Critics Bemoan Removal of Potential Weapon Against Shell Companies

Last week, and on the eve of a scheduled markup of the original bill in the House Financial Services Committee, a new draft of the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”) was sent to Congress.  That bill, among other things, removes a key passage of what promised to be the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.

As we blogged in a January 2018 two-part series (see here and here), the original legislation would have required – subject to civil and criminal penalty provisions – non-exempt companies formed in the U.S. to disclose their real beneficial owners to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).  The new bill eliminates the beneficial ownership provision entirely; in its place, the bill merely requires the Comptroller General of the United States “to submit a report evaluating the effectiveness of the collection of beneficial ownership information under the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) regulation” (see here), “as well as the regulatory burden and costs imposed on financial institutions subject to it.”

Acknowledging the bill’s removal from mark-up, Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she hoped the new bill will be strengthened to address the issue of beneficial ownership, as well as “the problem of anonymous shell companies.”  The Fraternal Order of Police went further, describing the removal of the beneficial ownership provisions as “almost criminal.”

To be sure, the lack of transparency concerning beneficial ownership is widely viewed as a weakness in the U.S.’s efforts to combat money laundering. As noted in our February post concerning various Senate subcommittee hearings related to the topic, Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General M. Kendall Day of the Department of Justice, Criminal Division, recently testified that “[t]he pervasive use of front companies, shell companies, nominees, or other means to conceal the true beneficial owners of assets is one of the greatest loopholes in this country’s AML regime.”  Indeed, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) recently scored the U.S. as non-compliant – the lowest possible score – in connection with its ability to determine beneficial owners.

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On April 19, 2018, the European Parliament (“EP”) adopted the European Commission’s (the “Commission”) proposal for a Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (“AMLD5”) to prevent terrorist financing and money laundering through the European Union’s (“EU”) financial system. The Commission proposed this directive on July 26, 2016 to build upon and amend the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (“AMLD4”) – before all 28 member states even implemented AMLD4.

Under AMLD4, the EU sought to combat money laundering and terrorist financing by imposing registration and customer due diligence requirements on “obliged entities,” which it defined as banks and other financial and credit institutions. It also called for the creation of central registers comprised of information about who owns companies operating in the EU and directed that these registers be accessible to national authorities and obliged entities.  However, the European Central Bank warned that AMLD4 failed to effectively address recent trends in money laundering and terrorist financing, which have spanned multiple jurisdictions and fallen both within and outside of the traditional financial sector.  As a result, and in response to recent terrorist attacks in Europe and to the Panama Papers, the EP has adopted AMLD5 to more effectively keep pace with these recent trends.

Although AMLD5 contains several important provisions, including a proposed public registry of beneficial owners of legal entities, we focus here on how AMLD5 addresses, for the first time, the potential money laundering and terrorist financing risks posed by virtual currencies. Continue Reading The Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive: Extending the Scope of the European Union’s Regulatory Authority to Virtual Currency Transactions

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

After over a year of negotiations, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  These new regulations will require an increase in transparency by the trusts and trading companies to reveal the holders of virtual currency to thwart potential money laundering, tax evasion, and anonymous funding of terrorism. Primary among these regulations is a requirement to provide beneficial ownership information to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest” to access data on the beneficial owners of trusts.

This focus on beneficial ownership in regards to virtual currency is entirely consistent with the general AML regulatory efforts in the United States and around the globe over the last few years, which have emphasized heavily the need to identify the beneficial owners of financial accounts, real estate and other assets in order to attain a more transparent financial system.

The regulation adopted by the European Parliament and European Council also comes as Bitcoin’s prices surged over 1,700 percent since the start of 2017.  This outstanding growth has increased main stream interest in the virtual currency while also sounding alarm bells as some fear that Bitcoin is a bubble bound to burst.  A key part of the amendment is that access to beneficial ownership information should be provided to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest.”  Continue Reading EU Adopts Regulations Increasing Transparency in Virtual Currency Trading to Combat Money Laundering, Tax Evasion, and Terrorism Financing

Third in a Three-Part Series of Blog Posts

Many Keys to AML Information Sharing This blog focuses on suggested improvements to information sharing between financial institutions, and between financial institutions and governments, to better combat money laundering and terrorist financing. As we recently blogged, the Royal United Services Institute (“RUSI”) for Defence and Security Studies — a U.K. think tank – has released a study:  The Role of Financial Information-Sharing Partnerships in the Disruption of Crime (the “Study”).  The Study focuses on international efforts — including efforts by the United States — in reporting suspicious transactions revealing criminal activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing.  The Study critiques current approaches to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting and suggests improvements, primarily in the form of enhanced information sharing among financial institutions and governments. In our first blog post in this series, we described some of the criticisms set forth by the Study regarding the general effectiveness of current suspicious activity reporting.  These critiques related to an ever-increasing amount of SAR filings, coupled in part with a lack a feedback by governments to the filing institutions regarding what sort of information was considered by law enforcement to be actually useful.  In our second post, we discussed the current landscape of AML information sharing in the United States, which is governed by Section 314 of the Patriot Act, and is an important component of many financial institutions’ ability to fulfill successfully their AML obligations.  This third and final blog post pertaining to the Study examines its findings and proposals for developing effective public–private financial information sharing partnerships (“FISPs”) in order to better detect, prevent, and combat money laundering and terrorist financing.  Observing that modern financial crime “operates in real time, is most often international in scale and can be highly sophisticated ad adaptive to avoid detection,” the Study generally posits that AML systems ideally should include real-time and cross-border information sharing. Continue Reading Combatting Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Through Enhanced AML Information Sharing

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

As widely reported, the Spanish police raided last year the Madrid offices of the Chinese state-run Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (“ICBC”), the world’s biggest bank by assets. In the nearly 18 months following that raid and the numerous arrests made at that time, very little information about this money laundering investigation became known publically. That is, until Reuters recently published a lengthy article resulting from its review of “thousands of pages of confidential case submissions” and its “interviews with investigators and former ICBC employees.” The article raises numerous questions regarding the enforcement of European money laundering laws against Chinese banks operating abroad, as well as certain unique political and diplomatic considerations that may exist in those enforcement efforts. Below, we will compare these efforts with similar U.S. enforcement efforts, which are potentially gaining steam. Continue Reading High-Profile Spanish Money Laundering Investigation of Chinese Bank Raises Questions About Future of Similar U.S. Enforcement

Two days after North Korea’s successful long-range ballistic missile test, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unsealed a memorandum opinion which granted the Department of Justice “damming” warrants to seize all funds in bank accounts belonging to five Chinese companies which allegedly were used to hide transactions with North Korea using U.S. currency in violation of U.S. sanctions and money laundering laws. The underlying conduct allegedly resulted in over $700 million of prohibited transactions being processed by eight international banks. The opinion is noteworthy not only because it demonstrates the important relationship between money laundering laws and foreign policy, but also for the government’s use of anticipatory warrants to seize the assets upon arrival to the targeted accounts, and to prevent those assets from exiting.

Continue Reading Damming the Funding to North Korea: Anticipatory Seizure Warrants as a Tool to Enforce Sanctions and Thwart Money Laundering Transfers

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