Convictions to “Promote” Crime and “Conceal” Illegal Proceeds Vacated Due to Insufficient Evidence of Intent

A recent decision out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia adjudicating a seemingly straight-forward alleged fraud and money laundering scheme reminds us that money laundering charges still require the government to establish elements which can be difficult to prove, including, importantly, specific intent.

United States v. Millender involved an investment fraud scheme charged against a husband and wife and their associate. Terry and Brenda Millender were, respectively, the founder and pastor, and the “First Lady” of the Victorious Life Church (“VLC”) in Alexandria, Virginia. The evidence at trial established that Mr. Millender conceived of and founded Micro-Enterprise Management Group (“MEMG”), purportedly for the purpose of helping the poor in developing countries by making small, short-term loans to entrepreneurs who wished to start or expand existing businesses. Mrs. Millender was the co-founder, registered agent, and signatory of MEMG. To fund the enterprise, MEMG solicited “loans” from VLC congregants and other private lenders. MEMG promised its investors high rates of return through profits on the entrepreneur loans and assured them that the loans were securely backed by MEMG assets. Moreover, written materials soliciting investment represented that MEMG had a successful history of making micro-loans in Africa and had established relationships with on-going projects. Later, Mr. Milliner founded a second entity, Kingdom Commodities Unlimited (“KCU”), purportedly for the purpose of brokering Nigerian oil deals, and promising investors substantial returns on what they claimed were short term loans. The defendants solicited over $600,000 from investors from 2008 until 2015.

The Millender opinion reflects the complexity of the different prongs of the money laundering statutes, and their somewhat overlapping and competing requirements. The opinion is particularly noteworthy because of its procedural posture: despite jury verdicts finding guilt, the district court nonetheless found at least as to some counts that there was insufficient evidence as a matter of law of knowledge and specific intent. Continue Reading Money Laundering and Specific Intent Can Be Difficult to Prove

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

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

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

The federal courts continued in 2016 to produce a stream of cases pertaining to money laundering. We focus on three below because they involve analysis of basic issues that frequently arise in money laundering litigation.

Justitia, a monument in Frankfurt, Germany

The first case tests the money laundering statute’s reach in prosecution of an alleged international fraud perpetrated primarily outside of the United States—an increasingly common fact pattern as cross-border cases proliferate and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutes more conduct occurring largely overseas. The other two cases involve defense victories that focus on critical issues of mental state: the question of specific intent under the BSA, and the question, under the money laundering statutes, of knowledge by a third party that a transaction involved proceeds of another person’s crime. The issue of third-party knowledge is often crucial in prosecutions of professionals. Continue Reading 2016 Year End Review: Money Laundering Opinions of Note