Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

Five U.S. regulatory agencies—the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“FRB”), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”), and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”)—released on October 3, 2018 an Interagency Statement on Sharing Bank Secrecy Act Resources (the “Statement”). This guidance addresses instances in which certain banks and credit unions can enter into “collaborative arrangements” to share resources to manage their Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and anti-money laundering (“AML”) obligations more efficiently and more effectively.

The Statement contemplates banks sharing resources such as internal controls, independent testing, and AML/BSA training (it does not apply to collaborative arrangements formed for information sharing among financial institutions under Section 314(b) of the U.S. Patriot Act). Such resource sharing contemplates reducing costs and increasing efficiencies in the ways banks manage their BSA and AML obligations. The Statement clearly is addressed primarily to community banks, for which the costs of AML/BSA compliance can be significant, and which presumably engage in “less complex operations [and have] lower risk profiles for money laundering or terrorist financing.” The Statement potentially represents another step in an ongoing AML reform process, which increasingly acknowledges the costs of AML compliance to industry. Continue Reading Federal Banking Agencies Encourage BSA Resource Sharing

The Federal Banking Agencies (“FBAs”) — collectively the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”); the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“Federal Reserve”); the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”); and the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) — just issued with the concurrence of FinCEN an Order granting an exemption from the requirements of the customer identification program (“CIP”) rules imposed by the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) under 31 U.S.C. § 5318(l) for certain premium finance loans. The Order applies to “banks” — as defined at 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(d) — and their subsidiaries which are subject to the jurisdiction of the OCC, Federal Reserve, FDIC, or NCUA.

The Order generally describes the CIP rules of the BSA, which at a very high level require covered financial institutions to implement a CIP “that includes risk-based verification procedures that enable the [financial institution] to form a reasonable belief that it knows the true identify of its customers.” This process involves gathering identifying information and procedures for verifying the customer’s identity. Further observing that, under 31 C.F.R. § 1020.220(b), a FBA with the concurrence of the Secretary of the Treasury may exempt any bank or type of account from these CIP requirements, the Order proceeds to exempt loans extended by banks and their subsidiaries from the CIP requirements when issued to commercial customers (i.e., corporations, partnerships, sole proprietorships, and trusts) to facilitate the purchases of property and casualty insurance policies, otherwise known as premium finance loans or premium finance lending.

The key to the exemption — similar to other narrow exemptions previously issued by FinCEN in regards to the related beneficial ownership rule (as we have blogged, see here and here) — is that these transactions are perceived as presenting a “low risk of money laundering.” This finding is repeated throughout the Order, and is rooted in arguments made in letters submitted to FinCEN and the FBAs by a “consortium of banks.”

More specifically, the Order explains that premium finance loans present a low risk of money laundering, and therefore are exempt from the CIP rules, because of the following considerations and “structural characteristics,” raised either by the consortium of banks and/or the government itself:

  • The process for executing a premium finance loan is highly automated, because “most . . . loan volume is quoted and recorded electronically.”
  • These loans typically are submitted, approved and funded within the same business day and are conducted through insurance agents or brokers with no interaction between the bank and borrower — which means that this process renders it difficult for banks to gather CIP-related information efficiently.  These practical problems are exacerbated by the frequent reluctance of insurance brokers and agents — driven by data privacy concerns — to collect personal information.
  • Property and casualty insurance policies have no investment value.
  • Borrowers cannot use these accounts to purchase merchandise, deposit or withdraw cash, write checks or transfer funds.
  • FinCEN previously exempted financial institutions that finance insurance premiums from the general requirement to identify the beneficial owners of legal entity customers.
  • FinCEN previously exempted financial institutions that finance insurance premiums that allow for cash refunds from the beneficial ownership requirements.
  • FinCEN previously exempted commercial property and casualty insurance policies from the general BSA compliance program rule for insurance companies.
  • The exemption “is consistent with safe and sound banking.”

Although this exemption is narrow and somewhat technical, it represents yet another step in an apparent trend by FinCEN and the FBAs to ease the regulatory demands, albeit in a very targeted fashion, imposed under the BSA.  Clearly, the key argument to be made by other financial institutions seeking similar relief is that the particular kind of financial transaction at issue presents a “low risk of money laundering.”

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. Please also check out Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Finance Monitor blog, which comprehensively covers financial regulation and litigation involving the CFPB, Federal Agencies, State Agencies, and Attorneys General. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

 

FinCEN Cites Low Risk of Money Laundering and High Regulatory Burden of Rule

On September 7, 2018, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued permanent exceptive relief (“Relief”) to the Beneficial Ownership rule (“BO Rule”) that further underscores the agency’s continued flexibility and risk-based approach to the BO Rule.

Very generally, the BO Rule — effective as of May 11, 2018, and about which we repeatedly have blogged (see here, here and here) — requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identities of the beneficial owners of legal entity customers at account opening. FinCEN previously stated in April 3, 2018 FAQs regarding the BO Rule that a “new account” is established – thereby triggering the BO Rule – “each time a loan is renewed or a certificate of deposit is rolled over.” As a result, even if covered financial institutions already have identified and verified beneficial ownership information for a customer at the initial account opening, the institutions still must identify and verify that beneficial ownership information again – and for the same customer – if the customer’s account has been renewed, modified, or extended.

However, the Relief now excepts application of the BO Rule when legal entity customers open “new accounts” through: (1) a rollover of a certificate of deposit (CD); (2) a renewal, modification, or extension of a loan, commercial line of credit, or credit card account that does not require underwriting review and approval; or (3) a renewal of a safe deposit box rental. The Relief does not apply to the initial opening of any of these accounts.

The Relief echoes the exceptive relief from the BO Rule granted by FinCEN on May 11, 2018 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. Once again, although the Relief is narrow, FinCEN’s explanation for why the excepted accounts present a low risk for money laundering is potentially instructive in other contexts. Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Exceptive Relief from Beneficial Ownership Rule to Certain Account Renewals

Director Blanco Emphasizes Investigatory Leads and Insights Into Illicit Activity Trends Culled from Nationwide BSA Data

As we just blogged, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco recently touted the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement and regulatory  activity involving digital currency.  Shortly thereafter, Director Blanco again stressed the value of SARs, this time during remarks before the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo, which caters to the AML concerns of the gaming industry.

It is difficult to shake the impression that Director Blanco is repeatedly and publically emphasizing the value of SARs, at least in part, in order to provide a counter-narrative to a growing reform movement — both in the United States and abroad — which: (i) questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current SAR reporting regime, and (ii) has resulted in proposed U.S. legislation which would raise the minimum monetary thresholds for filing SARs and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”), and require a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Continues to Push Value of SARs and Other BSA Data

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.

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.

 

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