Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

OCC Presages Regulators’ Joint Statement on Banks Using Technological Innovation to Comply with BSA/AML Obligations

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

In our first post in this series, we described how the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (the “Banking Committee”) met in open session late last week to conduct a hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform.” The Banking Committee heard the testimony of, and questioned, representatives from the FinCEN, the OCC, and the FBI. The partial backdrop of this hearing is that Congress is considering a draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), which proposes the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.   As we have noted, three individuals testified at this hearing:

  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here);
  • Steven D’Antuono, Section Chief of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section (written remarks here); and
  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Compliance and Community Affairs of the OCC (written remarks here).

In our first post, we discussed some of the tensions which emerged during the hearing between the OCC, which emphasized attempting to ease BSA regulatory burdens, particularly for small- to medium-sized community banks, and FinCEN and the FBI, which stressed the value of BSA filings to law enforcement. Today, we discuss the some of the less contentious – although still critical – issues addressed during the hearing, which covered much of the current AML landscape:

  • exploration by financial institutions of technological innovation, including artificial intelligence, in order to comply more efficiently with their BSA/AML obligations;
  • identification of the beneficial owners of legal entities; and
  • the role of real estate in money laundering schemes.

Continue Reading More on AML Reform: Artificial Intelligence, Beneficial Ownership and Real Estate

Regulators Spar Over BSA Reporting Thresholds and Regulatory Review for FinCEN

First Post in a Two-Part Series

Late last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (the “Banking Committee”) met in open session to conduct a hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform.” The Banking Committee heard the testimony of, and questioned, representatives from FinCEN, the OCC, and the FBI. This was the fourth hearing held in 2018 by the Banking Committee on the state of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) framework and its effective implementation by regulators and law enforcement. The partial backdrop for this hearing is that Congress is considering a draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), which proposes the most substantial overhaul to the BSA since the PATRIOT Act, and which contains provisions regarding many of the same issues discussed during the hearing.

In this hearing, we heard from three individuals:

  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here);
  • Steven D’Antuono, Section Chief of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section (written remarks here); and
  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Compliance and Community Affairs of the OCC (written remarks here).

In this post, we will discuss the issues which appeared to generate the most sparks between the OCC—which emphasized attempting to ease BSA regulatory burdens, particularly for small- to medium-sized community banks—and FinCEN and the FBI, which stressed the value of BSA filings to law enforcement. In our next post, we will discuss some of the less contentious (although still critical) issues addressed at the hearing, which broadly canvassed many of the most pressing BSA/AML issues currently facing financial institutions and the government.  These issues are: (i) the exploration by financial institutions of technological innovation, including artificial intelligence, in order to comply more efficiently with their BSA/AML obligations; (ii) the identification of the beneficial owners of legal entities; and (iii) the role of real estate in money laundering schemes.

The tension during the hearing between FinCEN and OCC at times was palpable, and the divides in partisan thinking on the direction of certain aspects of AML reform were apparent. Although there seemed to be consensus on the importance of the beneficial ownership rules and other issues, senators and regulators alike disagreed about increasing the $5,000 and $10,000 respective reporting threshold for the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”).

Continue Reading FinCEN, OCC and FBI Offer Diverging Views on AML Reform in U.S. Senate Testimony

Are Proposed AML Regulations for Real Estate Closings and Settlements Soon to Follow?

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FINCEN”) announced on November 15 that it has renewed and revised its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate performed without a bank loan or similar form of external financing.  The new GTOs extend through May 15, 2019.

Notably, the list of covered geographic areas has expanded, and the monetary threshold has been reduced significantly to $300,000, so that it now no longer applies only to so-called “high end” real estate purchases.  Further, purchases involving virtual currency are now included within the reach of the GTO — an expansion which is consistent with prior expansions which extended the GTOs’ reach to transactions involving wires and personal and business checks.  Currently, the GTOs broadly apply to any purchases made using currency or a cashier’s check, a certified check, a traveler’s check, a personal check, a business check, a money order in any form, a funds transfer, or virtual currency.

A “legal entity” subject to the GTO reporting regime is defined as “a corporation, limited liability company, partnership or other similar business entity, whether formed under the laws of a state, or of the United States, or a foreign jurisdiction.”  The “beneficial owner” who must be identified is defined as “each individual who, directly or indirectly, owns 25% or more of the equity interests of the Legal Entity purchasing real property in the Covered Transaction.”  This definition tracks the Beneficial Ownership rule issued by FinCEN in 2016 for customer due diligence by covered financial institutions for new legal entity accounts by focusing on 25% or more ownership percentage, but it differs from the Beneficial Ownership rule by not including a “control” prong in its definition of a beneficial owner.

The press release issued by FinCEN for the new GTOs summarizes things well and is set forth here:

The purchase amount threshold, which previously varied by city, is now set at $300,000 for each covered metropolitan area. FinCEN is also requiring that covered purchases using virtual currencies be reported. Previous GTOs provided valuable data on the purchase of residential real estate by persons implicated, or allegedly involved, in various illicit enterprises including foreign corruption, organized crime, fraud, narcotics trafficking, and other violations. Reissuing the GTOs will further assist in tracking illicit funds and other criminal or illicit activity, as well as inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.

Today’s GTOs cover certain counties within the following major U.S. metropolitan areas: Boston; Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Miami; New York City; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle.

FinCEN appreciates the continued assistance and cooperation of the title insurance companies and the American Land Title Association in protecting the real estate markets from abuse by illicit actors.

The reporting is done through a special Currency Transaction Report, or CTR; the template for GTO reporting is here. Covered entities must retain relevant records for five years from the last effective day of the Orders (i.e., May 15, 2024) and must make them available to FinCEN and upon appropriate requests by law enforcement. FinCEN continues to maintain FAQs regarding the GTOs.

The latest GTOs represent a sustained scrutiny of the real estate market by FinCEN which began almost three years ago, and which has been expanded through repeated six-month increments.  The initial GTOs were issued in January 2016 to only certain title insurance companies for certain purchases only in the Borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County.  Clearly, FinCEN finds the data gleaned from GTOs to be very useful; FinCEN previously has claimed that it “about 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involve a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report.”

These sustained and expanding GTOs are also clearly part of the ongoing scrutiny by regulators across the globe regarding the issue of beneficial ownership and its role in potential money laundering schemes, as well as a similar global focus on money laundering through real estate and the general role of third party professionals who may facilitate money laundering.  As we have blogged, both FinCEN and the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) have focused for years on the AML risks inherent in real estate. For example, the December 2016 FATF Mutual Evaluation Report on the United States’ Measures to Combat Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing repeatedly highlighted the need for U.S. regulators and the real estate industry to do more to address money laundering and terrorist financing risks.  The FATF report’s executive summary asserted that “Residential Mortgage Lenders and Originators [RMLOs] . . . do not seem to have a good understanding of [money laundering] vulnerabilities in their sector or the importance of their role in addressing them.” The body of the FATF report elaborated that, “although banks have reasonably good AML/CFT programs overall, the same cannot be said of RMLOs, whose programs are still in the early implementation stage . . . .”

Future AML Regulation for Real Estate Closings and Settlements?

FinCEN’s press release states that the new GTOs “will inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.” Presumably, FinCEN is using the data collected over the last three years to prepare to propose regulation which will formalize FinCEN’s scrutiny of the residential real estate market.  Indeed, the website for the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs currently states that, by the end of 2018, “FinCEN will issue an [Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making] soliciting information regarding various businesses and professions, including real estate brokers that could be covered by the BSA as persons involved in real estate closings and settlements[,]” with the comment period to extend through to December 2019.  Over 15 years ago, in April 2003, FinCEN issued a similar advanced notice of proposed rule making regarding AML program requirements for persons involved in real estate closings and settlements — but of course never issued a final rule.  Now, given the data from years of GTOs, coupled with the heightened global scrutiny of the real estate industry, such regulations finally may become a reality.

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.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, issued last month a Report, entitled The Internal Revenue Service’s Bank Secrecy Act Program Has Minimal Impact on Compliance, which sets forth a decidedly dim view of the utility and effectiveness of the current Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance efforts by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”).  The primary conclusions of the detailed Report are that (i) referrals by the IRS to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) for potential Title 31 penalty cases suffer lengthy delays and have little impact on BSA compliance; (ii) the IRS BSA Program spent approximately $97 million to assess approximately $39 million in penalties for Fiscal Years (FYs) 2014 to 2016; and (iii) although referrals regarding BSA violations were made to IRS Criminal Investigation (“IRS CI”), most investigations were declined and very few ultimately were accepted by the Department of Justice for prosecution.

Arguably, the most striking claim by the Report is that “Title 31 compliance reviews [by the IRS] have minimal impact on Bank Secrecy Act compliance because negligent violation penalties are not assessed.”

A primary take-away from the Report is that an examination program lacking actual enforcement power is, unsurprisingly, not very effective.  The Report also highlights some potential problems which beset the IRS BSA Program, which include lack of staffing, lack of planning and coordination, and delay. Although the Report’s findings clearly suggest that what the IRS BSA Program really needs are resources and enhanced enforcement power, the repeated allusions in the Report to a certain purposelessness of the current BSA examination regime nonetheless might help fuel the current debate regarding possible AML/BSA reform, with an eye towards curbing regulatory burden.

The Report made five specific recommendations to the IRS for remedial steps. We will focus on four of those recommendations, and the findings upon which they rest:

  • Coordinate with FINCEN on the authority to assert Title 31 penalties, or reprioritize BSA Program resources to more productive work;
  • Leverage the BSA Program’s Title 31 authority and annual examination planning in the development of the IRS’s virtual currency strategy;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the newly implemented review procedures for FinCEN referrals; and
  • Improve the process for referrals to IRS CI.

Continue Reading U.S. Treasury Report: IRS BSA Program “Has Minimal Impact on Compliance”

Charges Represent First Criminal Case Based Solely on Alleged Unauthorized SAR Disclosure

On October 17, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (“SDNY”) announced the arrest of a senior employee at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”). That employee, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, has been charged with unlawfully disclosing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) to a member of the media, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5322 and 18 U.S.C. § 371, both of which carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) requires certain financial institutions, including banks, to file a SAR with FinCEN when they detect a known or suspected violation of federal law or regulation, or suspicious activity relating to money laundering, terrorist financing or other illicit activity. The BSA imposes strict confidentiality requirements as to the disclosure of information relating to a SAR, including the very existence of one. For instance, the statute prohibits any current or former officer or employee of, or contractor for, federal or state governments, as well as local, tribal or territorial governments from disclosing to any person involved in a suspicious transaction that the transaction has been reported, “other than as necessary to fulfill the official duties of such officer or employee.” The BSA also contains a similar prohibition applicable to the reporting financial institution and its agents, and the regulations more broadly prohibit the disclosure of “a SAR or any information that would reveal the existence of a SAR” by government officers or employees, or by the reporting institution. The relevant regulation also states that any covered financial institution, or its agent, which receives a subpoena or is otherwise requested to disclose a “SAR or any information that would reveal the existence of a SAR, shall decline to produce the SAR or such information[.]”

The government’s decision to charge Ms. Edwards is significant in numerous respects. For one, this appears to be the first criminal case based solely upon an unauthorized disclosure of a SAR. To be sure, there are at least two prior prosecutions involving the unauthorized disclosure of a SAR, but those cases also involved other, related charges. Specifically, in 2011, former bank employee Frank Mendoza was convicted of an illegal SAR disclosure. The government charged that Mr. Mendoza approached the subject of a SAR filed by Mr. Mendoza’s bank and solicited a bribe in exchange for Mr. Mendoza’s assistance with the bank. In this conversation, he disclosed the filing of the SAR by the bank and advised the subject that a federal criminal investigation was imminent. The subject of the SAR immediately reported the bribery solicitation to the FBI and Mr. Mendoza was arrested. Following a one-week trial, a federal jury in the Central District of California found Mr. Mendoza guilty of disclosing the existence of a SAR and accepting a bribe. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment, and was further assessed a civil monetary penalty of $25,000 by FinCEN. Likewise, the SDNY charged Robert Lustyik, a former Special Agent with the FBI, in 2013 with an unauthorized disclosure of a SAR in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5322(a). Mr. Lustyik’s case also centered on a purported bribery scheme, during which he allegedly sold SARs and other confidential law enforcement information in exchange for personal payments.

In contrast, Ms. Edwards purportedly disclosed SARs (and other materials) via encrypted email to a reporter, the substance of which related to matters under investigation by the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, including the investigation of Paul Manafort, Jr., the President’s former campaign manager. The complaint alleges that this information subsequently was published, over the course of numerous news articles, by the same organization that employed the reporter. In that regard, the complaint against Ms. Edwards contains an interesting allegation, albeit one limited to a footnote: Ms. Edwards told investigators she considered herself a “whistleblower,” and the government acknowledges that Ms. Edwards had in fact filed a whistleblower complaint within the Treasury Department. The complaint also alleges that Ms. Edwards initially concealed from investigators her contacts with the reporter at issue. Also of note is that, unlike the cases against Mr. Mendoza and Mr. Lustyik, the government has charged Ms. Edwards with a conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Although the potential political circumstances surrounding the complaint filed against Ms. Edwards may be difficult to ignore, this action nonetheless serves to underscore the basic need to comply with the BSA’s confidentiality rules, and the potentially severe consequences of failing to do so. Although Ms. Edwards is a government employee, the rules which she allegedly violated apply with equal force to financial institutions and their employees.

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.

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