Hefty Monetary Penalties – Accompanied by the Possibility of No Prison Time

The legal saga involving the civil and criminal cases against the entity and former individual owners of the Bitcoin Mercantile Exchange, or BitMEX—a large and well-known online trading platform dealing in futures contracts and other derivative products tied to the value of cryptocurrencies (see here, here, and here)—continues unabated. 

Most recently, BitMEX co-founder and former CEO, Arthur Hayes, a high-profile leader in the cryptocurrency industry, settled his civil charges with the CFTC and pleaded guilty to criminal charges brought by the DOJ.  He now faces sentencing in the criminal case, currently scheduled for the end of this week.  As we will discuss, Hayes and the government take very different views regarding his appropriate sentence.

These cases emerged publicly in October 2020 when: (1) the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) filed a civil complaint against the entities operating the BitMEX trading platform and its three individual owners for allegedly failing to register with the CFTC and violating various laws and regulations under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”); and (2) the Department of Justice obtained an indictment against the three individual owners and another individual, including Hayes, charging each with violating, and conspiring to violate, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to maintain an adequate anti-money laundering (“AML”) program.

The cases have raised novel legal questions concerning which, if any regulatory regimes, apply to participants in the cryptocurrency market.  Moreover, Hayes’ upcoming sentencing raises the question of whether an offense is so novel that it can merit probation, despite the high dollar value of the alleged scheme at issue.

Continue Reading BitMEX Co-Founder and Owner Settles with CFTC and Now Faces Criminal Sentencing

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, the AML Act — and More

We are very pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2022 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 17, 2022, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference will be both live and virtual — and it will be as informative, interesting and timely as always. 

Again, we are lucky to have a fantastic line-up of experienced and knowledgeable panelists:

The conference will tackle many critical issues in BSA/AML compliance and money laundering enforcement.  The three panels will be:

Recent Trends in Money Laundering and Enforcement

The Department of Justice continues to bring major money laundering indictments and civil forfeiture actions.  The panel will discuss:

Digital Assets and AML: Evolving Regulations and Enforcement

Regulators are scrambling to keep up with the fast-paced technologies of Blockchain, digital assets, and cryptocurrencies.  The panel will discuss:

The AML Act: Beneficial Ownership, Regulatory Priorities, Effective AML Programs, and More

Congress passed the expansive AML Act on January 1, 2021.  The Act has been heralded as a groundbreaking piece of BSA/AML legislation – but its potential promise inevitably will be tempered by its real-world implementation by regulators and affected stakeholders.  The panel will discuss:

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.

On April 28, 2022, the Acting Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), Himamauli Das (“Das”), appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services to provide an update on FinCEN’s implementation of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AML Act”), including the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”).  You can find his prepared statement here.

In his opening remarks, Das walked through FinCEN’s activities for the year, and applauded the AML Act for putting FinCEN in a position to address today’s challenges, such as illicit use of digital assets, corruption, and kleptocrats hiding their ill-gotten gains in the U.S. financial system.  The speech focused on financial sanctions on Russia, FinCEN’s continued efforts to fight corruption, and effective AML programs.   Das also indicated that FinCEN is examining whether to issue proposed AML regulations for investment advisers – an effort that stalled in 2015. Continue Reading FinCEN Acting Director Das Focuses on Corruption and Transparency During U.S. House Committee on Financial Services Testimony

On April 28, 2022 the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) issued its Guidance on Use of Blockchain Analytics, a document directed to all virtual currency business entities that either have a NYDFS Bitlicense or are chartered as a limited purpose trust company under the New York Banking Law.  The Guidance emphasizes “the importance of blockchain analytics to effective policies, processes, and procedures, including, for example, those relating to customer due diligence, transaction monitoring, and sanctions screening.”

The NYDFS is stressing the role of blockchain analytics in anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance because “virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Ether can be transferred peer-to-peer directly from one individual or entity to another pseudonymously, absent the use of a regulated third party (e.g., between non-custodial wallets, or self-hosted wallets that allow users to maintain control of their private keys). . . . [T]hese wallet addresses are typically pseudonymous, with nothing on the face of the transfer tying back to the originator, beneficiary, or underlying beneficial owners.”

Given the potential compliance challenges presented by such characteristics, the NYDFS wants virtual currency entities to leverage the fact that virtual currencies also enable provenance tracing because “the blockchain ledger’s immutability typically allows a historical view of a virtual currency transmission between wallet addresses, providing the opportunity for greater visibility into transaction lineage than is typically found with traditional, fiat funds transfers.”

The Guidance provides that, ultimately, all risk mitigation strategies must account for an entity’s business profile to assess risk across types of virtual currencies and effectively address the specific characteristics of any particular virtual currency involved.  If a virtual currency entity chooses to outsource its control functions to third-party service providers rather than use only internally developed blockchain analytics, it must have “clearly documented policies, processes, and procedures with regard to how the [third-party] blockchain analytics activity integrates into the [entity’s] overall control framework consistent with the [entity’s] risk profile.” Continue Reading NYDFS Stresses Use of Blockchain Analytics for AML Compliance by Virtual Currency Businesses

FinCEN announced yesterday that, once again, it is extending the Geographic Targeting Order, or GTO, which requires U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind so-called “shell companies” used in purchases of residential real estate not involving a mortgage.  FinCEN also has expanded slightly the reach of the GTOs.

The new GTO is here.  FAQs issued by FinCEN on the GTOs are here.  This is a topic on which we previously have blogged extensively.

FinCEN’s press release summarizes the new GTO and its expansion.  The sections pertaining to the new expansions are in bold.

The terms of the GTOs are effective beginning April 30, 2022, and ending on October 26, 2022.  The GTOs continue to provide valuable data on the purchase of residential real estate by persons possibly involved in various illicit enterprises.  Renewing the GTOs will further assist in tracking illicit funds and other criminal or illicit activity, as well as inform FinCEN’s future regulatory efforts in this sector.

FinCEN renewed the GTOs that cover certain counties within the following major U.S. metropolitan areas:  Boston; Chicago; Dallas-Fort Worth; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Miami; New York City; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle.  FinCEN, working in conjunction with our law enforcement partners, identified additional regions that present greater risks for illicit finance activity through all-cash purchases of residential real estate.  Accordingly, today, FinCEN expanded the geographic coverage of the GTOs to parts of the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Maryland (DMV) metropolitan area, the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai, and Fairfield County, Connecticut.  The purchase amount threshold remains $300,000 for each covered metropolitan area, with the exception of the City and County of Baltimore, where the purchase threshold is $50,000.

This is the first renewal (and expansion) of the GTO since FinCEN issued on December 6, 2021 an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“AMPRM”) to solicit public comment on potential requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act for certain persons involved in real estate transactions to collect, report, and retain information.  As we have blogged, the ANPRM envisions imposing nationwide recordkeeping and reporting requirements on specified participants in transactions involving non-financed real estate purchases, with no minimum dollar threshold.  The new and expanded GTO represents another step towards such regulations — although the breadth of their application, when finalized, currently remains a very open question.  Indeed, in his prepared remarks before the Committee on Financial Services U.S. House of Representatives on April 28, 2022, Acting FinCEN Director Himamauli Das stated:

FinCEN is carefully studying the 150 comments we received in response to the real estate ANPRM. These comments will help us move toward the next step, a proposed rule to address the illicit finance threats to the real estate market. While it is still too early to identify the scope of any NPRM or final rule, we are working to ensure that the requirements would be carefully crafted to result in valuable information for law enforcement, regulators, and the intelligence community, as well as to help the real estate sector protect itself from abuse by corrupt and other bad actors.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. Please click here to find out about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team.  Please also check out our detailed chapter on these issues, The Intersection of Money Laundering and Real Estate,

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) entered into a Consent Order (available here) with Anchorage Digital Bank (“Anchorage”), which requires Anchorage to create a compliance committee and take steps to remediate alleged shortcomings with respect to the implementation and effectiveness of Anchorage’s Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) program.  Notably, Anchorage will pay no civil penalty.

Anchorage is not any regular entity overseen by the OCC:  it is a cryptocurrency custodian.  As we will discuss, the timing of the Consent Order indicates that even when regulators permit crypto activities by financial institutions, they remain cautious, particularly as to BSA/AML compliance.  The OCC’s actions send a clear message that regulated entities offering emerging technology financial services must adhere to the same BSA/AML monitoring and reporting requirements as more traditionally regulated entities. Continue Reading OCC Targets BSA/AML Compliance by Anchorage Digital Bank – Only 15 Months After Granting National Trust Bank Charter to the Crypto Custodian

On April 14, 2022, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an advisory on kleptocracy and foreign public corruption.  At a high level, the advisory stresses the importance of financial institutions focusing their efforts on detecting and targeting the proceeds of foreign public corruption. This advisory aligns with President Biden’s establishment of the fight against corruption as a core national security interest, as well as FinCEN’s identification of corruption as a national priority for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism.  The advisory seeks to provide financial institutions with typologies and potential indicators associated with kleptocracy and other forms of foreign public corruption, such as bribery, embezzlement, extortion, and the misappropriation of public assets.  The advisory further identifies 10 financial red flag indicators to assist financial institutions in detecting, preventing, and reporting suspicious transactions associated with kleptocracy and foreign public corruption. Continue Reading More from FinCEN to Financial Institutions on the Kleptocracy – With a Continued Focus on Russia

Case Highlights the Role of Correspondent Bank Accounts and Circumvention of AML Programs

Court Order Describes Seizure as a “Reckoning” for Atrocities in the Ukraine

On April 4, 2022, Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the government’s Application for Warrant to Seize Property Subject to Forfeiture, finding that there was probable cause to believe that the yacht Tango, a 255-foot luxury yacht allegedly owned by sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, was subject to forfeiture based on alleged violations of U.S. bank fraud, money laundering, and sanction statutes.  The Tango is located in a shipyard on the Spanish island of Mallorca, and the warrant and subsequent seizure by the United States and its allies was part of Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement task force designed to help deploy U.S. prosecutorial and law enforcement resources to identify sanctions evasion and related criminal conduct.

Sanctions were imposed on Vekselberg and the company he founded, the Renova Group, in April 2018 by the Treasury Department. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vekselberg was hit with new penalties by the U.S. government on March 11, 2022.  These sanctions were pursuant to various Executive Orders under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) imposed against persons responsible for or complicit in certain activities with respect to Ukraine. Continue Reading Russian Oligarch’s Yacht Subject to Forfeiture Based on Alleged Violations of Bank Fraud, Money Laundering, and U.S. Sanction Statutes

On April 5, 2022 the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced sanctions against “the world’s largest and most prominent darknet market, Hydra Market” and Garantex, a virtual currency exchange registered in Estonia but operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia.  The sanctions are part of a larger initiative targeting Russian cybercrime that spans across multiple federal departments—including the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, and Homeland Security Investigations—and across the globe—including international partners like the German Federal Criminal Police and Estonia’s Financial Intelligence Unit.  The sanctions follow September and November sanctions of SUEX OTC, S.R.O. and CHATEX, two virtual currency exchanges operated out of Moscow that allegedly facilitated transactions for ransomware actors.  SUEX was the first virtual currency exchange subject to OFAC sanctions (and the subject of a previous post).

While ostensibly focused on closing another avenue for ransomware purveyors to profit off of their wares, the sanctions may also cut off all types of cybercriminals who allegedly find “a haven” in Russia and used Hydra or Garantex. Continue Reading OFAC Designates “Hydra” –  the Largest Darknet Market – and Third Russian Virtual Currency Exchange

Acting Director Suggests that Financial Institutions Should “Welcome” the Program

Himamauli Das, the Acting Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), spoke about the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “Act”)  and FinCEN’s role in its implementation at New York University Law School’s March 25, 2022 Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement.  After discussing the Act’s emphasis on modernizing and improving the effectiveness of the general U.S. anti-money laundering (“AML”) framework, Mr. Das devoted the final portion of his talk, denoted as “Compliance and Enforcement” in his prepared remarks, almost entirely to FinCEN’s whistleblower program.

As we have blogged (here, here and here), the Act’s amendment of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) greatly expands the options for whistleblowers alleging AML violations and should generate litigation and government actions, similar to what occurred over the past decade in the wake of the creation of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower program.  The remarks by Mr. Das highlighted that FinCEN is hiring personnel for its new “Office of the Whistleblower;” is already receiving whistleblower tips; and is actively drafting rules to implement the Act’s whistleblower provision.  However, FinCEN still faces a major hurdle – lack of Congressional funding for the program. Continue Reading New AML Whistleblower Program Highlighted by FinCEN Acting Director