Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

Last week, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order banning “all transactions” and “dealings” by any individual or entity in the United States that involve “any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token” issued by Venezuela.  This Executive Order was instituted just under a month after President Nicholas Maduro launched the pre-sale of “petro,” a cryptocurrency backed by the Venezuelan government’s crude oil reserves.  Since its inception, the petro has been met with deep skepticism by both the market and the Venezuelan legislature, but President Maduro—through petro’s official website—claims it has raised over $735 million in its pre-sale.  The opposition in the Venezuelan legislature has denounced petro as an illegal issuance of debt.

We previously have blogged about alleged money-laundering violations by Venezuelan oilmen and OFAC’s designation of the Vice President of Venezuela as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker.  This is only the most recent in a long line of sanctions targeting the Venezuelan government and its state-controlled oil industry.

On the back of this new Executive Order, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) has issued new FAQs relating to virtual currency, both to regulate the petro and assert its power in the virtual currency space.  As one might suspect, OFAC has decided to treat virtual currency in the same way it treats fiat currency and other property: if the individual is on Specially Designated Nationals (“SDN”) list, transactions are barred no matter what form of currency is used.  If a United States citizen or entity is involved, or is otherwise subject to United States jurisdiction, they “are responsible for ensuring that they do not engage in unauthorized transactions prohibited by OFAC sanctions.”  The OFAC FAQs specifically request “technology companies; administrators, exchangers, and users of digital currencies; and other payment processors” to develop compliance plans.  Obviously, these compliance plans would have to take into account blockchain and virtual currency technology that is constantly evolving. Continue Reading U.S. Bans Venezuela’s Oil-Backed Virtual Currency, “Petro,” and Announces Plans to Publish SDNs’ Virtual Currency Addresses

Alleged Illicit Activity Included Transactions Promoting North Korea’s Missile Program and an Institutional Commitment to Laundering Money

On February 13, 2018, FinCEN announced that it had proposed a special measure naming ABLV Bank, AS (“ABLV”) an institution of primary money laundering concern pursuant to Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act.  We previously have blogged about FinCEN’s powers pursuant to Section 311 of the U.S. Patriot Act to designate institution “of primary money laundering concern” and impose a special measure which effectively cuts off the bank’s access to the U.S. financial system by requiring U.S. institutions as well as foreign institutions that create an indirect link between the foreign institution and the U.S. to sever ties with the designated bank.

Finding that ABLV was a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern, FinCEN proposed a prohibition under the fifth special measure restricting domestic financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts with or on behalf of ABLV. FinCEN stated that ABLV executives, shareholders, and employees have institutionalized money laundering as a pillar of the bank’s business practices by orchestrating money laundering schemes, soliciting high-risk shell company activity that enables the bank and its customers to launder funds, maintaining inadequate controls over high-risk shell company accounts, and seeking to obstruct enforcement of Latvian anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) rules in order to protect these business practices.  Indeed, included in the illicit financial activity were transactions for parties connected to the U.S. and U.N.-designated entities, some of which are involved in North Korea’s procurement or export of ballistic missiles.

ABLV shot back last Thursday stating that the allegations were based “on assumptions and information that is currently unavailable to the bank,” but that they were “continuing check into these allegations” and were open to cooperation with U.S. authorities.  As a result of FinCEN’s finding, Monday morning, the European Central Bank (“ECB”) halted all payments by ABLV pending further investigation into the allegations set forth in FinCEN’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”). Continue Reading FinCEN Imposes Section 311 Fifth Special Measure on Latvian Bank ABLV

Twelve minutes ahead of the deadline set by Congress back in August, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a highly anticipated report listing Russian oligarchs and senior political figures.  That sound you heard at 11:48 last night?  A host of wealthy Russians heaving sighs of relief.

The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” (CAATSA) which was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support last summer, instituted new sanctions against Russia related to its interference with Ukraine and its alleged tampering with the 2016 presidential election.

But it also required the Treasury Department to issue, no later than yesterday, a report identifying Russian oligarchs with close ties to Vladimir Putin. The report was to identify “the most significant senior political figures and oligarchs in the Russian federation . . . as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth.”  The report was required to detail the relationship between identified oligarchs and President Vladimir Putin or “other members of the Russian ruling elite,” “any indices of corruption with respect to those individuals, “their net worth and known sources of their (and their families’) income, and the non-Russian business affiliations of those individuals.”

In addition to reporting on individuals, the report was to identify “Russian parastatal entities,” their leadership structures and beneficial ownership, and the scope of their non-Russian business affiliations. Continue Reading Nothing to See Here: Treasury Report Naming Russian Oligarchs Rehashes Old News and Provides No New Sanctions

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

On November 9, 2017, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) amended the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515 (the “CACR”), with the stated intent of channeling economic activities away from the Cuban military, intelligence, and security services, while maintaining opportunities for Americans to engage in authorized travel to Cuba and support the private, small business sector in Cuba. These amendments implement the National Security Presidential Memorandum (“NSPM”), “Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba,” which was signed on June 16, 2017.  While the changes may limit certain new business opportunities in Cuba for Americans, they also provide clarity regarding with whom Americans may not do business, and should be considered accordingly by institutions in regards to tailoring their Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and OFAC-related due diligence and compliance procedures. Continue Reading OFAC Increases Clarity Regarding Financial Transactions with Cuba

On September 15th, FinCEN issued its latest “Advisory on FATF-Identified Jurisdictions with AML/CTF Deficiencies.”  The FATF, or the Financial Action Task Force, is a 37-member intergovernmental body, including the United States, that establishes international standards to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  As part of its listing and monitoring process to ensure compliance with its international Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) standards, the FATF identifies certain jurisdictions as having “strategic deficiencies” in their AML/CFT regimes. In its latest Advisory, FinCEN notes the changes in the FATF-named jurisdictions and directs financial institutions to consider these changes when reviewing their obligations and risk-based policies, procedures and practices relating to the named jurisdictions.  We will discuss these changes and some practical takeaways for U.S. financial institutions seeking to ensure compliance with these changes in their AML programs. Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Latest Advisory on FATF-Identified Jurisdictions with AML/CFT Deficiencies

Describing him as a “longtime Mexican Drug Kingpin,” the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of Treasury has designated Raul Flores Hernandez and the “Flores Drug Trafficking Organization,” or  “Flores DTO,” as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act).  OFAC also has used the Act to designate 21 other Mexican nationals and 42 entities, including a casino, a soccer club, a music production company, and various bars and restaurants, for allegedly supporting or being controlled by Flores and the Flores DTO. According to the government’s press release, Flores “has operated for decades because of his longstanding relationships with other drug cartels and his use of financial front persons to mask his investments of illegal drug proceeds[.]”

Although Mr. Flores may not be well known outside of Mexico, other individuals designated by OFAC certainly are. OFAC designated soccer superstar Rafael “Rafa” Márquez Alvarez, who plays defense for the Atlas Fútbol Club in Guadalajara, Mexico, and who served as captain of the Mexican team in four FIFA World Cups from 2002 to 2014.  Mr. Márquez is not necessarily beloved throughout the United States, where he is remembered for having head-butted a U.S. player during the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.  OFAC also designated Norteño singer Julio Cesar Alvarez Montelongo, better known as Latin Grammy-nominated musician Julion Alvarez. According to OFAC, “[b]oth men have longstanding relationships with Flores Hernandez, and have acted as front persons for him and his DTO and held assets on their behalf.”  As for the rest of the Flores DTO, OFAC asserts that it is comprised of “a significant number of Flores Hernandez’s family members and trusted associates, upon whom he heavily relies to further his drug trafficking and money laundering activities and to maintain assets on his behalf.” Continue Reading OFAC Targets Alleged Mexican Drug Boss and “His Vast Network,” Including International Soccer Superstar

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

IED Bomb still lifeOn March 24, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment charging Kassim Tajideen, an alleged prominent financial supporter of the Hizballah terror organization, with evading U.S. sanctions and conspiring to commit money laundering.  Tajideen, of Beirut, Lebanon, was arrested in Morocco earlier this month and has made his initial appearance in federal court in Washington, D.C.

According to the government, Tajideen, through his multi-billion dollar network of businesses based in Lebanon and Africa, contributed tens of millions of dollars to Hizballah. For this reason, in May 2009, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) designated Tajidden as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (“SDGT”).  This designation makes it illegal for U.S. companies to do business with Tajideen or any entity that he controls.  More broadly, it is illegal for U.S. companies to transact business with any entities or individuals on OFAC’s blacklists.

The indictment charges Tajideen with one count of conspiracy to evade U.S. sanctions, specifically the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) and the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations, by transacting business with three U.S. businesses, referred to only as Business A, Business B and Business C, and by concealing from OFAC that he was benefitting from these transactions. Tajideen is also charged with seven counts of unlawful transactions with a SDGT, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

According to the indictment, Tajideen heads a large-scale commodity distribution business based primarily in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Angola, but which operates throughout the world, including in the U.S. The business utilized what the government says was “a web of vertically integrated companies, partnerships and trade names.” The indictment further alleges that Tajideen and others engaged in a scheme to do business with U.S. companies while concealing Tajideen’s involvement.  As part of that scheme, between approximately July 2013 and the present, Tajideen, his employee, codefendant Imad Hassoun, and other unnamed co-conspirators illegally caused at least 47 wire transfers totaling over $27 million to be sent to entities in the U.S. for the purchase of frozen poultry and other items.  These payments caused the U.S. entities to illegally ship goods from the U.S. without obtaining the proper licenses from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h), charges that Tajideen and others conspired to both promote and conceal the conspirators’ illegal business transactions with U.S. persons through numerous wire transfers from bank accounts held by Tajideen’s companies in the United Arab Emirates to bank accounts held within the U.S. in order to pay for transactions involving Businesses A, B and C.

It has been reported that the investigation is continuing. Specifically, the government wants to determine whether Businesses A, B or C knowingly did business with Tajideen after he was designated a SDGT. Tajideen is alleged to have restructured his business empire after the designation and to have created new trade names in order to evade the sanctions and continue doing business with U.S. companies.  But Tajideen’s alleged deception may not save Businesses A, B and C from the government’s crosshairs.  Companies are responsible for conducting due diligence to determine whether entities and individuals with whom they do business – including middlemen, corporate shells and newly formed firms – are linked to individuals or entities on OFAC’s blacklists.  So while this indictment shows that the U.S. is taking aggressive action against Hizballah, it also underscores the need for U.S. companies to have robust export control compliance programs so that they can ensure they are not doing business with terrorists.

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The Executive Vice President of Venezuela, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah (El Aissami), was designated on Monday by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act). According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), El Aissami directly facilitated significant shipments of drugs from Venezuela into the United States and Mexico, and helped and protected other drug dealers operating within Venezuela.  OFAC also has alleged that El Aissami’s “primary frontman,” Samark Jose Lopez Bello, oversaw the finances of these operations and launders drug proceeds through “an international network of petroleum, distribution, engineering, telecommunications, and asset holding companies.”

After providing some additional details regarding these designations, we will discuss the Kingpin Act itself, a powerful and unique enforcement tool. Continue Reading Kingpin Act Wielded Against Vice President of Venezuela