It is a potential crime to conduct a business that exchanges virtual currency and fail to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN“), even if the State in which one operates does not impose a similar licensing requirement. A federal district court in Louisiana has reaffirmed this principle in United States v. Lord, in which the defendants unsuccessfully sought to withdraw their pleas of guilty to offenses based on a failure to register with FinCEN.

Law and Justice

The defendants are father and son. According to the court opinion, in 2013, they began to operate a bitcoin business through a website called localbitcoins.com, which advertised the services of other bitcoin exchangers. The defendants’ clients provided cash, credit card payments and wire transfers to the defendants to purchase bitcoins from a third-party online bitcoin broker on their client’s behalf, in exchange for commissions charged by the defendants. In the Spring of 2014, the third-party bitcoin broker warned the defendants that they were required to register with FinCEN because they were acting as virtual currency exchangers. Although the defendants allegedly misrepresented to the third-party online broker that they already had registered with FinCEN, the defendants did not actually register until November 2014. By that time, however, they already had exchanged more than $2.5 million worth of virtual currency. This registration delay was the basis of the charges relating to the defendants’ virtual currency business. Continue Reading Failure to Register with FINCEN Sustains Guilty Pleas by Virtual Currency Exchangers

One of the many potential consequences of a criminal conviction is that the government may seize assets held by the defendant’s family to satisfy a criminal forfeiture order against the defendant himself. In United States v. Daugerdas, the Southern District of New York held that the wife of a lawyer convicted of a tax shelter fraud scheme lacked standing to raise questions about the underlying forfeiture of $32 million held in accounts which she controlled, and that she also was incapable of showing that any of her legal interests in the funds were superior to the government’s interests in forfeiture, which vested earlier when her husband began his scheme. The Daugerdas opinion illustrates the potential futility of transferring the proceeds of illegal activity to third parties. When it comes to criminal forfeiture, the U.S. is a special creditor.

Broken piggy bank

The order of criminal forfeiture at issue arose out of a well-publicized and significant tax shelter prosecution involving various tax professionals, including lawyers and accountants. Although criminal forfeiture cannot rest upon a substantive criminal tax violation under Title 26 (the Internal Revenue Code, or IRC), the government sometimes maneuvers around that statutory rule by charging what are really violations of the IRC as mail or wire fraud under Title 18. There is a DOJ policy which generally prohibits the use of the mail or wire fraud statutes to turn traditional tax violations into mail fraud, wire fraud or money laundering charges and/or forfeiture counts; this issue represents a complicated topic all by itself. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this discussion that the $32 million forfeiture order in Daugerdas rested on mail fraud convictions. The petitioner’s husband, former tax attorney Paul Daugerdas, was convicted and jailed for running an alleged tax fraud scheme from about 1994 to 2004, which produced at least $180 million in illegal proceeds. Approximately $32 million of these same proceeds – the subject of the contested forfeiture – were deposited between February 2000 and July 2009 into accounts held in the petitioner’s own name, a trust controlled by the petitioner, or a corporation the petitioner owned because her husband had assigned the corporation to her in 2002. Continue Reading Friends and Family and Criminal Forfeiture

Banks stand to advance the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery by reporting suspicious transactions and other financial activity that raise red flags, according to a report on March 15, 2017. Published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a renowned British think tank, the report notes that banks and other financial service providers are increasingly applying their transaction monitoring and data analyses to hold those who exploit people for sex and labor accountable.

Today, nearly 46 million people are living as slaves or indentured servants, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation. As the trafficking of people is heavily dependent upon the movement of money, the misuse of banks and intermediaries are a key component of keeping the industry afloat. In particular, these institutions not only process payments and serve as the final stop for illicit proceeds, but also act as a conduit for financing the trafficking supply chain itself. For example, money services businesses are exploited to pay transporters, prepaid cards are used to move funds across borders, and individual bank accounts are opened to funnel profits.

Some financial institutions, aware of their misuse, are teaming with regulators and law enforcement alike to seek out ways to stem the tide. In fact, some institutions have looked beyond their standard controls to implement techniques specifically tailored to detect human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Project STAMP – created to promote the enforcement of the BSA and the money laundering statutes – aims to shut down human trafficking organizations by identifying and seizing assets and proceeds derived or used in support thereof. Similarly, FinCEN has published guidance to financial institutions that, inter alia, describes a number of unique red flags, such as atypical remittance patterns and frequent payments to online escort services for “advertising.”

As RUSI’s report makes clear, preexisting AML/CFT controls present a potentially highly effective means of identifying and providing evidence to hold accountable those who provide and solicit human trafficking.  Given the industry’s heavy dependence on financial institutions, together with these institutions’ preexisting AML/CFT programs and vast amounts of financial data on hand, banks and intermediaries alike are in a unique position to make a meaningful impact.

The U.S. money laundering statutes have a broad global reach and may be used to prosecute cases involving alleged schemes perpetrated almost entirely outside of the United States. These types of allegations seem to be an increasingly common fact pattern as cross-border cases proliferate and U.S. prosecutions more often involve conduct occurring largely overseas. A recent indictment fits squarely within this trend.

GlobeThe U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced the unsealing of four related and complex indictments returned in the District of Columbia; according to the DOJ press release, 19 people were charged “with taking part in various international fraud and money laundering conspiracies that led to more than $13 million in losses[.]” The press release credited a broad array of law enforcement agencies, including Interpol. Again emphasizing the international aspect of the indictments, the press release stated that “[s]ixteen of the 19 defendants were arrested . . . . in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Israel[,]” and that “[t]he arrests followed a multi-year investigative effort by federal and international law enforcement agencies to target multimillion-dollar fraud and money laundering schemes perpetrated by a transnational organized crime network.”

The four indictments are lengthy and we will discuss only one of them, in order to focus on the potentially broad jurisdictional reach of the “international” money laundering provision under 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2). Continue Reading Indictments Spotlight Broad Extraterritorial Reach of U.S. Money Laundering Statutes

The Executive Vice President of Venezuela, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah (El Aissami), was designated on Monday by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act). According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), El Aissami directly facilitated significant shipments of drugs from Venezuela into the United States and Mexico, and helped and protected other drug dealers operating within Venezuela.  OFAC also has alleged that El Aissami’s “primary frontman,” Samark Jose Lopez Bello, oversaw the finances of these operations and launders drug proceeds through “an international network of petroleum, distribution, engineering, telecommunications, and asset holding companies.”

After providing some additional details regarding these designations, we will discuss the Kingpin Act itself, a powerful and unique enforcement tool. Continue Reading Kingpin Act Wielded Against Vice President of Venezuela

The Western Union Company (“Western Union”) entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) on January 19th with the Department of Justice, based on alleged willful failures to maintain an effective AML program and the aiding and abetting of wire fraud.  The DPA involved a combined $586 million monetary penalty and also involved related civil enforcement actions by the Federal Trade Commission and FinCEN.  The agreement has been well-publicized and its details will not be repeated here; very generally, the DPA rests on allegations involving conduct stretching from 2004 through 2012 and an overall failure by Western Union to detect and prevent a kaleidoscope of illicit behavior by customers, from structured transactions to an international consumer fraud scheme to potential drug distribution.  To be sure, this is a significant agreement – but it echoes the same general sort of facts and allegations which have become almost standard in large AML enforcement actions. However, the Western Union action contains at least one interesting wrinkle. Continue Reading The Western Union DPA and the Need to Investigate One’s Own

In part two of our review of the 2016 developments in Anti-Money Laundering (AML), the Bank Secrecy Act, (BSA), the criminal money laundering statutes, forfeiture, and related issues, we discuss four additional key topics:

You can read more about these topics areas in the blogs that follow.  Click here to read the full article 2016 Year in Review: Money Laundering (Part Two).  Click here if you missed Part One of our 2016 year in review.

The federal courts continued in 2016 to produce a stream of cases pertaining to money laundering. We focus on three below because they involve analysis of basic issues that frequently arise in money laundering litigation.

Justitia, a monument in Frankfurt, Germany

The first case tests the money laundering statute’s reach in prosecution of an alleged international fraud perpetrated primarily outside of the United States—an increasingly common fact pattern as cross-border cases proliferate and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutes more conduct occurring largely overseas. The other two cases involve defense victories that focus on critical issues of mental state: the question of specific intent under the BSA, and the question, under the money laundering statutes, of knowledge by a third party that a transaction involved proceeds of another person’s crime. The issue of third-party knowledge is often crucial in prosecutions of professionals. Continue Reading 2016 Year End Review: Money Laundering Opinions of Note