Charges Represent First Criminal Case Based Solely on Alleged Unauthorized SAR Disclosure
On October 17, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (“SDNY”) announced the arrest of a senior employee at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”). That employee, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, has been charged with unlawfully disclosing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) to a member of the media, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5322 and 18 U.S.C. § 371, both of which carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) requires certain financial institutions, including banks, to file a SAR with FinCEN when they detect a known or suspected violation of federal law or regulation, or suspicious activity relating to money laundering, terrorist financing or other illicit activity. The BSA imposes strict confidentiality requirements as to the disclosure of information relating to a SAR, including the very existence of one. For instance, the statute prohibits any current or former officer or employee of, or contractor for, federal or state governments, as well as local, tribal or territorial governments from disclosing to any person involved in a suspicious transaction that the transaction has been reported, “other than as necessary to fulfill the official duties of such officer or employee.” The BSA also contains a similar prohibition applicable to the reporting financial institution and its agents, and the regulations more broadly prohibit the disclosure of “a SAR or any information that would reveal the existence of a SAR” by government officers or employees, or by the reporting institution. The relevant regulation also states that any covered financial institution, or its agent, which receives a subpoena or is otherwise requested to disclose a “SAR or any information that would reveal the existence of a SAR, shall decline to produce the SAR or such information[.]”
The government’s decision to charge Ms. Edwards is significant in numerous respects. For one, this appears to be the first criminal case based solely upon an unauthorized disclosure of a SAR. To be sure, there are at least two prior prosecutions involving the unauthorized disclosure of a SAR, but those cases also involved other, related charges. Specifically, in 2011, former bank employee Frank Mendoza was convicted of an illegal SAR disclosure. The government charged that Mr. Mendoza approached the subject of a SAR filed by Mr. Mendoza’s bank and solicited a bribe in exchange for Mr. Mendoza’s assistance with the bank. In this conversation, he disclosed the filing of the SAR by the bank and advised the subject that a federal criminal investigation was imminent. The subject of the SAR immediately reported the bribery solicitation to the FBI and Mr. Mendoza was arrested. Following a one-week trial, a federal jury in the Central District of California found Mr. Mendoza guilty of disclosing the existence of a SAR and accepting a bribe. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment, and was further assessed a civil monetary penalty of $25,000 by FinCEN. Likewise, the SDNY charged Robert Lustyik, a former Special Agent with the FBI, in 2013 with an unauthorized disclosure of a SAR in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5322(a). Mr. Lustyik’s case also centered on a purported bribery scheme, during which he allegedly sold SARs and other confidential law enforcement information in exchange for personal payments.
In contrast, Ms. Edwards purportedly disclosed SARs (and other materials) via encrypted email to a reporter, the substance of which related to matters under investigation by the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel, including the investigation of Paul Manafort, Jr., the President’s former campaign manager. The complaint alleges that this information subsequently was published, over the course of numerous news articles, by the same organization that employed the reporter. In that regard, the complaint against Ms. Edwards contains an interesting allegation, albeit one limited to a footnote: Ms. Edwards told investigators she considered herself a “whistleblower,” and the government acknowledges that Ms. Edwards had in fact filed a whistleblower complaint within the Treasury Department. The complaint also alleges that Ms. Edwards initially concealed from investigators her contacts with the reporter at issue. Also of note is that, unlike the cases against Mr. Mendoza and Mr. Lustyik, the government has charged Ms. Edwards with a conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Although the potential political circumstances surrounding the complaint filed against Ms. Edwards may be difficult to ignore, this action nonetheless serves to underscore the basic need to comply with the BSA’s confidentiality rules, and the potentially severe consequences of failing to do so. Although Ms. Edwards is a government employee, the rules which she allegedly violated apply with equal force to financial institutions and their employees.