislation to “make it illegal to outsource [customer due diligence (“CDD”)] procedures to third parties,”
  • adoption of stronger forfeiture laws that allow cross-border confiscation of illegally obtained assets,
  • stronger sanctions against banks and other intermediaries that “are knowingly, willfully, and systematically implicated in illegal tax schemes,”
  • lawyers should no longer be able to hide behind the attorney-client privilege to escape reporting requirements, like suspicious transaction reports (“STRs”),
  • countries devote more resources to fighting money laundering and tax evasion,
  • the EP vest more oversight powers in PANA.

Continue Reading Money Laundering Watchdog Criticizes Lax AML Enforcement and “Creative Compliance” in Wake of Panama Papers

Third in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

Many Keys to AML Information Sharing This blog focuses on suggested improvements to information sharing between financial institutions, and between financial institutions and governments, to better combat money laundering and terrorist financing. As we recently blogged, the Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) for Defence and Security Studies — a U.K. think tank – has released a study:  The Role of Financial Information-Sharing Partnerships in the Disruption of Crime (the “Study”).  The Study focuses on international efforts — including efforts by the United States — in reporting suspicious transactions revealing criminal activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing.  The Study critiques current approaches to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting and suggests improvements, primarily in the form of enhanced information sharing among financial institutions and governments. In our first blog post in this series, we described some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of current suspicious activity reporting.  These critiques related to an ever-increasing amount of SAR filings, coupled in part with a lack a feedback by governments to the filing institutions regarding what sort of information was considered by law enforcement to be actually useful.  In our second post, we discussed the current landscape of AML information sharing in the United States, which is governed by Section 314 of the Patriot Act, and is an important component of many financial institutions’ ability to fulfill successfully their AML obligations.  This third and final blog post pertaining to the Study examines its findings and proposals for developing effective public–private financial information sharing partnerships (“FISPs”) in order to better detect, prevent, and combat money laundering and terrorist financing.  Observing that modern financial crime “operates in real time, is most often international in scale and can be highly sophisticated ad adaptive to avoid detection,” the Study generally posits that AML systems ideally should include real-time and cross-border information sharing. Continue Reading Combatting Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Through Enhanced AML Information Sharing

Second in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

As we recently blogged, the Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) for Defence and Security Studies — a U.K. think tank – has released a study:  The Role of Financial Information-Sharing Partnerships in the Disruption of Crime (the “Study”).  The Study focuses on international efforts — including efforts by the United States — regarding the reporting of suspicious transactions revealing criminal activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing.  The Study critiques current approaches to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting, and suggests improvements, primarily in the form of enhanced information sharing among financial institutions and governments.

In our first blog post in this series, we described some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of suspicious activity reporting, which the Study described as often presenting little or no “operational value to active law enforcement investigations.” In this second blog post pertaining to the Study, we will discuss the current landscape of AML information sharing in the United States — which is governed by Section 314 of the Patriot Act, and which is an important component of many financial institutions’ ability to fulfill successfully their AML obligations. In the third and final blog post pertaining to the Study, we will circle back to the Study and examine its findings and proposals for an enhanced process of information sharing by financial institutions and governments in order to better fight money laundering and terrorism. Continue Reading AML Information Sharing in the U.S. – Section 314 of the Patriot Act

U.K. Think Tank Report Criticizes International AML Reporting Regimes

First in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

The Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) for Defence and Security Studies — a U.K. think tank – has released a study:  The Role of Financial Information-Sharing Partnerships in the Disruption of Crime (the “Study”).  The Study focuses on international efforts — including efforts by the United States — regarding the reporting of suspicious transactions, money laundering, and terrorist financing.  The Study is a critique of current approaches to AML reporting.

In this first blog post on the Study, we will describe some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of suspicious activity reporting. Some of these criticisms will ring true with U.S. financial institutions, and echo in part criticisms previously raised by a detailed paper published by The Clearing House, a banking association and payments company. That paper, titled A New Paradigm: Redesigning the U.S. AML/CFT Framework to Protect National Security and Aid Law Enforcement (“The New Paradigm”), analyzes the effectiveness of the current AML and Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) regime in the U.S., identifies problems with that regime, and proposes reforms.  As we previously have blogged, The New Paradigm has argued that the regime for filing SARs is outdated, that “the combined data set [from filed SARs] has massive amounts of noise and little information of use to law enforcement,” and that “the SAR database includes no feedback loop [and] . . . . there is no mechanism for law enforcement to provide feedback on whether a given SAR produced a lead or was never utilized.”  These same criticisms are repeated in the Study, which looked at AML systems in the U.S, the U.K, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and Canada.  Although suspicious activity reporting is generally considered to be the engine which drives AML and money laundering enforcement by the government, the Study asserts: “Interviews with past and present {Financial Intelligence Units] heads as part of this project consistently raised figures of between 80% and 90% of [such reporting] being of no operational value to active law enforcement investigations.” Continue Reading Suspicious Activity Reports Rarely Provide “Operational Value” to Law Enforcement Investigations