We regularly blog about the conflict between state and federal law related to cannabis and the uncertainty regarding how federal criminal and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) law will, or will not, be enforced against financial institutions providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses (“MRBs”). Because of this continuing uncertainty, many MRBs must operate on a cash-only basis. This creates significant safety and security concerns for both the MRBs and the communities in which they operate, causes regulatory and tax compliance challenges, and handicaps business growth.

This post provides an update on very recent efforts to provide a level of federal protection to financial institutions which provide banking services to MRBs. First, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing regarding challenges faced by financial institutions and businesses in the cannabis sector. Second, the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) issued guidance regarding servicing hemp producers and the cannabis industry. This NCUA guidance came quickly on the heels of a statement by the chairman of the NCUA that his agency won’t sanction federally-chartered credit unions for working with state-legal MRBs. Continue Reading Update: Recent Momentum in Efforts to Provide Cannabis Businesses Access to Financial Services

FinCEN Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered prepared remarks on August 13 at the 12th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference.  We previously have blogged repeatedly on the anti-money laundering (“AML”) and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) challenges facing the gaming industry.  This post will discuss Director Blanco’s comments at a high level only, consistent with the generality of his prepared speech. Continue Reading FinCEN Director Blanco Addresses AML Compliance and Casinos

Opinion Allows DOJ Broad Access to Foreign Banks’ Correspondent Account Records Relating to Alleged Front Company Operating for North Korea

On August 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia kept in place $50,000-per-day fines on three Chinese banks—whose identities are redacted—for refusing to comply with subpoenas issued by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) for records of a Hong Kong company (“Company”) that allegedly facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions for a North Korean state-owed entity (“NKE”), in violation of U.S. sanctions.

We will focus on the court’s ruling that a subpoena issued under a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act allows access to records held by foreign banks that use U.S. correspondent accounts, including records of transactions that do not themselves pass through a U.S. correspondent account, if those transactions were part of a larger scheme to access dollar funding through a U.S. correspondent account.

Background

According to the U.S. government, North Korea’s weapons programs pose “a grave and growing threat” to the security of the U.S. and—indeed—the world. In order to finance those programs, North Korea “uses state-owned entities and banks” to conduct financial transactions “in support” to finance its efforts. To impede those efforts, the U.S. maintains a robust sanctions regime against North Korea and the various entities it controls. Certain of those sanctions—enacted in 2013— are intended to cut off North Korea’s access to the U.S. financial system. But North Korea is said to evade those restrictions through, among other means, its use of front company transactions originating in foreign-based banks, which are in turn processed through correspondent bank accounts in the U.S. Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Rules in Favor of Broad Reach of Patriot Act Subpoenas

The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, both recently issued reports addressing worrisome trends in technology-assisted financial fraud.  The reports seek to engage the financial services industry in partnering more closely to reduce associated losses.

Specifically, the Federal Reserve issued a report entitled Synthetic Identity Fraud in the U.S. Payment System. FinCEN issued a report entitled Manufacturing and Construction Top Targets for Business Email Compromise. Collectively, the reports reflect how techonology-driven fraud and identity theft schemes can target financial institutions, businesses and consumers alike, thereby impacting the Anti-Money Laundering and related anti-fraud programs of the financial institutions implicated by such schemes. Continue Reading Federal Reserve and FinCEN Raise Alarms Regarding Technology-Assisted Financial Fraud

On July 22, 2019, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) (collectively the federal banking agencies), issued a joint statement entitled Joint Statement on Risk-Focused Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering Supervision (the “statement”).

The specific emphasis of the statement is to reiterate that the federal agencies will take a risk-focused approach to examinations. The statement itself does not purport to create new requirements but rather is a tool to enhance transparency in the approach used by the federal banking agencies in planning and performing BSA/AML examinations. As the statement notes, it “aligns with the federal banking agencies’ long-standing practices for risk-focused safety and soundness examinations.”

Risk Profiles

At the outset, the federal banking agencies urge banks to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, which are deemed “a critical part of sound risk management.” Specifically, banks themselves have unique risk profiles given each bank’s focus (i.e., “a bank with a localized community focus likely has a stable, known customer base”) and complexity, which must be assessed at the outset when developing and implementing an adequate BSA/AML program.

Of particular note, the federal banking agencies state that banks that “operate in compliance with applicable law, properly manage customer relationships and effectively mitigate risk by implementing controls commensurate with those risk are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing banking services.”  The statement goes on to assert that “banks are encouraged to manage customer relationships and mitigate risks based on customer relationships rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers.” Continue Reading Joint Statement Issued by Federal Banking Agencies Highlights Importance of Banks’ Risk-Assessments

The Office of the Comptroller of Currency (“OCC”) issued an extraordinary announcement regarding the decision of a former bank general counsel – Daniel Weiss, formerly employed by Rabobank, N.A. – to enter into a Consent Order in which Mr. Weiss agreed to be barred from the banking industry and pay a $50,000 fine. The Consent Order is relatively generic; the Notice of Charges issued by the OCC which lead up to the Consent Order is the more interesting document.

The Notice of Charges, in part, alleges that a former Chief Compliance Officer (“COO”) of the bank, shortly after coming to the bank in July 2012, identified “serious deficiencies in the Bank’s BSA/AML program and communciated her findings to Bank Management.” Management disagreed. Shortly thereafter, the OCC began an examination of the bank’s BSA/AML compliance program.   In December 2012, and partly in reponse to concerns raised by the COO, the bank contracted with an audit firm to provide “an independent, written assessment of the Bank’s BSA/AML compliance program[.]” Allegedly, the findings of the audit firm corroborated the findings of the COO that the program was deficient in several signficant ways. Later, the COO turned into a whistleblower and gave the audit firm’s report to the OCC, which responded by resuming its 2012 examination of the bank’s BSA/AML compliance program.

Long story short, according to the Notice of Charges, the bank responded to an OCC letter regarding potential BSA/AML deficiencies as follows:

The Bank’s response did not disclose the existence of the [audit firm’s report], or acknowledge its findings, which corrobarated the OCC’s examination findings. Instead, the Bank’s response, drafted by [Weiss and another individual], disputed the OCC’s preliminary conclusion regarding the Bank’s BSA/AML compliance program.

To be clear, subsequent allegations by the Notice of Charges allege additional obfuscation by the bank in communications with the OCC regarding the nature and the details of the audit firm’s report. But the theme of the Notice of Charges is that the OCC continually sought from the bank the audit firm’s report, and Weiss instead “knowingly and willfully participated in the making of materially false statements regarding the Bank’s possession of the [audit firm] Report to the OCC continuously and repeatedly throughout March of 2013 until April 18, 2013.” This claim is the heart of the enforcement case against Weiss.

This is a significant development in the ongoing issue regarding the liability of individuals for alleged AML failures – particularly given the fact that Mr. Weiss was not “just” a compliance officer, but was the general counsel of a major financial institution.

It is perhaps slightly unnerving that the government would focus its case on the alleged failure to turn over a report by a third-party hired to enhance compliance. In theory, that general enforcement approach, if taken to extremes, could have real consequences for financial institutions and the consulting and legal service providers in their orbit. That approach also could have perverse compliance consequences. Some institutions could conclude that it is “too risky” to hire a third-party – whether it be a consulting, advisory or legal firm – because the findings, however helpful, could form a roadmap for a future enforcement action. Such an inconvenient report would be in the file, and therefore could be subject to potential requests by regulators – thereby creating a “Catch 22” scenario for the institution. Lest one be too cynical, and conclude that this is only a problem for financial institutions that don’t want to confront real problems, it also must be noted that some advisors stay in business by finding serious problems everywhere. However, and on a more practical level, Rabobank had serious problems in this specific case, which resulted in a criminal charge and a significant penalty of $360 million. As always, concerns regarding the potential spread of an overly broad theory must be considered in light of its real-world application and limitations.

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.

Foreign Banks Reliant on U.S. Correspondent Services Should Take Note of New Rules

We are pleased to present this guest blog by Hdeel Abdelhady, who is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and Principal at MassPoint Legal and Strategy Advisory PLLC, her boutique law and strategy firm. Ms. Abdelhady focuses on regulatory compliance and transactional matters, including cross-border trade and finance transactions and regulation.

As Ms. Abdelhady discusses, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued on June 21, 2019 an interim final rule (the “IFR”) amending provisions of the Reporting, Procedures, and Penalties Regulations applicable to OFAC-administered sanctions programs at 31 C.F.R. Part 501. The IFR became effective upon publication in the Federal Register on June 21. OFAC has requested public comments, which are due by July 22, 2019. The IFR has many important potential consequences, including for foreign banks that rely on U.S. correspondent banking services, as well as U.S. financial institutions facing additional compliance burdens.

As legal counsel to U.S. and foreign banks, other financial services providers, and businesses, Ms. Abdelhady has advised on sanctions, anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, and counter-terrorism finance regulation and compliance under U.S. law and international standards, including the FATF Recommendations and Wolfsberg Standards. She has served as in-house counsel on secondment to banks in the United States and abroad, including in connection with the first major USA Patriot Act enforcement by the Comptroller of the Currency and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). In addition, Ms. Abdelhady has advised on the establishment of money services businesses and Foreign Banking Organizations in the United States.

Ms. Abdelhady serves on the board of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists (ACFCS), is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University Law School. Ms. Abdelhady writes frequently on banking, finance, and regulatory compliance matters. Among other publications, Reuters, the World Bank Legal Review, and Law360 has published her work.  We hope that you enjoy this discussion by Ms. Abdelhady of this important development.  –Peter Hardy

In addition to effectuating technical and conforming amendments, the IFR revises Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) penalties and amends reporting requirements and procedures applicable to initial and annual blocked property reports, unblocked property reports, and the unblocking of funds due to mistaken identity. Additionally, the IFR revises reporting requirements applicable to “rejected transactions.” The rejected transactions amendment is the most substantial of the revisions, and is the focus of this update. Continue Reading OFAC’s Revised Reporting Rules Create New Compliance Requirements for All U.S. Persons

On June 21, 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”), a multi-national, inter-governmental body established in 1989 “to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system,” issued its Guidance for a Risk-Based Approach to Virtual Assets and Virtual Asset Service Providers (the “Guidance”), i.e. virtual currency and virtual currency platforms.

Although the standards adopted by FAFT and recommended to member countries were telegraphed months prior to issuance of the Guidance, it nevertheless sent shockwaves through the virtual currency market due to FAFT’s adoption of standards many call onerous and others call impossible to meet. Notwithstanding this backlash, at a meeting of members of the Group of Twenty (“G20”) held in Osaka, Japan on June 28-29, 2019, the G20 nations declared they “reaffirm [their] commitment to applying the recently amended FAFT Standards to virtual assets and related providers for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism.” Thus, member nations will begin the process of crafting regulations intended to carry out the FAFT recommendations. Continue Reading Financial Action Task Force Drops the Regulatory Hammer on Virtual Currency

Last week, a grand jury in the Southern District of Florida indicted two former Venezuelan officials, charging them with seven counts of money laundering and one count of money-laundering conspiracy. The charges relate to bribes and kickbacks provided to the officials who headed the country’s energy department and state-owned electricity company, Corporacion Electrica Nacional, S.A. (“Corpoelec”). The former officials allegedly received cash payments and received wire transfers, including from a bank in the Southern District of Florida.

As we have blogged about here, here, here, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has been pursuing Venezuelan nationals through high-dollar, high profile money laundering and foreign bribery charges. We also have previously discussed how the DOJ has been utlizing the money laundering statutes as a way to accomplish what the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) cannot accomplish directly – the bringing of charges against a foreign official. Continue Reading Two Former Venezuelan Officials and Energy Executives Indicted as DOJ Continues to Use Money Laundering Charges to Combat Foreign Corruption

Second Post in a Two-Post Series on the ILLICIT CASH Act

A discussion draft of legislation recently introduced in the Senate, the Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings (ILLICIT CASH) Act (the “Act”), seeks to modernize federal anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) laws. The Act’s bipartisan drafters assert that the “US AML-CFT laws have not kept pace with the growing exploitation of the global financial system to facilitate criminal activities.” The proposed legislation – which is 102 pages long – would update and expand the tools available to regulators and law enforcement and overhaul domestic AML-CFT policies.

In part one of this series, we blogged about the Act’s proposed new reporting requirements for beneficial ownership information. This post focuses on the Act’s many other proposals for improving the resources available to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and facilitating increased communication between law enforcement, regulators and financial institutions, including provisions regarding “no action” letters by FinCEN and “keep open” letters sent by law enforcement to financial institutions. Continue Reading Proposed AML Reforms Aim to Enhance and Modernize AML/CFT Enforcement