Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

NYDFS Action Highlights the Need for Good Monitoring – and Good Consultants

In part one of this two-part post, we provided some practical tips for financial institutions to increase the chances that their Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) programs will withstand regulators’ scrutiny, including: (1) promoting a culture of AML/Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance; (2) focusing on transaction monitoring; (3) improving information sharing; (4) identifying and handling high-risk accounts appropriately; and (5) knowing your risks and continually improving your AML program to control those risks.

In this post we’ll discuss the consequences of potentially failing to heed these practical tips in a specific case: the New York Department of Financial Services’ (DFS) recent enforcement action against Mashreqbank. Further, we look forward to discussing all of these issues in an upcoming podcast in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series. So please continue to stay tuned.

Mashreqbank is the oldest and largest private bank in the United Arab Emirates. Its New York branch is Mashreqbank’s only location in the United States. It offers correspondent banking and trade finance services and provides U.S. dollar clearing services to clients located in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. In 2016, the branch cleared more than 1.2 million USD transactions with an aggregate value of over $367 billion. In 2017, the branch cleared more than one million USD transactions with an aggregate value of over $350 billion.

The DFS enforcement action asserted that Mashreqbank’s AML/BSA program was deficient in a number of respects and that the New York branch had failed to remediate identified compliance issues. The enforcement action began with a DFS safety and soundness examine in 2016. In 2017, DFS and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) conducted a joint safety and soundness examination. DFS provided a report of its findings to which Mashreqbank submitted a response.

In a consent order signed on October 10, 2018, Mashreqbank admitted violations of New York laws and accepted a significant monetary penalty and increased oversight for deficiencies in its AML/BSA and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) programs. Regulators pursued the enforcement action despite the New York branch’s strong cooperation and demonstrated commitment to building an effective and sustainable compliance program. Among other things, Mashreqbank agreed to pay a $40 million fine; to hire a third-party compliance consultant to oversee and address deficiencies in the branch’s compliance function including compliance with AML/BSA requirements; and to develop written revised AML/BSA and OFAC compliance programs acceptable to DFS.

The DFS and FRBNY examination findings demonstrate Mashreqbank’s failure to follow the practical tips identified in part one of this post. Specifically, the regulators found that Mashreqbank failed to: (1) have appropriate transition monitoring; (2) identify and handle high-risk accounts appropriately; and (3) know its risk and improve its AML program to control those risks.

Further, and as our discussion will reflect, the Mashreqbank enforcement action is also notable in two other respects. First, the alleged AML failures pertain entirely to process and the general adequacy of the bank’s AML program – whereas the vast majority of other AML/BSA enforcement actions likewise discuss system failures, they usually also point to specific substantive violations, such as the failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) regarding a particular customer or set of transactions. Second, although the use of external consultants usually represents a mitigating factor or even a potential reliance defense to financial institution defendants, the DFS turned what is typically a defense shield into a government sword and instead criticized Mashreqbank for using outside consultants who, according to DFS, were just not very rigorous. This alleged use of consultants performing superficial analysis became part of the allegations of affirmative violations against the bank, thereby underscoring how financial institutions must ensure that their AML/BSA auditors or other consultants are experienced, competent, and performing meaningful testing, particularly when addressing issues previously identified by regulators. Continue Reading Practical Tips in Action: The Mashreqbank AML Enforcement Action

On June 12, 2018, FinCEN issued an “Advisory on Human Rights Abuses Enabled by Corrupt Senior Foreign Political Figures and their Financial Facilitators” to highlight the connection between corrupt senior foreign political figures and their enabling of human rights abuses.  The Advisory provides examples of potential red flags to aid financial institutions in identifying the means by which corrupt political figures and their facilitators may move and hide proceeds from their corrupt activities – activities which, directly or indirectly, contribute to human rights abuses and other illegal activity.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) issued Recommendation 12 in June 2013 to address the risks posed by politically exposed persons (PEPs), and that Recommendation has been implemented through FinCEN rules and guidance.  Thus, U.S. banks already are expected to have in place risk-based policies, procedures and processes regarding PEPs, including conducting enhanced due diligence.  Nonetheless, FinCEN issued this Advisory to “further assist” U.S. financial institutions’ efforts to detect and report foreign PEP facilitators’ use of the U.S. financial system to “obscure and launder the illicit proceeds of high-level political corruption.” Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Advisory on Human Rights Abuses Enabled by Corrupt PEPs and Their Financial Facilitators

OCC Identifies AML/BSA and Cyber Threats as Elevated Risks Facing Banks

Last week, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) published the Spring 2018 Semiannual Risk Perspective (the “Report”), which uses up-to-date data to identify risks to U.S. banks and measure their compliance with applicable laws and regulations.  The Report concluded that some of the OCC’s primary concerns are with banks’ abilities to comply with the anti‑money laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations, as well as to manage risks associated with cybersecurity threats.

Many of the OCC’s observations and recommendations remained the same from its Fall 2017 report, about which we previously blogged, begging readers to wonder what will spur less conversation and potentially more action among OCC-supervised banks or concrete guidance by the OCC.  Regardless, a common thread running throughout both reports is the potential risk presented to financial institutions by emerging technologies, which carry the simultaneous blessing and curse of business opportunities and compliance risks. Continue Reading OCC Report: Same Threats, Different Season

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