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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A Guest Blog by Greg Baer, President of The Clearing House

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest blogger Greg Baer, who will address a series of significant issues posed by a detailed paper published by The Clearing House, a banking association and payments company that is owned by the largest commercial banks and dates back to 1853.  The 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, identifies problems with that regime, and proposes a series of reforms to remedy them.

Gregory-Baer_7286A-PrintMr. Baer is the President of The Clearinghouse Association L.L.C. and the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of The Clearing House Payments Company L.L.C. The Clearing House Association represents the interests of The Clearing House’s commercial bank ownership on a diverse range of regulatory and legislative matters. Its affiliate, The Clearing House Payments Company, is the only private-sector ACH and wire operator in the United States, clearing and settling nearly $2 trillion in U.S. dollar payments each day, representing half of all commercial ACH and wire volume. Prior to joining The Clearing House, Mr. Baer was Managing Director and Head of Regulatory Policy at JPMorgan Chase. He previously served as Deputy General Counsel for Corporate Law at Bank of America, and as a partner at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr. He also served as Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, after serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary. Finally, Mr. Baer was managing senior counsel at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

New ParadigmThe New Paradigm is the product of two closed-door symposia that convened approximately 60 leading experts in the field of AML/CFT. The group included senior former and current officials from law enforcement, national security, bank regulation and domestic policy; leaders of prominent think tanks in the areas of economic policy, development, and national security; consultants and lawyers practicing in the field; FinTech CEOs; and the heads of AML/CFT at multiple major financial institutions. This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Mr. Baer responds to questions posed by Money Laundering Watch and explains the main positions set forth in The New Paradigm, and also replies to some potential counter-arguments. We hope you enjoy this discussion of these important issues. Continue Reading The New Paradigm: Proposed Reforms of the AML/CFT Regime by The Clearing House

This week, we have the opportunity to lead a discussion with real estate industry professionals about AML and CFT trends at the Real Estate Services Providers Council, Inc. (RESPRO®) Annual Conference in Las Vegas. We have written several times in this blog about the real estate industry, including the 2017 extension of the GTOs for title insurance companies, other recent FinCEN activities, and the FATF’s conclusions regarding real estate in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report.

We are very pleased that Anne Marie Minogue of Navigant will be joining us on the panel. The real estate industry operates differently in different states and efforts to enhance AML and CFT supervision and enforcement will need to reflect this complexity. RESPRO members include a broad range of industry participants that will be affected by further actions by FinCEN so we are looking forward to the discussion.Beautiful Swimming Pool at an Estate Home

FDICIn his remarks during last week’s launch of Case Western Reserve School of Law’s Financial Integrity Institute, FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg spoke on the historical context of today’s BSA/AML regulatory framework and the FDIC’s role in promoting and maintaining financial integrity.  The Financial Integrity Institute describes its mission as seeking “to advance financial integrity globally by conducting and promoting at the highest standards research, education and professional excellence in anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, targeted sanctions and countering the financing of terrorism and international tax evasion policies and practices.”

Chairman Gruenberg recounted the legislative history of money laundering and terrorist financing laws and reminded us that the BSA was originally developed to address the lack of data needed by law enforcement to prosecute financial crimes. The regulatory framework has evolved over time in response to continual technological advancements and the increasing volume and sophistication of financial crime being perpetrated. “[W]hat began as currency transaction reporting requirements to identify citizens evading tax payments,” he said, “has evolved into required BSA/AML compliance programs, suspicious activity monitoring, and new reporting requirements to identify money laundering and terrorist financing, among other financial crimes.” The Chairman also observed that anti-money laundering efforts continue to take on an increasingly international aspect, and that evolving technologies constitute a “double-edged sword” because they can represent new means to either commit, or detect and prevent, financial crime.

In his speech, the Chairman also touched on the FDIC’s supervisory program. He stated that the FDIC evaluates not only an institution’s compliance with the BSA but also whether an institution has established a “culture of compliance.” He further remarked that the BSA/AML compliance program failures seen by the FDIC “often reflect a failure on the part of an institution’s directors or senior management to establish a tone of compliance that permeates the institution.”

We previously have blogged about the regulatory focus on the importance of cultivating a culture of robust BSA/AML compliance within financial institutions. Chairman Gruenberg’s remarks suggest that this focus is not likely to diminish in the near future. As such, it is prudent for financial institutions to keep efforts to develop a culture of compliance top of mind. In particular, the Chairman noted that the FDIC looks for whether directors demonstrate strong corporate governance and have a general understanding of the BSA/AML regulations and the risks posed to their institution, and whether senior management and employees understand the importance of BSA/AML compliance.

The Joint Committee of the European Supervisory Authorities (ESA) issued on February 10, 2017 draft rules regarding certain anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism steps for Member States of the European Union (EU). The draft rules seek to provide a consistent framework for payment service providers or electronic money issuers which provide cross-border services within the EU, and which execute transactions exceeding three million Euros annually, to appoint and define the responsibilities of a Central Contract Point, or CCP.

Close up of magnifying glass on the flags of the worldA CCP, required to be appointed by some but not all EU Member States, serves as a point of contact between a Member State’s competent authorities and the firm. The basic responsibilities of a CCP include ensuring a firm’s compliance with the host Member State’s AML and counter-terrorism financing requirements, and facilitating the firm’s supervision by the host Member State’s competent authorities, such as by providing documents and information upon request.  According to the ESA Joint Committee, the draft rules “set out the criteria Member States will consider when deciding whether foreign payment service providers and electronic money issuers should appoint a CCP, and list the functions this CCP should perform. The aim is to support the development of a CCP regime that is clear, proportionate and risk-based, and effectively supports the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.”

These rules should help mitigate AML and terrorist financing risks by addressing the regulatory arbitrage opportunities that allow certain payments industry companies operating in the EU to avoid AML and counter-terrorism program requirements and supervision.

The ESA, which is comprised of the European Banking Authority, the European Securities and Markets Authority, and the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority, is seeking comments on the proposed rules through May 5, 2017.

Big Stock Photo_805445On August 30, 2016, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and four U.S. federal banking regulators sought to correct a problem—at least in part one of their own creation—by issuing a “Joint Fact Sheet on Foreign Correspondent Banking” to clarify enforcement priorities regarding AML/BSA and countering the financing of terrorism (CFT) regimes. The Fact Sheet highlighted the importance of maintaining correspondent banking relationships with foreign financial institutions and the value of the free flow of monies within and across global economies.

Continue Reading 2016 Year End Review: Banking Regulators Try to Ease Concerns Over Aggressive AML/BSA Enforcement

As part of the U.S. Treasury Department’s ongoing efforts to prevent possible bad actors from using U.S. companies to conceal money laundering, tax evasion, and other illicit financial activities, FinCEN issued, on May 11, 2016, a final rule to strengthen the customer due diligence (CDD) efforts of “covered financial institutions.” This was one of the most important, if not the most important, AML developments in 2016. Covered institutions have until May 11, 2018, to comply with the new CDD rule, which requires covered financial institutions, including banks, federally insured credit unions, broker-dealers, mutual funds, futures commission merchants, and introducing brokers in commodities, to identify the natural persons that own and control legal entity customers—the entities’ “beneficial owners.”

Continue Reading 2016 Year in Review: FinCEN Finalizes Regulations Regarding Customer Due Diligence

The New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) emerged in 2016 as a leader in AML enforcement by issuing new and detailed AML regulations with the unique requirement of an individual certification of compliance.

On June 30, 2016, the NYDFS finalized a new regulation setting forth rigorous standards for monitoring and filtering programs to monitor transactions for potential AML violations and block transactions prohibited by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The regulation, which became effective on January 1, 2017, applies to all banks, trust companies, private bankers, savings banks, and savings and loan associations chartered under the New York Banking Law (NYBL); branches and agencies of foreign banking corporations licensed under the NYBL to conduct banking operations in New York; and check cashers and money transmitters licensed under the NYBL (collectively, the Regulated Institutions). The NYDFS regulation is instructive to all financial institutions as a benchmark for future standards potentially to be issued by other states and/or federal regulators.

Continue Reading 2016 Year in Review: NYDFS Finalizes Broad AML Regulations