International Tax Evasion

Conduct Performed Without Knowledge Still Can Lead to the Most Serious Penalties

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), the most onerous civil penalties will be applied for “willful” violations. That mental state standard might sound hard for the government to prove.  For example, in criminal and civil tax fraud cases under the Internal Revenue Code, “willfulness” is defined to mean a voluntary and intentional violation of a known legal duty – a very demanding showing. But as we will discuss, two very new court opinions discussing a required BSA filing – a Form TD F 90-22.1, or Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, otherwise know as a FBAR – remind us that, under the BSA, a “willful” violation does not require proof of actual knowledge. A “willful” BSA violation only needs to be reckless, and the government can prove it through the doctrine of “willful blindness” or “conscious avoidance.”

The fact that courts in civil FBAR cases have been holding that “willfulness” can mean “just recklessness” is not a new development, and it is well known to those practicing in the tax fraud and tax controversy space. This blog post will not attempt to delve into the long-running offshore account enforcement campaign that has been waged by the IRS and the DOJ; the related case decisions; or the related voluntary disclosure programs for offshore accounts (for those interested in this fascinating but complicated topic, the Federal Tax Crimes blog is one of many excellent resources). Rather, the point of this post is that the case law now being made in the FBAR and offshore account context will have direct application to more traditional Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”)/BSA enforcement actions, because the civil penalty statute being interpreted in the FBAR cases is the same provision which applies to claimed failures to maintain an adequate AML program and other violations of the BSA.  Thus, the target audience of this post is not people involved in undisclosed offshore bank account cases, but rather people involved in day-to-day AML compliance for financial institutions, who may not realize that some missteps may be branded as “willful” and entail very serious monetary penalties, even if they were done without actual knowledge.  This may be news to some, and it underscores in particular the risks presented by one the topics that this blog frequently has discussed: the potential AML liability of individuals. Continue Reading The BSA Civil Penalty Regime: Reckless Conduct Can Produce “Willful” Penalties

But Bank Customer’s Foreign Tax Evasion Scheme Still May Merit a SAR FilingThe Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) recently advised that a financial institution is not required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) based solely upon a customer’s inquiry into or participation in a foreign tax regularization program.  FinCEN issued this statement on February 21, 2018 in response to Florida International Banker’s Association’s request for guidance (“FIBA Request”) in 2016, which initiated the request because a number of its members expressed an interest in tax regularization programs and sought clarification on the AML implications of such programs.

This issue, perhaps seemingly esoteric, involves a basic question of increasing practical importance, particularly in light of the Panama Papers related international scandals, and global criticism of the U.S. as a potential haven for foreign tax cheats and money launderers: does the possibility of foreign tax evasion by a bank client necessarily trigger the need to file a SAR? Foreign tax evasion can represent potential violations of U.S. law, such as the federal mail or wire fraud statutes, which in turn may support a prosecution theory that related financial transactions involving foreign tax evasion and the U.S. financial system represent potential U.S. money laundering violations (for a detailed article on this issue, please see here). Continue Reading FINCEN Advises That Participation in a Foreign Tax Regularization Program By Itself Does Not Trigger SAR Filing Obligation

I am honored to be part of a panel on March 1, 2018 at the Florida Tax Institute in Tampa, Florida regarding potential money laundering risks, reporting obligations and related ethical issues facing U.S. tax professionals with foreign clients bringing money and assets into the United States.  The panel, entitled Working with Inbound Investors & Businesses – Some Things You May Not Think About May Hurt You, will be moderated by Fred Murray of the University of Florida Levin College of Law and also will include attorneys Jeffrey A. Neiman, A. Brian Phillips and Shawn P. Wolf.

This is a key topic with real-world implications. We previously have blogged about potential AML and money laundering issues facing U.S. lawyers, who are under increasing scrutiny in light of: evolving international standards on professionals as AML gate keepers; global criticisms of the United States as a possible haven for money launderers and tax cheats; and scandals — such as the Panama Papers — involving legal professionals as the alleged facilitators of laundering and tax evasion by their clients.

Specifically, both the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) and the European Parliament have called for U.S. lawyers to meet higher standards in performing due diligence to detect clients’ potential money laundering, and found U.S. lawyers to be “non-compliant” with entity transparency standards. Further, the U.S. Congress has tried to enact legislation over the years to address the issue of beneficial ownership and the role of lawyer (see our discussion of the Corporate Transparency Act here). More recently, and as we have blogged, the ABA’s Task Force on the Gatekeeper and the Profession has prepared and discussed a new ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct that would impose basic “client due diligence” requirement on lawyers.  The panel should be interesting.

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 Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) wrapped up 2017 by issuing a series of high-profile designations generally prohibiting U.S. persons from conducting financial or other transactions with the identified individuals and entities, and freezing any assets which these individuals and entities may have under U.S. jurisdiction. Specifically, OFAC, acting in conjunction with a new Executive Order issued by the President pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (“Magnitsky Act”), sanctioned on December 21 a list of alleged international bad actors, including Dan Gertler, a billionaire and international businessman from Israel who has been involved in, among other notorious ventures, alleged corruption in the mining of diamonds and copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The next day, OFAC then sanctioned individuals and entities allegedly associated with Thieves-in-Law, an alleged and unapologetically-named Eurasian criminal entity; according to the U.S. government, Thieves-in-Law originated in Stalinist prison camps and has grown over time into a “vast criminal organization” stretching across the globe and into the United States. Continue Reading OFAC Designates Diamond Mining Billionaire, “Thieves in Law,” and Many Other International Targets as Subject to U.S. Sanctions and Asset Freezes

After over a year of negotiations, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  These new regulations will require an increase in transparency by the trusts and trading companies to reveal the holders of virtual currency to thwart potential money laundering, tax evasion, and anonymous funding of terrorism. Primary among these regulations is a requirement to provide beneficial ownership information to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest” to access data on the beneficial owners of trusts.

This focus on beneficial ownership in regards to virtual currency is entirely consistent with the general AML regulatory efforts in the United States and around the globe over the last few years, which have emphasized heavily the need to identify the beneficial owners of financial accounts, real estate and other assets in order to attain a more transparent financial system.

The regulation adopted by the European Parliament and European Council also comes as Bitcoin’s prices surged over 1,700 percent since the start of 2017.  This outstanding growth has increased main stream interest in the virtual currency while also sounding alarm bells as some fear that Bitcoin is a bubble bound to burst.  A key part of the amendment is that access to beneficial ownership information should be provided to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest.”  Continue Reading EU Adopts Regulations Increasing Transparency in Virtual Currency Trading to Combat Money Laundering, Tax Evasion, and Terrorism Financing

IRS Will Obtain Identifying Information Regarding Clients Who Conducted Any Transaction Equal to $20,000 or More

Last week, a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of California granted in part and denied in part a motion by the IRS to enforce a “John Doe” summons served on Coinbase, Inc., which operates a virtual currency wallet and exchange business headquartered in San Francisco. As we have blogged, the court granted last year the IRS’s application to serve the summons on Coinbase, which then resisted and moved to quash. The recent ruling paves the way for potential criminal or civil tax investigations involving Coinbase customers, as well as potential money laundering investigations.  The ruling also indicates that the IRS might be able to seek more information from Coinbase about specific individuals as its investigation progresses.

Needless to say, the semi- or pseudo-anonymity offered by virtual currency – traits which historically have made virtual currency attractive to some of its users – are the same traits which have made the IRS and other law enforcement agencies and regulators intensely interested in the use of virtual currency. Although the use of virtual currency generally may cloak the user and create practical problems for investigators, the Coinbase action demonstrates that virtual currency is not truly anonymous in the face of a focused law enforcement inquiry. Continue Reading Court Enforces — Partially — IRS “John Doe” Summons Served on Virtual Currency Exchanger

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