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

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

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

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

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

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

Second of a Two-Part Blog: Anti-Money Laundering Programs Coming to the Legal Profession?

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the proposed Corporate Transparency Act of 2017 (the “Act”), and observed that, if passed, the Act would represent another chapter in the domestic and global campaign to increase transparency in financial transactions through information gathering by private parties and expanded requirements for Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting. Today, we summarize the details of this complex legislation, focusing in particular on two significant ways in which the Act would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”):

  • Requiring regulations to establish minimum standards for State procedures regarding the formation of legal entities such as corporations and limited liability companies (“LLCs”) and the identification of the beneficial owners of such entities when they are formed.
  • Adding “formation agents” – i.e., those who assist in the creation of legal entities – to the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” which is subject to the BSA’s reporting and AML obligations. This new definition potentially applies to a broad swath of businesses and individuals previously not regulated directly by the BSA, including certain attorneys.

Continue Reading Expanded Beneficial Ownership Reporting and AML Duties Under the Corporate Transparency Act

First of a Two-Part Blog

In late June, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Peter King of New York introduced The Corporate Transparency Act of 2017 (the “Act”). In August, Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio introduced companion legislation in the Senate. A Fact Sheet issued by Senator Wyden is here. Representative King previously has introduced several versions of this proposed bipartisan legislation; the most recent earlier version, entitled the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, was introduced in February 2016.  Although it is far from clear that this latest version will be passed, the Act is worthy of attention and discussion because it represents a potentially significant expansion of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to a whole new category of businesses.

The Act is relatively complex.  In part, it would amend the BSA in order to compel the Secretary of the Treasury to issue regulations that would require corporations and limited liability companies (“LLCs”) formed in States which lack a formation system requiring robust identification of beneficial ownership (as defined in the Act) to themselves file reports to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) that provide the same information about beneficial ownership that the entities would have to provide, if they were in a State with a sufficiently robust formation system.  More colloquially, entities formed in States which don’t require much information about beneficial ownership now would have to report that information directly to FinCEN – scrutiny which presumably is designed to both motivate States to enact more demanding formation systems, and demotivate persons from forming entities in States which require little information about beneficial ownership. However, there is another facet to the Act which to date has not seemed to garner much attention, but which potentially could have a significant impact. Under the Act, formation agents – i.e., those who assist in the creation of legal entities such as corporations or LLCs – would be swept up in the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” and therefore subject to the BSA’s AML and reporting obligations.  This expanded definition potentially applies to a broad swath of businesses and individuals previously not regulated directly by the BSA, including certain attorneys. Continue Reading The Corporate Transparency Act: A Proposal to Expand Beneficial Ownership Reporting for Legal Entities, Corporate Formation Agents and – Potentially – Attorneys

FinCEN has announced the expansion of its Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) for high-end cash buyers of real estate. The expansion is two-fold. First, FinCEN has expanded the scope of Form 8300 reportable transactions to include “funds transfers” in addition to currency, cashier’s checks, certified checks, traveler’s check, personal checks, business checks, or money orders in any form. Second, FinCEN has added real estate transactions with a total purchase price of $3,000,000 or more in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. This brings the markets covered to seven metropolitan areas.

The renewed GTOs require title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make covered transactions. The renewed and expanded GTOs will be in effect from September 22, 2017 through March 20, 2018. FinCEN has again praised the “assistance and cooperation” of the title insurance industry in this effort.

On the same day as the GTO expansion, FinCEN published an “Advisory to Financial Institutions and Real Estate Firms and Professionals.” This Advisory is in line with our expectation that FinCEN would further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report and highlighted in an April 12, 2016, speech by former FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery.

Continue Reading FinCEN Continues Its Focus on Real Estate Transactions through Advisory and GTOs