Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Addresses Virtual Currency and Touts Regulatory Leadership and Value of SAR Filings

Earlier this month, the District Court for the Central District of California imposed a prison sentence of one year and a day, with three years of supervised release, on defendant Theresa Lynn Tetley, who had pleaded guilty to: (i) the unlicensed operation of a digital currency exchange due to failure register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960(a) and (b)(1)(B), and (ii) a money laundering charge, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(3)(B), arising out of an undercover “sting” operation run by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation involving the attempt to conceal proceeds supposedly obtained by selling drugs.  Tetley also was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and forfeit 40 Bitcoin, $292,264 in cash, and 25 gold bars that were the alleged proceeds of her illegal activity.

The Court imposed a sentence significantly lower than the sentence of 30 months requested by the government, a recommendation which already was lower than the advisory sentencing range recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) of 46 to 57 months in prison, as calculated by the U.S. Probation Office.

Tetley, a 50 year old woman living in Southern California, is a former stockbroker and real estate investor. She operated her digital currency exchange under the alias “Bitcoin Maven” for over three years, running an unregistered Bitcoin for cash exchange service.  According to the government, her service “fueled a black-market financial system” that “purposely and deliberately existed outside the regulated bank industry” and which catered to an alleged major darknet vendor of illegal narcotics.  According to the defense, however, the defendant “departed from a lifetime of integrity and good deeds and showed terrible judgment by failing to comply with federal registration requirements and buying bitcoins from individuals who represented themselves as engaged in criminal activity.”

In this post, we will drill into this sentencing and the parties’ respective positions, which provide a window into the prosecution and sentencing of alleged crimes involving both digital currency and undercover money laundering operations — and into the process for the sentencing of federal crimes in general, and how other factors which are entirely unrelated to the facts of the specific offense can be important.  Further, the Tetley case is interesting in part because it represents a sort of “hybrid” case — seen from time to time in money laundering cases involving professionals — which straddles both the typically very different realms of “pure” financial crime cases and illegal narcotics cases.  The government sentencing memorandum is here; the defense sentencing memorandum is here. Continue Reading Unlicensed Bit Coin Exchange Operator Sentenced to One Year and a Day for Attempted Money Laundering in Undercover Sting Operation and Failure to Register with FinCEN

Second Part of a Two-Part Series

As we blogged yesterday, British Columbia’s (“B.C.”) Attorney General David Eby recently released an independent and very detailed report examining money laundering in B.C.’s gaming industry and providing 48 recommendations to combat the problem. See Peter M. German, QC, Dirty Money: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos conducted for the Attorney General of British Columbia (Mar. 31, 2018) (“German Report”).  As we noted yesterday, when discussing the U.S. regulatory system, the German Report favorably cites the Nevada Gaming Commission and Nevada Gaming Control Board, whose Enforcement Division “acts as a first line of defence against organized crime and bulk cash buy-ins[,]” and further observes that the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “[i]n partnership with Internal Revenue Service, acts as the enforcement arm for most money laundering issues.”

The U.S.’s more robust, streamlined AML regulatory regime, although hardly perfect, stands in stark contrast to the dysfunction alleged in the German Report that plagues B.C.’s current framework. In this post, we describe the U.S. AML regulatory regime for the gaming industry, and the recent enforcement actions which it has produced.  Although the pace of AML enforcement has been somewhat sporadic, it appears to be increasing over time in regards to the gaming industry.  Certainly, attention by regulators — as well as by the industry itself — to AML/BSA compliance has increased over the last several years.

Continue Reading The U.S. Casino and Gaming Industry: AML/BSA Regulation and Enforcement

Critics Bemoan Removal of Potential Weapon Against Shell Companies

Last week, and on the eve of a scheduled markup of the original bill in the House Financial Services Committee, a new draft of the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”) was sent to Congress.  That bill, among other things, removes a key passage of what promised to be the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.

As we blogged in a January 2018 two-part series (see here and here), the original legislation would have required – subject to civil and criminal penalty provisions – non-exempt companies formed in the U.S. to disclose their real beneficial owners to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).  The new bill eliminates the beneficial ownership provision entirely; in its place, the bill merely requires the Comptroller General of the United States “to submit a report evaluating the effectiveness of the collection of beneficial ownership information under the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) regulation” (see here), “as well as the regulatory burden and costs imposed on financial institutions subject to it.”

Acknowledging the bill’s removal from mark-up, Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she hoped the new bill will be strengthened to address the issue of beneficial ownership, as well as “the problem of anonymous shell companies.”  The Fraternal Order of Police went further, describing the removal of the beneficial ownership provisions as “almost criminal.”

To be sure, the lack of transparency concerning beneficial ownership is widely viewed as a weakness in the U.S.’s efforts to combat money laundering. As noted in our February post concerning various Senate subcommittee hearings related to the topic, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General M. Kendall Day of the Department of Justice, Criminal Division, recently testified that “[t]he pervasive use of front companies, shell companies, nominees, or other means to conceal the true beneficial owners of assets is one of the greatest loopholes in this country’s AML regime.”  Indeed, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) recently scored the U.S. as non-compliant – the lowest possible score – in connection with its ability to determine beneficial owners.

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On June 12, 2018, FinCEN issued an “Advisory on Human Rights Abuses Enabled by Corrupt Senior Foreign Political Figures and their Financial Facilitators” to highlight the connection between corrupt senior foreign political figures and their enabling of human rights abuses.  The Advisory provides examples of potential red flags to aid financial institutions in identifying the means by which corrupt political figures and their facilitators may move and hide proceeds from their corrupt activities – activities which, directly or indirectly, contribute to human rights abuses and other illegal activity.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) issued Recommendation 12 in June 2013 to address the risks posed by politically exposed persons (PEPs), and that Recommendation has been implemented through FinCEN rules and guidance.  Thus, U.S. banks already are expected to have in place risk-based policies, procedures and processes regarding PEPs, including conducting enhanced due diligence.  Nonetheless, FinCEN issued this Advisory to “further assist” U.S. financial institutions’ efforts to detect and report foreign PEP facilitators’ use of the U.S. financial system to “obscure and launder the illicit proceeds of high-level political corruption.” Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Advisory on Human Rights Abuses Enabled by Corrupt PEPs and Their Financial Facilitators

Incorporation Solidifies Customer Due Diligence as “Fifth Pillar” to BSA/AML Compliance Program

May 11, 2018 was the much anticipated effective date for the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) Requirements for Financial Institutions Rule (the “Beneficial Ownership Rule”) issued by the Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”). On the same day, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) released two updates to the Bank Secretary Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) examination manual that incorporate and clarify the CDD Requirements and Beneficial Ownership Rule.  The FFIEC is an interagency body that is “empowered to prescribe uniform principles, standards, and report forms for the federal examination of financial institutions.”  The FFIEC examination manual drives the principles and obligations of covered financial instructions in creating BSA/AML compliance programs.  The new updates further clarify the FinCEN rules and solidify CDD as the fifth pillar of the BSA/AML compliance regime.

As we previously blogged here, when FinCEN announced its final rule on CDD requirements it established two important requirements for covered financial institutions.  First, the covered financial institutions were required to establish procedures to identify and verify the beneficial owners of all legal entity customers. Second, the rule required covered financial institutions to adopt ongoing risk-based CDD procedures as part of their AML compliance programs – including developing and updating customer risk profiles and conducting ongoing AML monitoring.  We previously provided practical guidance to aid covered financial institutions in preparing for implementation of these two requirements.  Now we will highlight the key considerations of FFIEC examination manual addressing these topics.  Of particular interest, the new FFIEC examination manual provisions state in part that regulatory examiners are not supposed to engage in second-guessing specific decisions; rather, during an examination “the bank should not be criticized for individual customer decisions unless it impacts the effectiveness of the overall CDD program, or is accompanied to evidence of bad faith or other aggravating factors.” Continue Reading FFIEC Manual Incorporates Beneficial Ownership Rule and CDD Requirements

Relief is Narrow, but FinCEN’s Explanation of Low Money Laundering Risk Posed by Lending Products is Instructive

On May 11, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a ruling to provide exceptive relief from the application of the new Beneficial Ownership rule (the “BO Rule,” about which we repeatedly have blogged: see here, here and here) to premium finance lending products that allow for cash refunds.

Very generally, the BO Rule — effective as of May 11, 2018 — requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identity of the beneficial owner of legal entity customers at account opening. One exemption provided by the BO Rule from its requirements is when a legal entity customer opens a new account for the purpose of financing insurance premiums and the payments are remitted directly by the financial institution to the insurance provider or broker.  However, this exemption does not apply when there is a possibility of cash refunds.

In its May 11th ruling, FinCEN granted exceptive relief from the BO Rule to premium finance lenders whose payments are remitted directly to the insurance provider or broker, even if the lending involves the potential for a cash refund.  Although this exception is narrow when compared to the many other financial institutions covered by the broad BO Rule, FinCEN’s explanation for why the excepted entities present a low risk for money laundering is potentially instructive in other contexts, such as risk assessments undertaken by financial institutions for the purposes of their anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance programs. Continue Reading FinCEN Provides Exceptive Relief from New Beneficial Ownership Rule

FinCEN announced on May 3, 2018 that Artichoke Joe’s, a card club and casino located in San Bruno, California and founded in 1916, has entered into a revised civil money penalty assessment regarding alleged deficiencies under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  The most interesting aspect of this revised assessment is that it allows the casino to reduce its original $8 million penalty by $3 million if it successfully completes certain compliance undertakings.

No press release has been issued to date by FinCEN regarding this revised assessment, so its specific genesis is unclear.  Nonetheless, the revised assessment illustrates that financial institutions facing Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”)/BSA enforcement actions might be able to mitigate the financial consequences — not only when negotiating the initial penalty assessment, but even after it has been imposed — by undertaking steps towards enhanced compliance and monitoring.  It is also unclear whether the onerous nature of the original assessment, when compared to the available financial resources of the assessed institution, may have played a role in the revision. Continue Reading FinCEN Extends $3 Million Carrot to Card Club and Casino: Reduce Assessed Civil Penalty by Completing Compliance Undertakings

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