Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)

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

Bank’s Alleged “Tick Box” Approach Failed to Attain Substantive AML Compliance

Late last week, the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”), the United Kingdom’s financial services regulator, imposed a $1.2 million (896,100 pound) fine on the UK division of India’s Canara Bank, an Indian state-owned bank, and ordered a moratorium on new deposits for nearly five months.  The cause—according to Reuters—was Canara’s systemic anti-money laundering (“AML”) failures.

A 44-page final notice published by the FCA explains the multi-year regulatory process that led to a finding of systemic failures and the imposition of penalties.  The FCA’s investigation began in late 2012 and early 2013 with assessments of Canara’s AML systems.  Upon inspection, the FCA “notified Canara of a number of serious weaknesses in its AML systems and controls.”  After promises of remedial action by Canara, an April 2015 visit revealed that the AML systems had not been fixed.  The investigation ended with a final report from a “skilled person,” an expert brought in by the FCA to assess Canara’s AML policies and procedures, completed in January 2016.  Settlement followed, resulting in sanctions and the FCA’s published final notice.

These three visits from the FCA generated a laundry list of Canara’s AML shortcomings.  This enforcement action reflects three main take-aways: (i) the potential risks faced by banks operating in foreign countries in which they have limited AML experience; (ii) the need for swift remedial action after the first examination finding AML deficiencies; and (iii) the need for a substantive AML policy implemented in a substantive way, rather than through a rote reliance on AML-related checklists. Continue Reading Canara Bank of India Fined $1.2 Million by UK Regulators for Systemic AML Failures

Commonwealth Bank of Australia (“CBA”), the largest bank in Australia, has agreed to a proposed civil settlement — subject to court approval — of historic proportions, involving a fine of approximately $700 million Australian dollars (roughly equivalent to $530 million U.S. dollars) regarding numerous alleged Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter Terrorism Financing (“CTF”) violations.  The settlement is with the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (“AUSTRAC”) – a government financial intelligence agency whose counterpart in the U.S. would be the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) — and represents the largest such enforcement action in the history of Australia.  Under the settlement, AUSTRAC also will recoup its legal costs of $2.5 million Australian dollars.

As we have blogged, AUSTRAC filed on August 3, 2017 a claim seeking civil monetary penalties against CBA for over 53,000 alleged violations of Australia’s AML/CTF law.  Although the case involves several types of alleged AML violations, it fundamentally rests on the bank’s use of so-called intelligent deposit machines (“IDMs”), a type of ATM which allowed customers to anonymously deposit and transfer cash.  Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, the IDMs also became an alleged favored conduit for money laundering by criminals involved in drug trafficking and illegal firearms. Continue Reading Australia’s Largest Bank Agrees to Historic AML Penalty

On May 16, 2018, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced it had settled charges against a registered broker-dealer, its clearing firm, and its chief compliance and anti-money laundering (“AML”) officer brought over the firm’s failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) related to customers’ liquidation of billions of penny stocks over an eight month period.  In a companion action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) imposed a monetary penalty against the clearing firm for various AML compliance failures.

Chardan Capital Markets, LLC (“Chardan”) was a registered broker-dealer primarily engaged in underwriting private investment in public equity (“PIPEs”), private placements and initial public offerings (“IPOs”). In 2013, Chardan allegedly began actively engaging in the liquidation of thinly-traded penny stocks of microcap issuers.  Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Financial Services, LLC (“ICBCFS”) is a registered broker-dealer that, in late 2012, began clearing equity securities and, from October 2013 through June 2014, cleared Chardan’s customers’ penny-stock transactions.

We previously have blogged about the SEC and FINRA stepping up their AML-related enforcement, as well as the issue of AML-related individual liability for compliance officers and executives (see here, here, here, here and here).  Aside from reaffirming the dubious nature of penny stock trading, this case once again reflects the need to actually act on identified red flags and file related SARs. Continue Reading SEC Sanctions Broker-Dealer, Clearing Firm and Chief Compliance Officer for AML Violations

Relief is Narrow, but FinCEN’s Explanation of Low Money Laundering Risk Posed by Lending Products is Instructive

On May 11, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a ruling to provide exceptive relief from the application of the new Beneficial Ownership rule (the “BO Rule,” about which we repeatedly have blogged: see here, here and here) to premium finance lending products that allow for cash refunds.

Very generally, the BO Rule — effective as of May 11, 2018 — requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identity of the beneficial owner of legal entity customers at account opening. One exemption provided by the BO Rule from its requirements is when a legal entity customer opens a new account for the purpose of financing insurance premiums and the payments are remitted directly by the financial institution to the insurance provider or broker.  However, this exemption does not apply when there is a possibility of cash refunds.

In its May 11th ruling, FinCEN granted exceptive relief from the BO Rule to premium finance lenders whose payments are remitted directly to the insurance provider or broker, even if the lending involves the potential for a cash refund.  Although this exception is narrow when compared to the many other financial institutions covered by the broad BO Rule, FinCEN’s explanation for why the excepted entities present a low risk for money laundering is potentially instructive in other contexts, such as risk assessments undertaken by financial institutions for the purposes of their anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance programs. Continue Reading FinCEN Provides Exceptive Relief from New Beneficial Ownership Rule

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