Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)

Estonian “Non-Resident Portfolio” Produces Colossal Money Laundering Scandal

This week Danske Bank released a report detailing the results of its much anticipated internal investigation into allegations of money laundering perpetrated in its Estonian branch. The results of the investigation dwarfed even the boldest predictions. The report found between 2007 and 2015 the Estonian branch processed a staggering 200 billion Euros, or $234 billion, in suspicious transactions by thousands of non-resident costumers. The report finds the AML procedures at the Estonian branch were “manifestly insufficient and inadequate,” resulting in numerous breaches of legal obligations by the Estonian branch. The report details a numerous red flags that allegedly should have alerted the parent Danske Bank Group (“Group”) to the issues.

However, the report also concludes that the Group’s Board of Directors, Chairman, Audit Committee, or Chief Executive Officer did not violate any legal obligations in failing to detect or stop the suspicious transactions. Despite this finding, the CEO, Thomas Borgan, resigned the same day the report was released. Borgan stated, “Even though I was personally cleared from a legal point of view, I hold the ultimate responsibility. There is no doubt that we as an organization have failed in this situation and did not live up to expectations.” The consequences of this colossal money laundering scandal are unlikely to stop with Brogan’s resignation.

This blog post will summarize the scope of the report, findings of suspicious activity, the causes and red flags of potential money laundering violations, and outline the known and anticipated consequences of this scandal for Danske Bank. Continue Reading Danske Bank CEO Resigns on Heels of Report Detailing an Astounding $234 Billion in Suspicious Transactions in Money Laundering Scandal

According to the Financial Flow from Human Trafficking report recently published by the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) and the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, human trafficking is estimated to generate $150.2 billion per year. Human trafficking remains one of the fastest growing and most profitable forms of international crime affecting nearly every country in the world. The FATF report examines the financial flow associated with human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor, sexual exploitation, and the removal of organs, and the common and unique ways that the proceeds from these types of exploitation are laundered.

The FATF report identifies issues related to designing better efforts to detect money laundering related to human trafficking. First, the more exposure the offender and/or the victim have to the formal financial sector or government, the greater the opportunities for identifying signs of money laundering. Second, no single indicator alone is likely to confirm money laundering from human trafficking. Third, wider contextual information can prove useful in identifying signs of trafficking. Fourth, human trafficking may be easiest to identify at the victim level or at the lowest level of a criminal organization; at higher levels of criminal organizations, the indicators may be more opaque and suggest a variety of crimes. Continue Reading Recent FATF Report Provides New Guidance for Identifying Money Laundering Related to Human Trafficking

In the wake of this week’s revelations of years-long and significant alleged money laundering failures involving ING Bank and Danske Bank, European regulators have circulated a confidential “reflection paper” warning national governments and the European Parliament about shortcomings in the European Union’s (“EU”) anti-money laundering (“AML”) efforts and providing recommendations to strengthen these efforts.  The reflection paper recommends centralizing the enforcement of AML rules through a powerful new EU authority to ensure that banks implement background checks and other AML measures, and setting a deadline for the European Central Bank to reach agreement with national authorities to allow for the sharing of sensitive data.

Continue Reading Recent Nordic Scandals Involving ING Bank and Danske Bank Underscore the European Union’s Vulnerabilities to Money Laundering

Congress enacted the safe harbor provision of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), codified at 31 U.S.C. §5318(g)(3)(A), to shield financial institutions, their officers and employees from civil liability for reporting known or suspected criminal offenses or suspicious activity by filing a Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR. More particularly, the safe harbor provides immunity to any “financial institution that makes a voluntary disclosure of any possible violation of law or regulation to a government agency.” This comprehensive protection precludes liability under any federal, state or local law or regulation or under any contract. Nonetheless, despite the broad wording of this provision, courts have disagreed about the scope of the protection it affords.

Specifically, federal courts have disagreed about whether a bank and its officers and employees must have a “good faith” belief that a possible violation of law occurred before filing a SAR. Some courts, particularly those in the 11th Circuit (which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia), have provided immunity only when the financial institution has a “good faith suspicion that a law or regulation may have been violated.” However, the majority of courts have found that the safe harbor provision provides unqualified protection to financial institutions and their employees from civil liability for filing a SAR.

A recent case from the District of Massachusetts, AER Advisors Inc. v. Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC , demonstrates just how unqualified that protection is. AER Advisors Inc. (AER) filed a complaint alleging that Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC (Fidelity) falsely implicated them in a SAR, a SAR that was filed in bad faith. As a result, AER claimed it was subject to multiple investigations by state and federal agencies. Fidelity sought to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it had complete immunity from any liability for any SARs it filed. The court agreed.

The court noted that the extent of immunity varied from circuit to circuit, but in the 1st Circuit where it sits (which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island), financial institutions are afforded immunity under Stoutt v. Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, even when disclosures are fabricated, unfounded, incomplete or malicious. The sweeping coverage is based on the court’s reasoning that “Congress did not intend to include a good faith qualification to immunity because (1) it easily could have written the requirement into the statute; (2) it removed a good faith requirement from an earlier draft of the provision; and (3) any limitation on immunity would discourage disclosure.”

AER also argued that Fidelity should not be granted immunity, because by knowingly reporting false information, it had not actually reported a “possible violation of law.” The court rejected this argument as well, saying that, regardless of what Fidelity actually believed, the SAR, on its face, reported a possible violation of law.

Finally, AER argued that fraudulent SARs should not insulate financial institutions from civil liability. The court rejected this argument as well, finding that financial institutions could be prosecuted criminally for knowingly filing false reports.

So just how safe is the safe harbor provision? It depends on where you sit. For most of the country, the safe harbor affords a financial institution total immunity, even if it maliciously files a false SAR. And, as we have blogged, Congress is contemplating codifying this authority by amending 31 U.S.C. § 5318(g)(3)(B) to provide that the safe harbor provision does not create “any duty or requirement of a financial institution or any director, officer, employee, or agent of such institution to demonstrate to any person . . . that a disclosure . . . is made in good faith.”

So keep filing those SARs. And no matter where you sit, it is obviously best to ensure that the SARs you file are factually supported.

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.

Director Blanco Emphasizes Investigatory Leads and Insights Into Illicit Activity Trends Culled from Nationwide BSA Data

As we just blogged, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco recently touted the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement and regulatory  activity involving digital currency.  Shortly thereafter, Director Blanco again stressed the value of SARs, this time during remarks before the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo, which caters to the AML concerns of the gaming industry.

It is difficult to shake the impression that Director Blanco is repeatedly and publically emphasizing the value of SARs, at least in part, in order to provide a counter-narrative to a growing reform movement — both in the United States and abroad — which: (i) questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current SAR reporting regime, and (ii) has resulted in proposed U.S. legislation which would raise the minimum monetary thresholds for filing SARs and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”), and require a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Continues to Push Value of SARs and Other BSA Data

New York State Encourages Banking for State-Licensed Medical Marijuana Businesses – Whereas a Maine Company Runs Into Trouble, Despite State Law Legalizing Medical Marijuana

To state the obvious, growing and dispensing marijuana is still illegal under federal law.  As a result, being involved in even a state-licensed marijuana business can be risky. Moreover, obtaining financial services for such a business is sometimes impossible, primarily due to the federal anti-money laundering (“AML”) obligations imposed upon financial institutions by the Bank Secrecy Act (as we have blogged).

This post discusses two recent developments related to state-licensed medical marijuana operations, which serve as contrasting bookends to the spectrum of potential risks and opportunities presented by such businesses.  On the risk-end of the spectrum, we discuss the recent difficulties encountered by a Maine business, and how dubious the seeming safe harbor of state legalization of marijuana can be in some cases. On the opportunity-end of the spectrum, we discuss recent guidance issued by the New York Department of Financial Services, which has declared its support and encouragement of state-chartered banks and credit unions to offer banking services to medical marijuana related businesses licensed by New York State. Continue Reading The Medical Marijuana Industry and AML: Opportunities and Risks

Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Addresses Virtual Currency and Touts Regulatory Leadership and Value of SAR Filings

Second Part of a Two-Part Series

As we blogged yesterday, British Columbia’s (“B.C.”) Attorney General David Eby recently released an independent and very detailed report examining money laundering in B.C.’s gaming industry and providing 48 recommendations to combat the problem. See Peter M. German, QC, Dirty Money: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos conducted for the Attorney General of British Columbia (Mar. 31, 2018) (“German Report”).  As we noted yesterday, when discussing the U.S. regulatory system, the German Report favorably cites the Nevada Gaming Commission and Nevada Gaming Control Board, whose Enforcement Division “acts as a first line of defence against organized crime and bulk cash buy-ins[,]” and further observes that the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “[i]n partnership with Internal Revenue Service, acts as the enforcement arm for most money laundering issues.”

The U.S.’s more robust, streamlined AML regulatory regime, although hardly perfect, stands in stark contrast to the dysfunction alleged in the German Report that plagues B.C.’s current framework. In this post, we describe the U.S. AML regulatory regime for the gaming industry, and the recent enforcement actions which it has produced.  Although the pace of AML enforcement has been somewhat sporadic, it appears to be increasing over time in regards to the gaming industry.  Certainly, attention by regulators — as well as by the industry itself — to AML/BSA compliance has increased over the last several years.

Continue Reading The U.S. Casino and Gaming Industry: AML/BSA Regulation and Enforcement

U.S. Regulatory Regime Favorably Cited in Report for B.C. Attorney General

First Part in a Two-Part Series on Gaming Industry and AML

British Columbia’s (“B.C.”) Attorney General David Eby recently released an independent and very detailed report examining money laundering in B.C.’s gaming industry and providing 48 recommendations to combat the problem. Eby appointed Peter German, a former deputy police commissioner and leading expert on money laundering, to conduct a six-month investigation into allegations of money laundering in the Lower Mainland casinos after reports emerged that one Vancouver-based casino accepted $13.5 million in $20 bills over the course of one month in 2015.  See Peter M. German, QC, Dirty Money: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos Conducted for the Attorney General of British Columbia (Mar. 31, 2018) (“German Report”)

Following German’s investigation, which included over 150 interviews with industry and government insiders in B.C., Ontario, and the United States, German issued the German Report to detail his findings and recommendations. The report reveals that a multitude of alleged criminal syndicates, tied primarily to China, have used Vancouver-area casinos to launder money.  It highlights the anti-money laundering (“AML”) challenges faced by a predominantly cashed-based industry, and also underscores the systemic issues that have made B.C.’s gaming industry an alleged breeding ground for money laundering: a dysfunctional, fragmented regulatory regime that lacks independence.  To streamline and strengthen B.C.’s regulatory framework, the German Report recommends creating an independent gaming regulator analogous to the regulatory regime in the United States.  The German Report focuses on the Nevada Gaming Commission and Nevada Gaming Control Board, whose Enforcement Division “acts as a first line of defence against organized crime and bulk cash buy-ins[,]” whereas the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “[i]n partnership with Internal Revenue Service, acts as the enforcement arm for most money laundering issues.”

In announcing the German Report, Eby blamed the former Liberal government for “turn[ing] a blind eye to the escalating money laundering in B.C. casinos.” He also stated his acceptance of all 48 of these recommendations.

In this post, we will describe the findings and recommendations of the German Report.  In the next post, we will contrast the B.C. regulatory regime described in the German Report with the AML regulatory regime in the United States involving the gaming industry, and the recent enforcement actions which it has produced.

Continue Reading British Columbia’s Gaming Industry Reportedly Faces Serious Money Laundering Vulnerabilities

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