On May 16, 2018, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced it had settled charges against a registered broker-dealer, its clearing firm, and its chief compliance and anti-money laundering (“AML”) officer brought over the firm’s failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) related to customers’ liquidation of billions of penny stocks over an eight month period.  In a companion action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) imposed a monetary penalty against the clearing firm for various AML compliance failures.

Chardan Capital Markets, LLC (“Chardan”) was a registered broker-dealer primarily engaged in underwriting private investment in public equity (“PIPEs”), private placements and initial public offerings (“IPOs”). In 2013, Chardan allegedly began actively engaging in the liquidation of thinly-traded penny stocks of microcap issuers.  Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Financial Services, LLC (“ICBCFS”) is a registered broker-dealer that, in late 2012, began clearing equity securities and, from October 2013 through June 2014, cleared Chardan’s customers’ penny-stock transactions.

We previously have blogged about the SEC and FINRA stepping up their AML-related enforcement, as well as the issue of AML-related individual liability for compliance officers and executives (see here, here, here, here and here).  Aside from reaffirming the dubious nature of penny stock trading, this case once again reflects the need to actually act on identified red flags and file related SARs. Continue Reading SEC Sanctions Broker-Dealer, Clearing Firm and Chief Compliance Officer for AML Violations

Two Have Settled, but One AML CO Will Contest the Case

A recent anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement action reminds us of the increasing risk of individual liability for alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), a key issue about which we have blogged.

Specifically, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) announced last week that Aegis Capital Corporation (“Aegis”), a New York-based brokerage firm, admitted that it failed to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) on numerous transactions. Although most of the attention regarding this enforcement action has focused on Aegis, the more interesting development here is the role of individuals — particularly a contested action filed against a former AML compliance officer who has declined to settle and who apparently is proceeding to trial on these allegations before a SEC Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  This should be a litigation to watch. Continue Reading Continued Individual Liability Under the Bank Secrecy Act: The SEC Targets Two AML Compliance Officers and One CEO for Alleged AML/BSA Violations

On June 5, the SEC filed suit against Salt Lake City-based Alpine Securities, Corp. (“Alpine”). The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the broker-dealer ran afoul of AML rules by “routinely and systematically” (i) failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) for stock transactions it had flagged as suspicious or, (ii) on thousands of occasions between 2011 and 2015 when Alpine did file SARs, omitting key information, such as the criminal or regulatory history of customers and disclosures as to whether those customers represented a foreign institution.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), Alpine and other broker-dealers must report suspicious transactions in the form of SARs filed with FinCEN. These filings pertain to reports of transactions or patterns of transactions involving at least $5,000 wherein a covered entity “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves funds representing ill-gotten gains; is intended to hide funds obtained from illegal activities; is designed to evade the BSA; or has no business or apparent lawful purpose and the filing institution knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction. SARs have a narrative section for the filer to describe the facts of the suspicious incident, which is regarded by law enforcement as a critical section.

The SEC has alleged that Alpine violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder, which require broker-dealers to comply with the recordkeeping, retention and report obligations of the BSA. Although Alpine had an AML/BSA compliance program (as is required for broker-dealers by both the BSA and FINRA Rule 3310), the complaint alleges that the program was not implemented properly in practice and mischaracterized what Alpine actually did. In part, the SEC alleges that Alpine used two standard templates for SAR filings which did not allow the filer to describe any of the red flags or other material information which caused Alpine to file the SAR. Importantly, the complaint also alleges that FINRA had examined Alpine and brought these deficiencies to its attention, but Alpine thereafter failed to take meaningful steps to address them and “continued its pattern of omitting material red flag and other information from its SARs.”

Much of Alpine’s business involves clearing microcap transactions. Although the broker-dealer has a history of disciplinary action by FINRA, the instant action also reflects a trend by the SEC to use AML rules as a means to combat alleged fraud related to the sale of microcap securities. Earlier this year, New York-based Windsor Street Capital also was charged with failing to file SARs; that matter, currently before an SEC administrative law judge, remains pending. All told, the action against Alpine exemplifies the SEC’s heightened interest in ensuring broker-dealers’ adherence to AML rules and standards. It also reiterates the need for any financial institution to implement effectively in practice its AML compliance plan: the best written compliance plan can turn into the centerpiece of regulators’ allegations if it merely becomes a catalogue of what the financial institution failed to do.

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