Department of Justice (DOJ)

On February 23, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) signaled that the inter-governmental body “will step up its efforts in monitoring the use of cryptocurrencies in money laundering.”  While the 37-member international body remains without an official policy for implementation, the pronouncement nonetheless demonstrates the heightened Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) concern from regulators across the globe concerning illicit uses of cryptocurrency.

Notably, the FATF’s pronouncement comes on the heels of recent enforcement-related measures taken in various countries.  As we previously have blogged, 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.  More recently, France’s top financial markets regulator issued a statement that online trading platforms for cryptocurrency derivatives fall under the European Union’s central legislation regulating financial markets.  In the U.K., the Parliament’s Treasury Committee announced on February 22 that it has launched a probe to examine both the impact of cryptocurrencies on financial institutions and how best to police the new technology.  Meanwhile, South Korea’s ban on anonymous trading of cryptocurrencies—part of the country’s new policies which represent the first AML guidelines for cryptocurrencies among the nations of the FATF—took effect on January 30.

The United States is also part of this growing global focus on cryptocurrencies and related concerns involving AML and money laundering.  For example, during his recent remarks at the Financial Services Roundtable’s Spring Conference on February 26, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that the Department of Justice is developing a “comprehensive strategy” to address the concern that cryptocurrencies may be used for money laundering.

Given regulators’ intense focus on the burgeoning industry, it is likely that cryptocurrencies will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Notably, in a February 7 letter to Nicolas Dujovne, the current president of the G20 and Argentina’s Minister of Finance, the finance ministers and central bank governors of France and Germany requested that cryptocurrencies be placed on the agenda.  Moreover, during a recent event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. will work with G20 nations to ensure cryptocurrency accounts do not “become the Swiss-numbered bank accounts.”

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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

Attorney General Sessions Announces Rescission of Obama Administration Policies on Marijuana Enforcement; Financial Institutions Lose Grounds to Permit Financial Transactions with Marijuana Businesses

In a single-page memorandum issued today, Attorney General Sessions tersely rescinded a string of DOJ enforcement policies announced during the Obama Administration — chief among them the “Cole Memo,” described below — which collectively had indicated that although marijuana was still illegal under federal drug laws and the DOJ would continue its enforcement of those laws, the DOJ also would defer to state governments that had developed regulatory regimes legalizing marijuana under defined circumstances.  Although Attorney General Sessions is well known for his personal distaste for marijuana-related activity, he previously had not been entirely clear as to exactly what position his DOJ would take in regards to the Cole Memo and related enforcement.

Although this policy change has many potential implications, its primary relevance to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”), the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and money laundering issues is that the Cole Memo had provided the support for the federal government to issue guidance that, under very defined circumstances, financial institutions could provide services to state-licensed marijuana businesses. Continue Reading Marijuana Enforcement: DOJ Cole Memo Up in Smoke

U.S. Money Laundering Charges Stemmed from Foreign Bribes to Foreign Official by Foreign Companies

On August 25, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York sentenced former Guinea Minister of Mines and Geology, Mahmoud Thiam, to seven years in prison, followed by three years of supervised probations, for laundering $8.5 million bribes paid to him by China Sonangol International Ltd. and China International Fun, SA (CIF).  The judge also entered an order for the forfeiture of the full of $8.5 million of laundered funds.  The sentence followed Thiam’s conviction by a jury in May 2017 of money laundering.

Although the alleged money laundering transactions charged in the indictment involved wire transfers from foreign banks to bank accounts held in New York City, all of the bribery which produced the illicit proceeds at issue in the money laundering charges occurred entirely overseas. As we will discuss, this case serves as a reminder that the offense of money laundering centers on a discrete financial transaction, not the underlying illegal activity. This case also illustrates the willingness of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to pursue cases primarily involving conduct which occurred abroad, and also how the DOJ may use the money laundering statutes – assuming that there is a U.S. jurisdictional hook – to pursue certain individuals who would be untouchable under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: the foreign officials themselves who are receiving the bribes. Continue Reading Former Guinean Minister of Mines Sentenced to Seven Years in Prison for Laundering $8.5 Million in Bribes Paid by Chinese Companies in Exchange for Mining Rights

As widely reported, the Spanish police raided last year the Madrid offices of the Chinese state-run Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (“ICBC”), the world’s biggest bank by assets. In the nearly 18 months following that raid and the numerous arrests made at that time, very little information about this money laundering investigation became known publically. That is, until Reuters recently published a lengthy article resulting from its review of “thousands of pages of confidential case submissions” and its “interviews with investigators and former ICBC employees.” The article raises numerous questions regarding the enforcement of European money laundering laws against Chinese banks operating abroad, as well as certain unique political and diplomatic considerations that may exist in those enforcement efforts. Below, we will compare these efforts with similar U.S. enforcement efforts, which are potentially gaining steam. Continue Reading High-Profile Spanish Money Laundering Investigation of Chinese Bank Raises Questions About Future of Similar U.S. Enforcement

On July 26, FinCEN, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California (“NDCA USAO”), assessed a $110,003,314 civil money penalty against BTC-e a/k/a Canton Business Corporation (“BTC-e”) for willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and a $12 million penalty against Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national who is one of the alleged operators of BTC-e, for his role in the violations.  FinCEN’s press release indicates that this is the first enforcement action it has taken against a foreign-located money services business (“MSB”) doing business in the United States.  As we previously have blogged, FinCEN released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is an MSB under the BSA unless a limitation or exemption applies.

In a parallel criminal investigation, Vinnik was arrested and detained in Greece and charged in a 21-count superseding indictment brought by the NDCA USAO and DOJ’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. The superseding indictment alleges that Vinnik and BTC-e operated an unlicensed MSB doing business in the U.S., in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960, and committed money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, by facilitating virtual currency transactions involving various crimes, including computer hacking, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption, and drug trafficking. The superseding indictment also provides some clues to the fate of the collapsed virtual currency exchange Mt. Gox, once reportedly the largest such exchange in the world. Continue Reading FinCEN Takes First Action Against Foreign-Located MSB—“The Virtual Currency Exchange of Choice for Criminals”—For Willfully Violating U.S. AML Laws

On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a civil forfeiture complaint in the Southern District of Texas seeking recovery of approximately $144 million in assets that allegedly represent the proceeds of foreign corruption and which were laundered in and through the U.S. The complaint’s narrative focuses on Diezani Alison-Madueke, who is Nigeria’s former Minister for Petroleum Resources.  The 52-page complaint, which contains additional attachments, is very detailed – but nonetheless interesting reading – so we will discuss here only three salient points:

  • The most eye-catching property subject to forfeiture, the spectacular yacht Galactica Star (which you can inspect here), apparently has no discernible nexus to the U.S. – except that the funds used to acquire the yacht allegedly were transferred through correspondent bank accounts at financial institutions which process their U.S. dollar wire transactions through the U.S.
  • The complaint emphasizes the continued enforcement focus on high-end U.S. real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering from abroad.
  • The complaint purports to quote a recording of a conversation allegedly made by Ms. Alison-Madueke herself, in which she allegedly offers a co-schemer some critiques on his approach to laundering illicit funds.

Continue Reading Alleged Nigerian Oil Industry Corruption and Civil Forfeiture: More Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Law; More High-End Real Estate; and Advice on Laundering

Two days after North Korea’s successful long-range ballistic missile test, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unsealed a memorandum opinion which granted the Department of Justice “damming” warrants to seize all funds in bank accounts belonging to five Chinese companies which allegedly were used to hide transactions with North Korea using U.S. currency in violation of U.S. sanctions and money laundering laws. The underlying conduct allegedly resulted in over $700 million of prohibited transactions being processed by eight international banks. The opinion is noteworthy not only because it demonstrates the important relationship between money laundering laws and foreign policy, but also for the government’s use of anticipatory warrants to seize the assets upon arrival to the targeted accounts, and to prevent those assets from exiting.

Continue Reading Damming the Funding to North Korea: Anticipatory Seizure Warrants as a Tool to Enforce Sanctions and Thwart Money Laundering Transfers

Part Three of a Three-Part Series

In the third and final part of this series on marijuana-related businesses (“MRBs”), we explore how the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have commenced actions against MRBs and operators for allegedly fraudulent and deceptive securities practices.  The sample of such actions which we discuss here serve to demonstrate not only the risks the investing public may face in investing in MRBs, but also as a reminder to MRBs seeking to capitalize on the industry’s explosive growth of the exacting standards of the securities laws and the government’s commitment to enforcing them in this industry.

Although the cases we discuss here are not tied specifically to AML/BSA enforcement cases, but rather to traditional allegations of securities violations, the practical point is that anyone who is considering wading into this industry should remember that there are multiple federal agencies which may pursue their own enforcement agendas relating to MRBs. Although we previously have noted during this series that the Financial Criminal Enforcement Network issued guidelines giving banks the go-ahead to work with MRBs, and although the 2013 DOJ Cole Memo seems to suggest that financial institutions can serve MRBs under certain circumstances, our discussion here reflects that there still are other government agencies which may have their own notions regarding what is acceptable conduct by a MRB.  As to the SEC specifically, these actions also are consistent with the recent trend of the SEC inserting itself into AML-related enforcement. Continue Reading The Marijuana Industry and the Securities Laws