Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

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In a single-page memorandum issued today, Attorney General Sessions tersely rescinded a string of DOJ enforcement policies announced during the Obama Administration — chief among them the “Cole Memo,” described below — which collectively had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

The U.S. Department of Treasury has issued a press release naming Kenneth A. Blanco as the incoming Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN.  Mr. Blanco, who currently serves as Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, is expected to transition to his new position within the month.  He will replace Jamal El-Hindi, who has been serg as the Acting Director of FinCEN.  Stressing in part his work involving cross-border issues, the press release provides the following bio for Mr. Blanco:

Mr. Blanco joins Treasury after serving as the Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division at the United States Department of Justice. He was appointed to the position of Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division in April 2008. During his tenure with the Criminal Division, Mr. Blanco has overseen a number of its sections, including the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (formerly the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section), the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section, the Organized Crime and Gang Section, and the Child Exploitation Section.

Mr. Blanco has supervised many of the Criminal Division’s most significant national and international investigations into illicit finance, money laundering, Bank Secrecy Act, and sanctions violations, including investigations of global financial institutions and money services businesses. Much of his work is in the international banking and financial services area, working and collaborating with international partners in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Panama, among others.

Mr. Blanco joined the Department of Justice almost two decades ago as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of Florida. He later served as the Deputy Chief of Narcotics/Chief of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Acting Chief of Narcotics, and Deputy Chief of the Major Crimes Section in that Office. Mr. Blanco has also served as General Counsel to the 94 United States Attorney’s Offices and the Executive Office of United States Attorneys and as Chief of the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.
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FinCEN recentlty announced entry of a $2 million assessment against Lone Star National Bank, a private bank operating out of Texas, for the bank’s allegedly willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and inadequate Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) monitoring programs.  The primary violations relate to Lone Star’s alleged failure to comply with due diligence requirements imposed by Section 312 of the USA PATRIOT Act in establishing and conducting its correspondent banking relationship with a Mexican bank.  As a result of Lone Star’s insufficient due diligence and AML program, the Mexican bank was “allowed to move hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in suspicious cash shipments through the U.S. financial system in less than two years.”  The FinCEN’s announcement warns that this “action underscores the dangers that institutions face when taking on international correspondence activities without properly equipping themselves” to manage the enhanced obligations that arise with such relationships.

This new FinCEN assessment underscores the continued regulatory interest in the AML risks presented by correspondent banking relationships. We therefore first will provide a brief overview of correspondent banking relationships and the enhanced regulatory attention often paid to them. Armed with this context, we then will analyze the findings and lessons learned from the Lone Star assessment, including the value touted by FinCEN of Lone Star’s efforts to cooperate with its own investigation. Further, this new assessment suggests that the U.S. government does not always present a consistent voice regarding correspondent banking relationships: although the U.S. Treasury has tried to encourage financial institutions in general to not “de-risk” and thereby terminate correspondent banking relationships, we see that enforcement agencies continue to penalize institutions in individual cases for not mitigating sufficiently the risks of correspondent banking. Continue Reading FinCEN Fines Texas Bank $2M for Alleged Failure to Vet and Monitor Mexican Correspondent Banking Relationship – But Touts Bank’s Cooperation

Second of a Two-Part Blog: Anti-Money Laundering Programs Coming to the Legal Profession?

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the proposed Corporate Transparency Act of 2017 (the “Act”), and observed that, if passed, the Act would represent another chapter in the domestic and global campaign to increase transparency in financial transactions through information gathering by private parties and expanded requirements for Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting. Today, we summarize the details of this complex legislation, focusing in particular on two significant ways in which the Act would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”):

  • Requiring regulations to establish minimum standards for State procedures regarding the formation of legal entities such as corporations and limited liability companies (“LLCs”) and the identification of the beneficial owners of such entities when they are formed.
  • Adding “formation agents” – i.e., those who assist in the creation of legal entities – to the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” which is subject to the BSA’s reporting and AML obligations. This new definition potentially applies to a broad swath of businesses and individuals previously not regulated directly by the BSA, including certain attorneys.

Continue Reading Expanded Beneficial Ownership Reporting and AML Duties Under the Corporate Transparency Act

First of a Two-Part Blog

In late June, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Peter King of New York introduced The Corporate Transparency Act of 2017 (the “Act”). In August, Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio introduced companion legislation in the Senate. A Fact Sheet issued by Senator Wyden is here. Representative King previously has introduced several versions of this proposed bipartisan legislation; the most recent earlier version, entitled the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, was introduced in February 2016.  Although it is far from clear that this latest version will be passed, the Act is worthy of attention and discussion because it represents a potentially significant expansion of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to a whole new category of businesses.

The Act is relatively complex.  In part, it would amend the BSA in order to compel the Secretary of the Treasury to issue regulations that would require corporations and limited liability companies (“LLCs”) formed in States which lack a formation system requiring robust identification of beneficial ownership (as defined in the Act) to themselves file reports to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) that provide the same information about beneficial ownership that the entities would have to provide, if they were in a State with a sufficiently robust formation system.  More colloquially, entities formed in States which don’t require much information about beneficial ownership now would have to report that information directly to FinCEN – scrutiny which presumably is designed to both motivate States to enact more demanding formation systems, and demotivate persons from forming entities in States which require little information about beneficial ownership. However, there is another facet to the Act which to date has not seemed to garner much attention, but which potentially could have a significant impact. Under the Act, formation agents – i.e., those who assist in the creation of legal entities such as corporations or LLCs – would be swept up in the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” and therefore subject to the BSA’s AML and reporting obligations.  This expanded definition potentially applies to a broad swath of businesses and individuals previously not regulated directly by the BSA, including certain attorneys. Continue Reading The Corporate Transparency Act: A Proposal to Expand Beneficial Ownership Reporting for Legal Entities, Corporate Formation Agents and – Potentially – Attorneys

On September 15th, FinCEN issued its latest “Advisory on FATF-Identified Jurisdictions with AML/CTF Deficiencies.”  The FATF, or the Financial Action Task Force, is a 37-member intergovernmental body, including the United States, that establishes international standards to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  As part of its listing and monitoring process to ensure compliance with its international Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) standards, the FATF identifies certain jurisdictions as having “strategic deficiencies” in their AML/CFT regimes. In its latest Advisory, FinCEN notes the changes in the FATF-named jurisdictions and directs financial institutions to consider these changes when reviewing their obligations and risk-based policies, procedures and practices relating to the named jurisdictions.  We will discuss these changes and some practical takeaways for U.S. financial institutions seeking to ensure compliance with these changes in their AML programs. Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Latest Advisory on FATF-Identified Jurisdictions with AML/CFT Deficiencies

FinCEN has announced the expansion of its Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) for high-end cash buyers of real estate. The expansion is two-fold. First, FinCEN has expanded the scope of Form 8300 reportable transactions to include “funds transfers” in addition to currency, cashier’s checks, certified checks, traveler’s check, personal checks, business checks, or money orders in any form. Second, FinCEN has added real estate transactions with a total purchase price of $3,000,000 or more in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. This brings the markets covered to seven metropolitan areas.

The renewed GTOs require title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make covered transactions. The renewed and expanded GTOs will be in effect from September 22, 2017 through March 20, 2018. FinCEN has again praised the “assistance and cooperation” of the title insurance industry in this effort.

On the same day as the GTO expansion, FinCEN published an “Advisory to Financial Institutions and Real Estate Firms and Professionals.” This Advisory is in line with our expectation that FinCEN would further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report and highlighted in an April 12, 2016, speech by former FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery.

Continue Reading FinCEN Continues Its Focus on Real Estate Transactions through Advisory and GTOs