On May 16, 2018, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced it had settled charges against a registered broker-dealer, its clearing firm, and its chief compliance and anti-money laundering (“AML”) officer brought over the firm’s failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) related to customers’ liquidation of billions of penny stocks over an eight month period.  In a companion action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) imposed a monetary penalty against the clearing firm for various AML compliance failures.

Chardan Capital Markets, LLC (“Chardan”) was a registered broker-dealer primarily engaged in underwriting private investment in public equity (“PIPEs”), private placements and initial public offerings (“IPOs”). In 2013, Chardan allegedly began actively engaging in the liquidation of thinly-traded penny stocks of microcap issuers.  Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Financial Services, LLC (“ICBCFS”) is a registered broker-dealer that, in late 2012, began clearing equity securities and, from October 2013 through June 2014, cleared Chardan’s customers’ penny-stock transactions.

We previously have blogged about the SEC and FINRA stepping up their AML-related enforcement, as well as the issue of AML-related individual liability for compliance officers and executives (see here, here, here, here and here).  Aside from reaffirming the dubious nature of penny stock trading, this case once again reflects the need to actually act on identified red flags and file related SARs. Continue Reading SEC Sanctions Broker-Dealer, Clearing Firm and Chief Compliance Officer for AML Violations

As we previously have blogged, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) became one of the first regulators to wade into the regulation of cryptocurrency when it released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is a Money Services Business (“MSB”). As a MSB, and according to FinCEN, an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency therefore is a “financial institution” subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and its various AML-related requirements, unless a limitation or exemption applies.  Accordingly, the Department of Justice has prosecuted operators of cryptocurrency exchanges for a failure to register with FinCEN as a MSB, and FinCEN has brought civil enforcement proceedings against such exchanges for alleged failures to maintain adequate AML programs and file required Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARS”), among other alleged BSA violations.

Recently, regulators of all stripes across the globe have been moving swiftly to regulate cryptocurrency in various ways (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has been very vocal and aggressive in claiming that many if not all Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) involving cryptocurrency represent securities subject to the jurisdiction and supervision of the SEC, and already has filed several enforcement proceedings involving ICOs. Moreover the SEC just yesterday issued a statement that it considers exchanges for cryptocurrency to also be subject to its jurisdiction. Likewise, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) has asserted that cryptocurrencies are commodities subject to its jurisdiction; this week, a federal court agreed with this assertion in a CFTC enforcement action.  The CFTC claims that its jurisdiction reaches beyond cryptocurrency derivative products to fraud and manipulation in the underlying cryptocurrency spot markets.

But there is a potential problem with all of these regulators simultaneously rushing in to assert their respective power over cryptocurrency businesses, and it is a tension that does not seem to have attracted much public attention to date. Specifically, BSA regulations pertaining to the definition of a MSB, at 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(ff)(8)(ii), flatly state that a MSB does not include the following:

A person registered with, and functionally regulated or examined by, the SEC or the CFTC, or a foreign financial agency that engages in financial activities that, if conducted in the United States, would require the foreign financial agency to be registered with the SEC or CFTC[.]

How can certain cryptocurrency businesses be subject to the claimed jurisdictions of FinCEN as well as the recent regulatory newcomers to this area, the SEC and the CFTC? Continue Reading FinCEN Letter to U.S. Senate Committee on Finance Purports to Thread Needle of Potentially Competing Jurisdictions by Regulators over Cryptocurrencies

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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On June 5, the SEC filed suit against Salt Lake City-based Alpine Securities, Corp. (“Alpine”). The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the broker-dealer ran afoul of AML rules by “routinely and systematically” (i) failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) for stock transactions it had flagged as suspicious or, (ii) on thousands of occasions between 2011 and 2015 when Alpine did file SARs, omitting key information, such as the criminal or regulatory history of customers and disclosures as to whether those customers represented a foreign institution.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), Alpine and other broker-dealers must report suspicious transactions in the form of SARs filed with FinCEN. These filings pertain to reports of transactions or patterns of transactions involving at least $5,000 wherein a covered entity “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves funds representing ill-gotten gains; is intended to hide funds obtained from illegal activities; is designed to evade the BSA; or has no business or apparent lawful purpose and the filing institution knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction. SARs have a narrative section for the filer to describe the facts of the suspicious incident, which is regarded by law enforcement as a critical section.

The SEC has alleged that Alpine violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder, which require broker-dealers to comply with the recordkeeping, retention and report obligations of the BSA. Although Alpine had an AML/BSA compliance program (as is required for broker-dealers by both the BSA and FINRA Rule 3310), the complaint alleges that the program was not implemented properly in practice and mischaracterized what Alpine actually did. In part, the SEC alleges that Alpine used two standard templates for SAR filings which did not allow the filer to describe any of the red flags or other material information which caused Alpine to file the SAR. Importantly, the complaint also alleges that FINRA had examined Alpine and brought these deficiencies to its attention, but Alpine thereafter failed to take meaningful steps to address them and “continued its pattern of omitting material red flag and other information from its SARs.”

Much of Alpine’s business involves clearing microcap transactions. Although the broker-dealer has a history of disciplinary action by FINRA, the instant action also reflects a trend by the SEC to use AML rules as a means to combat alleged fraud related to the sale of microcap securities. Earlier this year, New York-based Windsor Street Capital also was charged with failing to file SARs; that matter, currently before an SEC administrative law judge, remains pending. All told, the action against Alpine exemplifies the SEC’s heightened interest in ensuring broker-dealers’ adherence to AML rules and standards. It also reiterates the need for any financial institution to implement effectively in practice its AML compliance plan: the best written compliance plan can turn into the centerpiece of regulators’ allegations if it merely becomes a catalogue of what the financial institution failed to do.

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