Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

May 11, 2018 Implementation Deadline Looms

Last year, we posted FinCEN’s Beneficial Ownership Rule: A Practical Guide to Being Prepared for Implementation regarding the Customer Due Diligence Requirements for Financial Institutions Rule (the “Beneficial Ownership Rule” or “Rule”) issued by the Financial Crime Enforcement Center (“FinCEN”). With the Rule’s May 11 implementation date only a few weeks away, and with FinCEN recently having published its new and long-awaited FAQs regarding the Rule (FAQs), we thought that the time was right for more practical tips and answers to questions surrounding the Rule. Continue Reading FinCEN’s Beneficial Ownership Rule: More Practical Tips and Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

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

I am honored to be part of a panel on March 1, 2018 at the Florida Tax Institute in Tampa, Florida regarding potential money laundering risks, reporting obligations and related ethical issues facing U.S. tax professionals with foreign clients bringing money and assets into the United States.  The panel, entitled Working with Inbound Investors & Businesses – Some Things You May Not Think About May Hurt You, will be moderated by Fred Murray of the University of Florida Levin College of Law and also will include attorneys Jeffrey A. Neiman, A. Brian Phillips and Shawn P. Wolf.

This is a key topic with real-world implications. We previously have blogged about potential AML and money laundering issues facing U.S. lawyers, who are under increasing scrutiny in light of: evolving international standards on professionals as AML gate keepers; global criticisms of the United States as a possible haven for money launderers and tax cheats; and scandals — such as the Panama Papers — involving legal professionals as the alleged facilitators of laundering and tax evasion by their clients.

Specifically, both the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) and the European Parliament have called for U.S. lawyers to meet higher standards in performing due diligence to detect clients’ potential money laundering, and found U.S. lawyers to be “non-compliant” with entity transparency standards. Further, the U.S. Congress has tried to enact legislation over the years to address the issue of beneficial ownership and the role of lawyer (see our discussion of the Corporate Transparency Act here). More recently, and as we have blogged, the ABA’s Task Force on the Gatekeeper and the Profession has prepared and discussed a new ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct that would impose basic “client due diligence” requirement on lawyers.  The panel should be interesting.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

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

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

As we blogged earlier this week, Congress is considering a new draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), in committee in the Senate.  The CTIFA proposes the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.

We previously discussed CTIFA’s proposed requirement for legal entities to submit to FinCEN a list their beneficial owners (“BOs”) and the creation of a central directory of these BOs. Today, we discuss CTIFA’s many other major proposed revisions to the BSA. These include:

  • Raising the minimum monetary thresholds for filing Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”) and Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”), and requiring a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined;
  • Expanding the prohibition against disclosing SAR-related information to third parties, including in private litigation;
  • Codifying absolute civil immunity for SAR filing;
  • Expanding the scope of voluntary information sharing among financial institutions;
  • Allowing FinCEN to issue no-action letters; and
  • A grab-bag of other proposals, including a safe harbor for AML-related technological innovation; requiring a review of whether FinCEN should assume a greater role in AML/BSA examinations of financial institutions; requiring a review of the costs to the private sector for AML/BSA compliance; and requiring an annual report to the Secretary of the Treasury (“the Secretary”) regarding the usefulness of BSA reporting to law enforcement.

Continue Reading Congress Contemplates Broad AML/BSA Reform

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

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

As the value of bitcoin continues to soar (USD:BTC this past weekend exceeded $19,000.00:1), we thought that now would be a good time to emphasize the need to ensure regulatory compliance with the many federal and state AML rules and regulations, in addition to those segmented across various countries. A caveat: This post is far from exhaustive, and before undertaking any investment in cryptocurrency, it would be wise to consult with an attorney familiar with the rules applicable to the cryptocurrency sector.  Due to the nascency of the sector, the practical application of previously existing laws and regulations is rapidly evolving.

To begin, the notion that bitcoin and other digital tokens represent a currency only for criminals has been dispelled. Indeed, there is no question that investment in cryptocurrencies is inherently lawful and increasingly commonplace.  In 2017 alone, investment in initial coin offerings, or token sales, has exceeded $1.5 billion; in a similar vein, the value of certain cryptocurrencies now exceeds a number of Fortune 50 companies.  Most recently, CBOE and CME, the world’s largest futures exchange, launched bitcoin futures contracts.

With this in mind, and as we have written on this blog before (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), it is clear that regulators are moving aggressively to bring the cryptocurrency sector into the fold of existing rules and regulations. To be sure, applying these rules to the burgeoning sector has been like fitting a square peg in a round hole; a bedrock of the initial cryptocurrency boom was the promise of anonymity for its users. Conversely, identity verification is a bedrock of AML compliance. Continue Reading Beyond Best Practices: Regulatory Compliance Now a Necessity in the Cryptocurrency Sector

FinCEN recently announced the launching of the “FinCEN Exchange” to enhance information sharing with financial institutions.  We previously have blogged about the potential benefits of a public-private partnership between law enforcement and financial institutions for both parties as a way to enhance law enforcement’s efforts to disrupt and intercept money laundering and terrorist financing as well as a financial institution’s ability to identify and accurately report suspicious activity. Information sharing has become a key issue in global conversations about reform of Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) regimes.

The FinCEN Exchange represents a direct response to financial industry requests for more guidance and information from government to help identify and report suspicious activity. Although it is a positive step towards improving the system for reporting suspicious activity, the FinCEN Exchange presumably will create expectations by the government that problems identified by the Exchange will be captured by suspicious activity reporting going forward.  Hopefully, the converse also will occur, and expectations regarding the reporting of activity identified as low priority will be lowered, so that industry truly may focus its current resources and not be compelled to expend even more resources on AML compliance. Continue Reading Information Sharing Exchange Launched by FinCEN to Improve Suspicious Activity Reporting

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