Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

Two Have Settled, but One AML CO Will Contest the Case

A recent anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement action reminds us of the increasing risk of individual liability for alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), a key issue about which we have blogged.

Specifically, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) announced last week that Aegis Capital Corporation (“Aegis”), a New York-based brokerage firm, admitted that it failed to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) on numerous transactions. Although most of the attention regarding this enforcement action has focused on Aegis, the more interesting development here is the role of individuals — particularly a contested action filed against a former AML compliance officer who has declined to settle and who apparently is proceeding to trial on these allegations before a SEC Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  This should be a litigation to watch. Continue Reading Continued Individual Liability Under the Bank Secrecy Act: The SEC Targets Two AML Compliance Officers and One CEO for Alleged AML/BSA Violations

As we previously have blogged, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) became one of the first regulators to wade into the regulation of cryptocurrency when it released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is a Money Services Business (“MSB”). As a MSB, and according to FinCEN, an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency therefore is a “financial institution” subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and its various AML-related requirements, unless a limitation or exemption applies.  Accordingly, the Department of Justice has prosecuted operators of cryptocurrency exchanges for a failure to register with FinCEN as a MSB, and FinCEN has brought civil enforcement proceedings against such exchanges for alleged failures to maintain adequate AML programs and file required Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARS”), among other alleged BSA violations.

Recently, regulators of all stripes across the globe have been moving swiftly to regulate cryptocurrency in various ways (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has been very vocal and aggressive in claiming that many if not all Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) involving cryptocurrency represent securities subject to the jurisdiction and supervision of the SEC, and already has filed several enforcement proceedings involving ICOs. Moreover the SEC just yesterday issued a statement that it considers exchanges for cryptocurrency to also be subject to its jurisdiction. Likewise, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) has asserted that cryptocurrencies are commodities subject to its jurisdiction; this week, a federal court agreed with this assertion in a CFTC enforcement action.  The CFTC claims that its jurisdiction reaches beyond cryptocurrency derivative products to fraud and manipulation in the underlying cryptocurrency spot markets.

But there is a potential problem with all of these regulators simultaneously rushing in to assert their respective power over cryptocurrency businesses, and it is a tension that does not seem to have attracted much public attention to date. Specifically, BSA regulations pertaining to the definition of a MSB, at 31 C.F.R. § 1010.100(ff)(8)(ii), flatly state that a MSB does not include the following:

A person registered with, and functionally regulated or examined by, the SEC or the CFTC, or a foreign financial agency that engages in financial activities that, if conducted in the United States, would require the foreign financial agency to be registered with the SEC or CFTC[.]

How can certain cryptocurrency businesses be subject to the claimed jurisdictions of FinCEN as well as the recent regulatory newcomers to this area, the SEC and the CFTC? Continue Reading FinCEN Letter to U.S. Senate Committee on Finance Purports to Thread Needle of Potentially Competing Jurisdictions by Regulators over Cryptocurrencies

Yesterday, the SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its 2018 examination priorities, released in order to “improve compliance, prevent fraud, monitor risk, and inform policy.”  OCIE announced five priorities, with Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) programs being one of them.  This emphasis on AML is consistent with the SEC’s increasing willingness to bring enforcement actions relating to AML and the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  As we also discuss, here and in our sister blog, CyberAdviser, another priority announced by OCIE is cybersecurity, an issue which increasingly overlaps with AML issues. Continue Reading SEC Targets AML as Exam Priority

This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs held hearings focused in part on Anti-Money Laundering  (“AML”) and the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  We discuss highlights of the testimony of the Chairpersons of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), as well as testimony from a senior official at the Justice Department and a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, concerning upcoming changes to beneficial ownership requirements and the current regulatory landscape of the cryptocurrency industry. Continue Reading AML/BSA Focus by U.S. Senate Committee Testimony – From Beneficial Ownership to Cryptocurrency

We are very pleased to be presenting on the topic of SEC enforcement against broker-dealers and mutual funds relating to alleged underlying Anti-Money Laundering and Bank Secrecy Act violations, and associated private class action lawsuits, at the upcoming meeting of the Securities Regulation Committee of the New York State Bar Association on this Wednesday, December 13, 2017.  This is a topic of increasing importance on which we have blogged repeatedly (see here, here, here and here); FinCEN also has proposed similar AML regulations for investment advisors.  We also will discuss the hot topic of potential SEC enforcement involving digital currency and Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, and the general role of AML in the digital currency industry. The program will begin at 7:00 p.m. and is hosted at the New York City offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.  Thanks again to the Committee for this invitation; we look forward to it.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

As digital currency becomes more ubiquitous, state and federal regulators across the United States, as well as regulators in many other countries, are examining how existing regulatory structures need to be adapted to account for unique aspects of digital currency. News from both India and Australia reflect different approaches to the ever-evolving world of digital currency and potential money laundering risks associated with that currency.  As we previously have blogged, U.S. enforcement personnel aggressively have asserted jurisdiction over international digital currency operations.  As we will discuss, it appears that digital currency businesses will find themselves having to comply with a kaleidoscope of various Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) regulatory regimes across the globe. Continue Reading As Digital Currency Spreads, So Does its Global Regulation: India and Australia Enter the Fray

Part Three of a Three-Part Series

In the third and final part of this series on marijuana-related businesses (“MRBs”), we explore how the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have commenced actions against MRBs and operators for allegedly fraudulent and deceptive securities practices.  The sample of such actions which we discuss here serve to demonstrate not only the risks the investing public may face in investing in MRBs, but also as a reminder to MRBs seeking to capitalize on the industry’s explosive growth of the exacting standards of the securities laws and the government’s commitment to enforcing them in this industry.

Although the cases we discuss here are not tied specifically to AML/BSA enforcement cases, but rather to traditional allegations of securities violations, the practical point is that anyone who is considering wading into this industry should remember that there are multiple federal agencies which may pursue their own enforcement agendas relating to MRBs. Although we previously have noted during this series that the Financial Criminal Enforcement Network issued guidelines giving banks the go-ahead to work with MRBs, and although the 2013 DOJ Cole Memo seems to suggest that financial institutions can serve MRBs under certain circumstances, our discussion here reflects that there still are other government agencies which may have their own notions regarding what is acceptable conduct by a MRB.  As to the SEC specifically, these actions also are consistent with the recent trend of the SEC inserting itself into AML-related enforcement. Continue Reading The Marijuana Industry and the Securities Laws

Financial institutions face an increasing risk that alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) requirements will lead to follow-on allegations of securities law violations. We have blogged about investor class action suits against financial institutions based on alleged violations of BSA/AML rules.  We also have blogged about recent enforcement actions by the SEC alleging violations of the securities laws due to underlying violations of the BSA by broker dealers.  This post briefly notes the latest chapter in what seems to be a growing book regarding the convergence of AML/BSA and securities law.

In a complaint, later amended, filed in the Middle District of Tennessee against BancorpSouth Inc., investor plaintiffs alleged that the bank and its CEO, CFO and COO made misleading statements and omissions in SEC filings regarding (1) the bank’s compliance with BSA/AML regulations and the bank’s fair lending practices, and (2) the closing of two pending mergers/acquisitions. Plaintiffs allege that defendants knew at the relevant time that the bank was not in compliance with the AML/BSA regulations, due to a pending “target review” by the FDIC – which later resulted in a consent order between the FDIC and the bank regarding its AML obligations – but nonetheless stated that (1) the bank was in compliance with all banking laws and regulations; (2) they expected the two planned mergers to close in the second quarter of 2014; and (3) they expected to receive regulatory approval for those mergers. The plaintiffs allege that defendants thereby violated Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 by making statements which misrepresented or omitted material facts.  According to the plaintiffs, when the AML/BSA problems eventually came to light, these problems allegedly delayed the anticipated mergers, and the bank’s stock value fell significantly, which thereby harmed investors.

As noted, the plaintiffs sued not only the bank itself, but also members of senior management. This approach is consistent with the recent focus on individual liability in AML/BSA matters.  Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the individual executive defendants:

. . . . were ultimately responsible for ensuring that the Bank maintained an effective BSA/AML compliance program and that the Company’s program complied with the “4 Pillars” of BSA/AML compliance. In fact, federal regulations specifically require that the Company’s BSA/AML compliance program must be in writing, approved by the Board of Directors . . . , and noted in the board minutes.  Defendants were also responsible for creating a “culture of compliance” to ensure Company-wide adherence to the Bank’s BSA/AML policies, procedures and processes, but failed to do so, instead prioritizing . . . cost-cutting measures.

On Monday, the district court granted, for the second time (after having been initially reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit), class certification to the plaintiffs against the bank.  The class certification decision involved a review the requirements imposed by Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and  will not be analyzed here. The point for the purposes of this blog is that it has become clear that, in regards to AML/BSA compliance, publically-traded financial institutions are compelled to wage a multi-front war.  Regardless of the actual merits of the complaint against BanccorpSouth, its mere existence reflects that financial institutions must concern themselves not only with FinCEN, the Department of Justice, and the relevant examiner, but also with putative investor plaintiffs and the SEC – thereby increasing the stakes regarding decisions over the disclosure in SEC filings of possible violations of AML/BSA requirements.

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On June 5, the SEC filed suit against Salt Lake City-based Alpine Securities, Corp. (“Alpine”). The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the broker-dealer ran afoul of AML rules by “routinely and systematically” (i) failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) for stock transactions it had flagged as suspicious or, (ii) on thousands of occasions between 2011 and 2015 when Alpine did file SARs, omitting key information, such as the criminal or regulatory history of customers and disclosures as to whether those customers represented a foreign institution.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), Alpine and other broker-dealers must report suspicious transactions in the form of SARs filed with FinCEN. These filings pertain to reports of transactions or patterns of transactions involving at least $5,000 wherein a covered entity “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves funds representing ill-gotten gains; is intended to hide funds obtained from illegal activities; is designed to evade the BSA; or has no business or apparent lawful purpose and the filing institution knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction. SARs have a narrative section for the filer to describe the facts of the suspicious incident, which is regarded by law enforcement as a critical section.

The SEC has alleged that Alpine violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder, which require broker-dealers to comply with the recordkeeping, retention and report obligations of the BSA. Although Alpine had an AML/BSA compliance program (as is required for broker-dealers by both the BSA and FINRA Rule 3310), the complaint alleges that the program was not implemented properly in practice and mischaracterized what Alpine actually did. In part, the SEC alleges that Alpine used two standard templates for SAR filings which did not allow the filer to describe any of the red flags or other material information which caused Alpine to file the SAR. Importantly, the complaint also alleges that FINRA had examined Alpine and brought these deficiencies to its attention, but Alpine thereafter failed to take meaningful steps to address them and “continued its pattern of omitting material red flag and other information from its SARs.”

Much of Alpine’s business involves clearing microcap transactions. Although the broker-dealer has a history of disciplinary action by FINRA, the instant action also reflects a trend by the SEC to use AML rules as a means to combat alleged fraud related to the sale of microcap securities. Earlier this year, New York-based Windsor Street Capital also was charged with failing to file SARs; that matter, currently before an SEC administrative law judge, remains pending. All told, the action against Alpine exemplifies the SEC’s heightened interest in ensuring broker-dealers’ adherence to AML rules and standards. It also reiterates the need for any financial institution to implement effectively in practice its AML compliance plan: the best written compliance plan can turn into the centerpiece of regulators’ allegations if it merely becomes a catalogue of what the financial institution failed to do.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

On June 5th, the United States Supreme Court held in Honeycutt v. United States that a criminal defendant is not jointly and severally liable for property his co-conspirator derived from the crime, and that he only can be ordered to forfeit property he actually obtained from the crime.  Although the decision was unanimous (with Justice Gorsuch abstaining), the outcome was far from preordained.

Until 2015, courts applying the forfeiture statute, 21 U.S.C. § 853, had uniformly held that co-conspirators are jointly and severally liable for amounts received pursuant to the conspiracy.  That rule was adopted by nine circuits.  However, in 2015, the D.C. Circuit split with its sister circuits in United States v. Cano Flores, rejecting joint and several liability for co-conspirators.    The district court in Honeycutt sided with the D.C. Circuit, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, following the overwhelming majority view of the other Courts of Appeal.

The result in Honeycutt, and the underlying analysis and related policy arguments, may have implications in other government enforcement contexts, including in securities cases. Further, the result appears to obligate the government to perform some degree of a tracing analysis to tie individual defendants to specific tainted funds – an analysis which might be difficult in complex fact patterns involving multiple defendants and the use of multiple entities or financial accounts. Continue Reading A Criminal Defendant Cannot Forfeit Property He Never Received