Federal legislators continue to struggle over the growing disconnect between increasing State legalization of the cannabis industry, and the continued illegality of cannabis under federal law. This struggle represents an increasingly pressing question for financial institutions, given the burgeoning market involving cannabis-related products – including third parties who provide services and equipment to growers and distributors – and its need for safe, traditional banking services. The latest chapter in this struggle was a hearing, entitled “Challenges and Solutions: Access to Banking Services for Cannabis-Related Businesses,” held by the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions on February 13. The recorded webcast is available here.

We previously have blogged about the unsteady regulatory ground on which financial institutions have been operating with regard to cannabis-related businesses, an industry legalized in many states but still in violation of federal drug laws and thus exposing its financial service providers to potential Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) violations and federal money laundering charges. The terrain grew only more perilous at the beginning of 2018 with then-Attorney General Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole Memo, and with it the prior limited assurance that the DOJ would not make prosecution of persons working in or with state-licensed cananbis businesses a DOJ priority.

The 2018 midterm elections, however, changed the landscape yet again. This post will discuss last week’s hearing and the growing opportunities and stubborn obstacles which it highlighted. Continue Reading Financial Services and the Marijuana Industry: the U.S. House Mulls Regulatory Reform for Financial Institutions and Cannabis-Related Businesses

As we have blogged (here and here), the United States – despite its self-perception as a global financial cop and “good guy” – is often regarded by the world as a haven for money laundering and tax evasion. The U.S. just took another black eye in the arena of global perception: the European Commission (“EC”) has placed the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa on a list of 23 high-risk jurisdictions which it says are “posing significant threats” to the European Union’s financial system as a result of deficiencies in their Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Countering the Financing of Terror (“CFT”) systems. Specifically, the EC perceives these jurisdictions as being attractive to money laundering and tax crimes. The listed United States’ territories and Commonwealths are not alone; they dubiously share space on the EC’s blacklist with Saudia Arabia and Panama.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. reaction was swift and angry: the U.S. Department of Treasury released a statement declaring that the list was flawed; the list was created without any meaningful input from the United States; and that the list contradicted the more careful analysis conducted by the Financial Action Task Force. Further, the Treasury Department stated that U.S. financial institutions should ignore this blacklisting, and did not need to apply any greater scrutiny to implicated transactions. Continue Reading Europe Increasingly Views United States as Faltering in Fight Against Money Laundering

Director Blanco Emphasizes BSA Resource Sharing, Technological Innovation, and Collaboration Between Public and Private Sectors

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released prepared remarks delivered by FinCEN director, Kenneth A. Blanco, at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) Anti-Money Laundering (AML) & Financial Crimes Conference on February 4, 2019. Director Blanco’s speech highlights various regulatory reform efforts, including the approval of collaborative sharing of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) resources and an interagency initiative to promote innovation in the technologies and methodologies used to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. The Director also emphasized the importance of collaboration among the public and private sectors.  These remarks do not occur in a vacuum; rather, they represent just part of what has been an ongoing conversation in the BSA/AML realm. Potential resource sharingtechnological innovation and information sharing have been repeated topics in this blog. Continue Reading FinCEN Director’s Remarks Highlight AML Regulatory Reform Efforts

Typical Virtual Currency Exchanges Do Not Require PA Money Transmitter Licenses

The Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities (“DoBS”) just released Guidance declaring that virtual currency, “including Bitcoin,” is not considered “money” under the Pennsylvania Money Transmission Business Licensing Law, otherwise known as the Money Transmitter Act (“MTA”). Therefore, according to the Guidance, the operator of the typical virtual currency exchange platform, kiosk, ATM or vending machine does not represent a money transmitter subject to Pennsylvania licensure.

This Guidance is important because it has implications beyond merely the burdens imposed by Pennsylvania law for obtaining a money transmitter license. As we previously have blogged (here, here and here), it is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C § 1960 to operate as an unlicensed money transmitter business, which is defined in part as a business “operated without an appropriate money transmitting license in a State where such operation is punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony under State law, whether or not the defendant knew that the operation was required to be licensed or that the operation was so punishable.” Thus, a state law violation can become a federal violation. Further, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has issued Guidance declaring that administrators or exchangers of digital currency – including popular crypto currencies such as Bitcoin – represent money transmitting businesses which must register with FinCEN under 31 U.S.C. § 5330 as money services businesses (“MSBs”), which in turn are governed by the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and related reporting and anti-money laundering compliance obligations. Moreover, a failure to register with FinCEN as a MSB when required also represents a separate violation of Section 1960. Drawing on the FinCEN guidance, federal courts have upheld the convictions of individuals who ran virtual currency exchanges and consequently were convicted of violating Section 1960 for operating unlicensed or unregistered money transmitter businesses. Continue Reading PA Department of Banking and Securities: Virtual Currency is not “Money”

As we have blogged, courts have held that financial institutions generally do not owe a duty of care to a noncustomer and that no special duty of care arises from the duties and obligations set forth in the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), absent a special relationship or contractual relationship. Moreover, there is no private right of action stemming from the BSA. Nor does the BSA define a financial institution’s standard of care for the purposes of a negligence claim.  A majority panel of the Eighth Circuit (“the Court”) very recently confirmed these principles in a detailed opinion which affirmed summary judgment in favor of a bank which had provided services to the alleged perpetrators of a $193 million Ponzi scheme, thereby rejecting claims brought by a Receiver on behalf of defrauded investors that the bank had aided and abetted fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and other claims.

After dissecting the record in detail, the Court determined in Zayed v. Associated Bank, N.A. — over a vigorous dissent — that the Receiver failed to present direct or circumstantial evidence that the bank actually knew about the Ponzi scheme being perpetrated by its former customers, much less that it substantially assisted the scheme. The Court emphasized the fact that evidence of possible “sloppy banking” and the existence of potential red flags fell short of the high bar required to sustain a claim for aiding and abetting a fraud against the third party non-customers.

Although the Zayed opinion is one of many cases rejecting AML-inspired tort claims by defrauded investors against a financial institution which had done business with a fraudster, it is notable for its methodical treatment of the facts — many of which appear in one form or another in other cases — regarding the various red flags which the Receiver claimed that the bank had missed, or the alleged misconduct which the Receiver claimed that bank personnel had perpetrated.  The list of alleged compliance failures discussed and found insufficient to establish potential liability in Zayed demonstrates that, however rigorous AML/BSA obligations and programs may be for financial institutions, their alleged violations often fail to pave a path to recovery for civil plaintiffs. Continue Reading Alleged BSA Violations Do Not Support Civil Negligence/Fraud Claims – Again

Former Bankers Allegedly Concealed “Master of Kickbacks” from Internal Compliance Department

Sculpture on top of Credit Suisse headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland

A detailed indictment unsealed on January 3 in the Eastern District of New York alleges that former Credit Suisse bankers, a Lebanese businessman, and former top officials in Mozambique, including the former Minister of Finance, participated in a $2 billion corruption, fraud and money laundering scheme (“the Indictment”).

The defendants, including three former members of Credit Suisse’s Global Financing Group, face charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, wire fraud, securities fraud, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) violations. As we will discuss, the former bankers are alleged to have thwarted Credit Suisse’s compliance department by circumventing internal controls and hiding information in order to convince the bank to fund the illicit investment projects at issue.

The Indictment represents another example of DOJ using the money laundering statutes to enforce the FCPA, as we have blogged repeatedly: defendant Manuel Chang, the former Minister of Finance of Mozambique, has been charged with conspiracy to launder the proceeds of FCPA violations, but not with violating the FCPA itself – because the FCPA provides that it cannot be used to directly charge foreign officials themselves. The Indictment is also another example of the DOJ using the money laundering and FCPA statutes to prosecute conduct, however reprehensible if proven, committed entirely by non-U.S. citizens operating in foreign countries and involving alleged corruption by foreign officials, with an arguably incidental connection to the U.S. Although the Indictment alleges that certain illicit loans were sold in part to investors located in the U.S., the Indictment again recites now-familiar allegations that the illegal monetary transactions at issue, including bribe and kickback payments, in part flowed through U.S. correspondent bank accounts as the money traveled from one foreign country to another.

Ultimately, the alleged scheme highlights the bribery, kickback, and money laundering risks that financial institutions must consider when vetting and funding international projects. And, it starkly illustrates that internal controls may not always be sufficient to protect institutions from fraud when internal bad actors conspire to circumvent the processes. Continue Reading Indictment Alleges Former Credit Suisse Bankers Conspired to Circumvent the Bank’s Internal Controls in $2 Billion International Corruption and Money Laundering Scheme

On December 7 and 10, 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) released two reports evaluating the United Kingdom’s (“UK”) and Israel’s anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter-terror financing (“CTF”) programs and welcomed Israel as the 38th member of the task force. The FATF is an inter-governmental policymaking body dedicated to creating AML standards and promoting effective measures to combat money laundering (“ML”) and terrorist financing (“TF”). When releasing both reports, the FATF described the UK and Israel as key leaders and innovators in the fight against ML/TF and provided several recommendations on how both programs can be strengthened.

Because both reports total over 250 pages, this blog post focuses on only the key findings in each report.  The FATF Evaluation of the United Kingdom (the “UK Report”) concluded that, although the UK has effective and robust AML policies addressing both current and future threats, it needs to improve its AML oversight by increasing the resources dedicated to its financial intelligence unit. Meanwhile, the Joint FATF/MONEYVAL Evaluation of Israel (the “Israel Report”) praised the country’s effective use of financial intelligence but found that Israel needs to strengthen its preventative measures to address future ML/TF risks.

Continue Reading FATF Evaluates the UK’s and Israel’s AML/CTF Programs and Welcomes Israel as its 38th Member

As reported in Reuters and other media outlets, the partial government shutdown has impaired the ability of the U.S. Treasury to maintain many of its anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing (“AML/CTF”) efforts.  Specifically, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (“OFAC”) and the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (“TFI”) have implemented a “lapse in appropriations contingency plan.”

Reuters summarizes the situation regarding FinCEN and OFAC as follows, and provides links to the relevant government announcements:

[FinCEN] will not be working on regulatory guidance or rulemaking as its normal workforce of 285 employees is slashed to 130, according to a document posted on Treasury’s website [here].

It also will not be providing public speakers for AML events, nor will it respond to routine requests for financial intelligence submitted by foreign law enforcement agencies.

FinCEN will, however, continue to provide financial intelligence to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies in support of money laundering and terror finance investigations, the document states. It also will continue to maintain the IT systems that banks and other financial institutions use to file Suspicious Activity Reports and other filings required by the Bank Secrecy Act.

“Forgoing these critical functions may prevent law enforcement and intelligence agencies from receiving timely information related to potential terrorism or ongoing crimes which potentially compromises safety of life and property,” the document states.

[OFAC] will also continue updating its sanctions blacklist during the shutdown, separate Treasury guidance states [here].

Further, according to a separate Treasury document, TFI will continue to perform the following functions during a lapse of appropriations:

  • Monitor and disseminate intelligence reporting on anticipated or actual events to Treasury leadership and other law enforcement, intelligence and military authorities; maintain SCI/collateral communication connectivity with NSC and intelligence community (Watch Officers excepted for protection of life and property)
  • Administer the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list and enforce economic and trade sanctions as directed by the Secretary
  • Implement and administer new sanctions on foreign countries or targeted individuals or entities through newly issued Executive Orders (EO) as directed by the Secretary
  • Develop and provide policy recommendations in response to national security incidents as directed by the Secretary
  • Participate in national security policy and intelligence forums responsible for development of response to any national security incident (e.g., NSC Counterterrorism Security Group) as directed by the Secretary
  • Ensure continuity of key regulatory and enforcement actions to preclude exploitation by adversaries during national security event/emergency
  • Limited communications with financial sector participants, including finance ministries and central bank authorities of foreign states, regarding threats and emergent conditions, as directed by the Secretary
  • Limited IT support to service those positions excepted from furlough
  • Limited handling of incoming inquiries (Hotline calls)
  • Limited analytic support (Bank Secrecy Act data, intelligence information, and international financial intelligence unit information including Egmont Secure Web (ESW) case support) to federal law enforcement agencies
  • Use of Section 314 (a) Patriot Act authority, which enables federal law enforcement agencies, through FinCEN, to reach out to financial institutions to locate accounts andtransactions of persons that may be involved in illegal activity
  • Operations funded by other than annual appropriations, including [the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture].

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Government Alleges that Broker Dealer Ignored Major Red Flags Raised by Pay Day Lending Scheme

For the first time, a broker-dealer, Central States Capital Markets, LLC (Central States), has been prosecuted for violating the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). Central States stipulated to the accuracy of a deferred prosecution agreement‘s (DPA) Statement of Facts, which detailed significant failures to comply with its customer identification procedures (CIP), failures to investigate and file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), and failures to monitor red flag transactions.

The government’s prosecution of Central States is not surprising given its recent heightened interest in ensuring that financial gatekeepers like broker-dealers are complying with the AML/BSA laws. Indeed, the allegations show that Central States failed to take basic steps to comply with their AML/BSA obligations despite having procedures and processes in place. Continue Reading SDNY Unveils First Criminal Prosecution of Broker-Dealer for Violating BSA