On August 29, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) a story that other news outlets later have picked up: the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is investigating whether Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman at the center of the alleged embezzlement of $4.5 billion from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (“1MDB”), is paying – via two intermediaries – his U.S.-based lawyers with allegedly tainted funds. The report states that there is no indication at this time that the U.S. attorneys were aware that the funds could have originated from money Mr. Low allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB. Rather, the investigation centers on Low’s potential use of intermediaries to facilitate the payments. The DOJ already has filed civil forfeiture complaints seeking to recover almost $1.7 billion in various high-end assets from Mr. Low and others allegedly bought with the embezzled funds, and it reportedly is investigating Mr. Low individually for potential criminal charges.

In light of this report, and the growing attention paid to the potential money laundering risks faced by third-party professionals and lawyers in particular (on which he have blogged: see here, here, here, here, here, here and here) now is a good time to consider how U.S. money laundering and forfeiture laws may apply to attorneys for their work when they receive potentially tainted fees from clients. As we discuss, the criminal and civil forfeiture laws have a potentially broad reach, even in regards to legal payments. Continue Reading Use of Tainted Assets to Pay Attorney Fees: A Primer on the Pitfalls

PANA Issues Recommendations to European Parliament: Tougher Enforcement, Greater Transparency, Improved Information Sharing and Prohibitions Against Outsourcing of Customer Due Diligence

In the wake of the Panama Papers, the European Parliament (“EP”) formed PANA, a Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance, and Tax Evasion. We previously wrote about PANA in May when it was examining the role of lawyers in money laundering and tax evasion schemes. After opening their October 19 meeting with a moment of silence to honor the life of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Coruana Galizia, who recently was killed by a car bomb, PANA approved a draft report and recommendations for review by the EP. The findings and recommendations range from reporting standardization to outsourcing to illicit real estate transactions to attorney-client privilege.

European parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

A few themes emerged from the PANA report:

  • the European Union (“EU”) has strong law, but lacks vigorous enforcement;
  • the EU’s many regulators are stymied by a severe lack of communication, both within nations and between countries;
  • beneficial owners (“BOs”) are mostly unknown because regulated entities are not fulfilling their reporting obligations and the BO register is not robust, accessible, or standardized;
  • intermediaries, like banks, lawyers, accountants, wealth managers, and other financial institutions, are not living up to their obligations because they are engaging in “creative compliance” and leaving compliance responsibility to third parties.

Based on these findings, PANA recommends:

  • uniform definitions and punishments for money laundering and tax-related infractions,
  • “automatic exchange of information,” reciprocity, and “Common Reporting Standards” between regulators to facilitate better information sharing,
  • the creation of a “publically accessible,” standardized BO register that includes the ultimate beneficial owner (“UBO”),
  • the EP pass legislation to “make it illegal to outsource [customer due diligence (“CDD”)] procedures to third parties,”
  • adoption of stronger forfeiture laws that allow cross-border confiscation of illegally obtained assets,
  • stronger sanctions against banks and other intermediaries that “are knowingly, willfully, and systematically implicated in illegal tax schemes,”
  • lawyers should no longer be able to hide behind the attorney-client privilege to escape reporting requirements, like suspicious transaction reports (“STRs”),
  • countries devote more resources to fighting money laundering and tax evasion,
  • the EP vest more oversight powers in PANA.

Continue Reading Money Laundering Watchdog Criticizes Lax AML Enforcement and “Creative Compliance” in Wake of Panama Papers

On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a civil forfeiture complaint in the Southern District of Texas seeking recovery of approximately $144 million in assets that allegedly represent the proceeds of foreign corruption and which were laundered in and through the U.S. The complaint’s narrative focuses on Diezani Alison-Madueke, who is Nigeria’s former Minister for Petroleum Resources.  The 52-page complaint, which contains additional attachments, is very detailed – but nonetheless interesting reading – so we will discuss here only three salient points:

  • The most eye-catching property subject to forfeiture, the spectacular yacht Galactica Star (which you can inspect here), apparently has no discernible nexus to the U.S. – except that the funds used to acquire the yacht allegedly were transferred through correspondent bank accounts at financial institutions which process their U.S. dollar wire transactions through the U.S.
  • The complaint emphasizes the continued enforcement focus on high-end U.S. real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering from abroad.
  • The complaint purports to quote a recording of a conversation allegedly made by Ms. Alison-Madueke herself, in which she allegedly offers a co-schemer some critiques on his approach to laundering illicit funds.

Continue Reading Alleged Nigerian Oil Industry Corruption and Civil Forfeiture: More Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Law; More High-End Real Estate; and Advice on Laundering

Two days after North Korea’s successful long-range ballistic missile test, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unsealed a memorandum opinion which granted the Department of Justice “damming” warrants to seize all funds in bank accounts belonging to five Chinese companies which allegedly were used to hide transactions with North Korea using U.S. currency in violation of U.S. sanctions and money laundering laws. The underlying conduct allegedly resulted in over $700 million of prohibited transactions being processed by eight international banks. The opinion is noteworthy not only because it demonstrates the important relationship between money laundering laws and foreign policy, but also for the government’s use of anticipatory warrants to seize the assets upon arrival to the targeted accounts, and to prevent those assets from exiting.

Continue Reading Damming the Funding to North Korea: Anticipatory Seizure Warrants as a Tool to Enforce Sanctions and Thwart Money Laundering Transfers

On June 29, dual trial verdicts in the Southern District of New York paved the way for the government to seize 650 Fifth Avenue, a 36-story building in Manhattan valued at up to $1 billion (“the Property”). The defendants, representing New York entities that trace their roots to Iran, were convicted of violating U.S. sanctions and money laundering. With this decision, the government can lay claim to the largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture in U.S. history and, as promised, provide the sale’s proceeds to terror victims who had previously won $5 billion in judgments against Iran for terror-related activity.

Continue Reading Lessons in Civil Forfeiture and Attachment: U.S. May Seize 650 Fifth Avenue

On June 5th, the United States Supreme Court held in Honeycutt v. United States that a criminal defendant is not jointly and severally liable for property his co-conspirator derived from the crime, and that he only can be ordered to forfeit property he actually obtained from the crime.  Although the decision was unanimous (with Justice Gorsuch abstaining), the outcome was far from preordained.

Until 2015, courts applying the forfeiture statute, 21 U.S.C. § 853, had uniformly held that co-conspirators are jointly and severally liable for amounts received pursuant to the conspiracy.  That rule was adopted by nine circuits.  However, in 2015, the D.C. Circuit split with its sister circuits in United States v. Cano Flores, rejecting joint and several liability for co-conspirators.    The district court in Honeycutt sided with the D.C. Circuit, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, following the overwhelming majority view of the other Courts of Appeal.

The result in Honeycutt, and the underlying analysis and related policy arguments, may have implications in other government enforcement contexts, including in securities cases. Further, the result appears to obligate the government to perform some degree of a tracing analysis to tie individual defendants to specific tainted funds – an analysis which might be difficult in complex fact patterns involving multiple defendants and the use of multiple entities or financial accounts. Continue Reading A Criminal Defendant Cannot Forfeit Property He Never Received

Gavel on sounding block

Ballard Spahr LLP Legal Team Obtains Key Court Victory

It is with great pleasure that I introduce the following post by our colleague and fellow blogger Joanna Kunz.  She was part of a team of Ballard Spahr lawyers who, working pro bono, recently obtained a landmark victory for their client — and for property owners throughout Pennsylvania — when the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a lower court decision defining the parameters of civil forfeiture and arming Pennsylvanians involved in such cases with robust constitutional and statutory protections.  The team also included Jessica Anthony, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, and Jason Leckerman. — Peter D. Hardy

Elizabeth Young is a 72-year-old grandmother whose home and car the government sought to forfeit based on several relatively minor drug sales her adult son conducted out of the house and car. Young fought the forfeiture and lost at the trial level. However, last week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s en banc reversal of that decision. Its 73-page opinion ends years of uncertainty in the law regarding the constitutional limits on civil forfeiture where the property owner often is not charged with any crime. Continue Reading Pennsylvania Supreme Court Strengthens Protections For Property Owners In Landmark Civil Forfeiture Decision

Proposed Settlement Comes After Court Issues Rulings on Extraterritorial Application of U.S. Criminal Law, Evidence of Intent to Conceal and Tracing of Money Laundering Proceeds

On the eve of trial this past Friday, the government announced an agreement to settle, subject to court approval, a major civil forfeiture action in the Southern District of New York.  In the case, United States v. Prevezon Holdings, Ltd. et al., the government alleged an elaborate scheme involving money laundering and other offenses committed in Russia, Cyprus, and Manhattan. The case gained some notoriety in the press due to lurid allegations of the suspicious death while in pretrial detention in Moscow of a Russian lawyer who had uncovered the tax refund fraud scheme, and the alleged defenestration earlier this year of a lawyer working for the decedent’s family. Although the civil forfeiture complaint filed in 2013 sought to forfeit at least $230 million worth of assets, the parties settled for approximately $5.9 million. In the wake of this settlement, both the defense and the government now appear to be claiming victory.

The buildings located on the Red Square: Kremlin wall (at left) and Saint Basil's Cathedral (at right), Moscow, Russia. UNESCO World Heritage Site

This post will analyze an opinion issued by the court in this case last week, prior to the settlement, denying summary judgment to the defense.  The legal rulings contained therein are perhaps not as suitable for a Hollywood-style thriller as some of the content of the government’s press releases and pleadings, but nonetheless represent important issues in the field of money laundering and forfeiture.  Primarily, we analyze an increasingly common and key question: when can U.S. law apply to conduct occurring primarily overseas?  This question has broad implications for federal criminal law enforcement in general, including for RICO and tax fraud prosecutions, as well as for potential civil lawsuits brought by shareholders or other plaintiffs. Continue Reading Forfeiture Case Based on Alleged Elaborate $230 Million Russian Laundering and Fraud Scheme to Settle

Department_of_Justice_Office_of_the_Inspector_General_seal_svgIn this post, we consider the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General report (OIG Report), released on March 29, 2017, evaluating the DOJ’s oversight of its cash seizure and forfeiture operations.  This post is a companion to yesterday’s piece addressing the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA)’s recent report on IRS civil forfeiture for structuring violations.  Read in tandem, the OIG and TIGTA Reports suggest that many forfeitures occur without conclusive information about the details of the potential underlying crime, or even whether an underlying crime was involved at all.  The OIG Report concludes that more robust investigations and data collection on forfeitures would both allow DOJ monitor the effectiveness of its forfeiture efforts and increase public confidence in the forfeiture process.  Improved investigations and data collection also may lead to greater enforcement opportunities by tying forfeitures to ongoing investigations or initiating new enforcement actions based on findings in forfeiture investigations.

This OIG Report is the latest in a series of recent OIG evaluations of DOJ forfeiture initiatives which respond, at least in part, to civil liberties concerns raised by forfeiture reform advocates. (See OIG’s January 2015 report on so-called “cold” consent encounters at mass transit facilities, and its September 2012 investigation of forfeiture enforcement by a local Florida police department).  Both of those investigations concluded that more data analysis was needed to ensure that forfeiture operations were serving legitimate law enforcement interests.

The most recent report continues with the same theme, finding that the DOJ and its investigative components do not collect or use sufficient data to properly oversee seizure operations, or to determine whether those operations relate to or benefit criminal investigations. The OIG report focuses on three main topics:  (1) the lack of data assessing the relationship between seizure and forfeiture activities and investigative outcomes; (2) in the absence of such data, the OIG itself sampled 100 DEA cash seizures that had characteristics OIG believed made them “particularly susceptible to civil liberties concerns”; and (3) the DOJ’s relationship to state and local law enforcement, through both training and equitable sharing arrangements.  This post addresses topics (1) and (2).  As we have previously written, equitable sharing arrangements raise their own issues of balancing individual property rights against law enforcement objectives, which are conceptually distinct from the issues addressed here. Continue Reading Civil Forfeiture Under Fire – Part II

Forfeiture actions by Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS CI) based on alleged structuring activity have come under fire, yet again. Specifically, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued on March 30, 2017 a detailed report (Report) which evaluates IRS CI’s use of seizures for property owners suspected of structuring financial transactions. The Report sets forth detailed criticisms of past practices, as well as nine pointed recommendations for future forfeiture actions, which received a mixed response from IRS CI. This report was followed very shortly by the bipartisan re-introduction on April 3, 2017 of the “Restraining Excessive Seizure of Property through the Exploitation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Tools Act,” or RESPECT Act, which seeks to limit the ability of the IRS to conduct civil forfeitures based on structuring activity without underlying criminal activity.Suitcase full of money

We previously have discussed the growing resistance to IRS forfeiture actions based on the structuring of “legal source” funds, and the initial introduction of the RESPECT Act. In this two-part blog entry, we discuss in detail immediately below the new TIGTA Report and the mixed reaction to it by IRS CI.

However, it is not just IRS CI that is undergoing criticism. We will follow up tomorrow with a related post on the recent report by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ report provides some similar critiques of the entire landscape of federal forfeiture, and makes additional recommendations on asset seizure and forfeiture in general.

These two Inspector General reports set forth some common criticisms of forfeiture enforcement. They also can be interpreted as suggesting that law enforcement agents could minimize some of the criticisms of civil forfeiture by reducing the total amount of forfeiture cases undertaken, while simultaneously increasing the amount of time and effort spent on investigating the remaining cases which are pursued. This is because the reports suggest that additional investigation – which often seems to be scant – may produce in many cases facts supporting forfeiture that could satisfy even some critics of civil forfeiture.
Continue Reading Civil Forfeiture Enforcement Under Fire – Part I