As forecasted in a blog post last summer, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has again used the money laundering statute to accomplish the otherwise elusive goal of prosecuting foreign officials who allegedly receive bribes. On Monday, DOJ unsealed its Indictment against five Venezuelans employed by or closely connected to Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (“PDVSA”), the Venezuelan state-owned and state-controlled oil company.

The unsealing of the charges against these five Venezuelan individuals marks the latest development in a multi-year effort by DOJ to investigate and prosecute bribery at PDVSA. As DOJ’s press release notes, ten individuals have already pleaded guilty in the investigation thus far.  Key among these individuals are Roberto Enrique Rincon Fernandez and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, two American businessmen who pleaded guilty in 2016 to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (the “FCPA”) for paying bribes to PDVSA.  In connection with their pleas, the two admitted to paying PDVSA bribes in order to win lucrative energy contracts and to be given payment priority over other PDVSA vendors during a time when PDVSA faced a liquidity crisis.

Last October, more than one year after these guilty pleas, Spanish police announced the arrests of four of the five individuals named in Monday’s Indictment.  The arrests were described as “part of a months-long sting ordered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”  Currently, three of the defendants remain in Spain pending extradition, the fourth was extradited to the United States and made his initial appearance last Friday, and the fifth remains at large.

As noted above, the Indictment is notable for using the money laundering statute to accomplish what the FCPA statute cannot—bringing charges against a foreign official. Last summer, we blogged about the conviction and sentencing of Guinea’s former Minister of Mines and Geology.  There, we noted the FCPA generally prohibits individuals and businesses from paying bribes to foreign officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business.  However, “foreign officials” cannot be charged under the FCPA or with conspiracy to violate it.  Therefore, a foreign official could not be prosecuted for his conduct in soliciting or receiving bribes under the FCPA. Continue Reading DOJ Employs Money Laundering Statute to Prosecute Venezuelan Oilmen for Foreign Bribery

In its “Risk Outlook, Autumn Update” (“Update”) released last week, the Solicitor Regulation Authority (“SRA”), a regulator of solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, found that although the legal sector remains at “high risk of exploitation for money laundering,” reports made by legal practitioners to law enforcement of suspicious, money laundering-related activities dropped by nearly 10% last year. The Update then explores the AML risks associated with legal services.See the source image

As we will discuss below, many of the issues addressed by the SRA Update resonate with similar Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) issues which have been brewing recently in the United States — such as the issues of beneficial ownership, the potential use of real estate in money laundering, and lawyers as “gate keepers.”  Of course, however, the very notion of legal practitioners reporting their clients to law enforcement for suspicious activity — a practice which represents a given to the SRA Update in light of U.K. law reporting requirements — remains deeply antithetical to basic notions of client confidentiality and loyalty held by the U.S. legal profession and courts.  We will discuss here this unique convergence of (i) very similar AML issues and concerns confronting the U.K. and the U.S., and (ii) drastically different approaches — at least to date — as to the appropriate duty of lawyers to report the conduct of their own clients to the government. Continue Reading U.K. Regulator Critiques Legal Industry AML Compliance

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

U.S. Money Laundering Charges Stemmed from Foreign Bribes to Foreign Official by Foreign Companies

On August 25, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York sentenced former Guinea Minister of Mines and Geology, Mahmoud Thiam, to seven years in prison, followed by three years of supervised probations, for laundering $8.5 million bribes paid to him by China Sonangol International Ltd. and China International Fun, SA (CIF).  The judge also entered an order for the forfeiture of the full of $8.5 million of laundered funds.  The sentence followed Thiam’s conviction by a jury in May 2017 of money laundering.

Although the alleged money laundering transactions charged in the indictment involved wire transfers from foreign banks to bank accounts held in New York City, all of the bribery which produced the illicit proceeds at issue in the money laundering charges occurred entirely overseas. As we will discuss, this case serves as a reminder that the offense of money laundering centers on a discrete financial transaction, not the underlying illegal activity. This case also illustrates the willingness of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to pursue cases primarily involving conduct which occurred abroad, and also how the DOJ may use the money laundering statutes – assuming that there is a U.S. jurisdictional hook – to pursue certain individuals who would be untouchable under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: the foreign officials themselves who are receiving the bribes. Continue Reading Former Guinean Minister of Mines Sentenced to Seven Years in Prison for Laundering $8.5 Million in Bribes Paid by Chinese Companies in Exchange for Mining Rights

FinCEN has announced the expansion of its Geographical Targeting Orders (GTOs) for high-end cash buyers of real estate. The expansion is two-fold. First, FinCEN has expanded the scope of Form 8300 reportable transactions to include “funds transfers” in addition to currency, cashier’s checks, certified checks, traveler’s check, personal checks, business checks, or money orders in any form. Second, FinCEN has added real estate transactions with a total purchase price of $3,000,000 or more in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. This brings the markets covered to seven metropolitan areas.

The renewed GTOs require title insurance companies to identify and report on the natural persons behind shell companies that make covered transactions. The renewed and expanded GTOs will be in effect from September 22, 2017 through March 20, 2018. FinCEN has again praised the “assistance and cooperation” of the title insurance industry in this effort.

On the same day as the GTO expansion, FinCEN published an “Advisory to Financial Institutions and Real Estate Firms and Professionals.” This Advisory is in line with our expectation that FinCEN would further expand their supervisory and enforcement activity in the real estate market, as recommended by the FATF in their 2016 Mutual Evaluation Report and highlighted in an April 12, 2016, speech by former FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery.

Continue Reading FinCEN Continues Its Focus on Real Estate Transactions through Advisory and GTOs

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

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

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