PANA Issues Recommendations to European Parliament: Tougher Enforcement, Greater Transparency, Improved Information Sharing and Prohibitions Against Outsourcing of Customer Due Diligence

In the wake of the Panama Papers, the European Parliament (“EP”) formed PANA, a Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance, and Tax Evasion. We previously wrote about PANA in May when it was examining the role of lawyers in money laundering and tax evasion schemes. After opening their October 19 meeting with a moment of silence to honor the life of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Coruana Galizia, who recently was killed by a car bomb, PANA approved a draft report and recommendations for review by the EP. The findings and recommendations range from reporting standardization to outsourcing to illicit real estate transactions to attorney-client privilege.

European parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

A few themes emerged from the PANA report:

  • the European Union (“EU”) has strong law, but lacks vigorous enforcement;
  • the EU’s many regulators are stymied by a severe lack of communication, both within nations and between countries;
  • beneficial owners (“BOs”) are mostly unknown because regulated entities are not fulfilling their reporting obligations and the BO register is not robust, accessible, or standardized;
  • intermediaries, like banks, lawyers, accountants, wealth managers, and other financial institutions, are not living up to their obligations because they are engaging in “creative compliance” and leaving compliance responsibility to third parties.

Based on these findings, PANA recommends:

  • uniform definitions and punishments for money laundering and tax-related infractions,
  • “automatic exchange of information,” reciprocity, and “Common Reporting Standards” between regulators to facilitate better information sharing,
  • the creation of a “publically accessible,” standardized BO register that includes the ultimate beneficial owner (“UBO”),
  • the EP pass legislation to “make it illegal to outsource [customer due diligence (“CDD”)] procedures to third parties,”
  • adoption of stronger forfeiture laws that allow cross-border confiscation of illegally obtained assets,
  • stronger sanctions against banks and other intermediaries that “are knowingly, willfully, and systematically implicated in illegal tax schemes,”
  • lawyers should no longer be able to hide behind the attorney-client privilege to escape reporting requirements, like suspicious transaction reports (“STRs”),
  • countries devote more resources to fighting money laundering and tax evasion,
  • the EP vest more oversight powers in PANA.

Continue Reading Money Laundering Watchdog Criticizes Lax AML Enforcement and “Creative Compliance” in Wake of Panama Papers

Case Highlights Confidentiality of BSA Reporting and Continued Focus on Real Estate as Money Laundering Tool

The Northern District of California granted summary judgment to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) in a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) case pertaining to an attempt by a group of investigative journalists to obtain information reported to FinCEN on the beneficial owners of high-end real estate.  This case clearly indicates that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) will continue to prevent efforts by journalists to seek, via FOIA, sensitive and protected information reported to FinCEN.  Of course, and as the world has witnessed, journalists still can turn to leaks and data hacks to obtain and distribute such information.  This case also reminds us that the use of real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering remains a hot topic not only for regulators and enforcement personnel, but also for journalists and watchdog groups.

In The Center for Investigative Reporting, et al. v. United States Department of the Treasury, the Court held that FinCEN was not required to produce documents indicating the “real human owners” of residential real estate purchased with cash that had been requested by The Center for Investigative Reporting (“CIR”).  The Court’s ruling – affirming the confidentiality protections that are critical to the effectiveness of financial institution reporting under BSA – comes at pivotal moment, as journalistic agencies such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) and BuzzFeed News reported less than six months ago on leaked documents referred to as the “FinCEN Files,” describing alleged transactions valued at over $2 trillion U.S. dollars and reported by financial institutions to FinCEN through Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). Under the BSA, it is illegal to reveal the decision to file or not file a SAR to the subject of the SAR.  The ICIJ also played a key role in the release of the notorious Panama Papers, which detailed an alleged web of international money laundering and tax evasion obtained through a massive data leak. Continue Reading Investigative Journalists Lose FOIA Bid to Obtain GTO Info Reported to FinCEN

Is Art an “Ideal Playing Ground” for Money Laundering?

Last week, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for the U.S. Senate released a detailed, 147-page report titled “The Art Industry and U.S. Policies That Undermine Sanctions” (“the Report”). Although the Report ostensibly addresses the evasion of U.S. sanctions law, much of the Report actually focuses on the connection between high-end art and potential money laundering schemes and anti-money laundering (“AML”) risks. Among other proposals, the Report recommends that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) be amended to include art dealers as “financial institutions” subject to AML obligations under the BSA.

The Report focuses on an elaborate case study documenting how certain Russian oligarchs allegedly used transactions involving high-end art and shell companies to evade U.S. sanctions, imposed on them on March 20, 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. We will not focus on the detailed allegations in the Report regarding the particular facts of this alleged scheme, or the alleged involvement of certain major art auction houses. Rather, we will focus on the more general sections in the Report relating to systemic concerns about the potential role of high-end art in money laundering schemes, and the more general findings of fact and recommendations generated by these concerns.

The Report was not issued in a vacuum; rather, it clearly was written in part to spur legislative action. Proposed legislation on BSA/AML reform is pending before the U.S. Congress and Senate, including a proposal – currently nestled within a lengthy proposed amendment to a defense spending bill – to (i) add to the list of “financial institutions” covered by the BSA “a person trading or acting as an intermediary in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation of the sale of antiquities;” and (ii) require a study by the Secretary of the Treasury “on the facilitation of money laundering and terror finance through the trade of works of art or antiquities,” including an evaluation of whether certain art industry markets (“by size, entity type, domestic or international geographic locations, or otherwise”) should be regulated under the BSA. And, this general issue has been percolating for some time. Last year, we blogged in detail about the potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes, and the voluntary AML programs which art dealers might adopt to combat such schemes. Continue Reading Using Art to Evade Sanctions and Launder Money: The Senate Report

A Court Ruling that May Resonate Across the Globe

The High Court in London recently struck down three “Unexplained Wealth Orders” that U.K. law enforcement had hoped would foil an alleged money laundering scheme by Kazakh political elites. Instead, the Court found that the government’s evidence was insufficient to compel family members of the former Kazakh President to explain how they acquired approximately £80 million worth of property in the U.K.

The Court’s Order is detailed, and it carefully parses through some potentially eyebrow-raising facts regarding the players and properties embroiled in this saga. Ultimately, the primary point of contention between the Court and the U.K. enforcement authorities comes down to a very basic question in all global money laundering enforcement: if corporate structures are complex and potentially opaque, is that necessarily a strong sign of underlying illegality? Here, the Court seemed to answer that question in the negative. This appears to be a classic story of suspicion versus persuasive proof, and how that dynamic can play out in a court of law in a concrete dispute. This outcome, and the language used by the Court, likely will resonate for some time. Continue Reading U.K. Court Strikes Down “Unexplained Wealth Orders” By Parsing Facts and Making Value Judgments About Meaning of Corporate Complexity

U.S. House Passes Corporate Transparency Act; FATF Issues Guidance on Identifying Entities’ Beneficial Owners

First Post in a Two-Post Series on Beneficial Ownership

As we often blog, the issue of the beneficial ownership of entities and the potentially pernicious role of shell companies in perpetuating money laundering is the primary anti-money laundering (“AML”) concern across the globe for both enforcement officials and the financial industry.

Consistent with this concern, and within a single week, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”), an international and intergovernmental AML watchdog group, recently took notable steps in the fight against the misuse of shell companies. Specifically, on October 23 the House passed H.R. 2513, a two-part Act which sets forth in its initial section the Corporate Transparency Act, or CTA. If passed into legislation, the CTA would require certain, defined U.S. companies to report identifying information regarding their beneficial owners to the Treasury Department – so that such information would be available to both the government and financial institutions carrying out their own AML duties. Meanwhile, FATF has issued a detailed document entitled “Best Practices on Beneficial Ownership for Legal Persons,” (“Best Practices Guidance”) which urges countries to use multiple methods to identify accurately and timely the beneficial owners of legal entities, and sets forth some high-level recommendations.

Today, we will discuss the CTA. Tomorrow, we will discuss FATF’s Best Practices Guidance, which approaches the problem of beneficial ownership from a different angle – the Guidance and its recommendations represent an evaluation of historical efforts by the member countries’ approaches to the collection and maintenance of beneficial ownership information in countries that already create repositiories of such information for law enforcement, as envisioned by the CTA. Continue Reading Shell Company Update: Congress and FATF Target Beneficial Ownership

A Modest Proposal

The European Union (“EU”) recently has grappled with a series of massive money laundering scandals and strategized about how to more effectively combat international money laundering and corruption. Generally, the EU has continued to issue a series of reports identifying systemic vulnerabilities to money laundering and suggest process-based recommendations for how to address future threats. These recommendations typically mirror the same range of process-based improvements set forth in earlier reports: from enhancing cross-border information sharing to increasing resources for adequate implementation and enforcement of anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter financing of terrorism (“CFT”) policies implemented by EU member states and financial institutions. Noticeably absent from these recommendations is one of the most powerful deterrents available – and a distinctly American approach – prosecuting the bad actors.

Although many of the recent EU money laundering scandals rest on conduct occurring years ago, the recurring waves of scandals strongly suggest that the EU – like the U.S. – has a serious problem with money laundering that is not going away any time soon. They likewise indicate that the EU’s financial system will continue to be abused by bad actors who appear to be unfazed by any potential consequences. The EU therefore should consider emulating – at least in part – the American approach of more aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals, including the corrupt politicians, kleptocrats, drug dealers, fraudsters, and other criminals from around the globe who are laundering sometimes massive amounts of funds through European financial institutions.

Very recently, in a different but related context, the Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), Jay Clayton, delivered a speech during which he bemoaned his perception that his foreign counterparts failed to rigorously enforce their own anti-corruption laws. Specifically, Chairman Clayton asserted the following:

Corruption is corrosive. We see examples where corruption leads to poverty, exploitation and conflict. Yet, we must face the fact that, in many areas of the world, our work may not be having the desired effect. Why? In significant part, because many other countries, including those that have long had similar offshore anti-corruption laws on their books, do not enforce those laws.

Granted, the above comments pertained specifically to enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), and arguably the comments were in furtherance of a pro-American message regarding international competition between countries. The comments nonetheless exemplifies a certain American perception: the U.S. aggressively prosecutes individuals, whereas Europe does not. Obviously, this issue entails a lot of cultural baggage on both sides.

Although there are viable criticisms of the U.S. approach (both in theory and in practice), and although the EU’s strong focus on process and institutions’ AML and CFT systems is critical, any government’s enforcement “tool bag” must include targeted prosecutions of the people responsible for the laundering violations. Otherwise, few bad actors around the world will think twice about continuing to turn to EU institutions for their laundering needs. This blog post explores this idea. Continue Reading The EU’s Efforts to Combat Money Laundering, the Financing of Terrorism and Corruption Seem to Overlook a Very American Approach: Prosecute People

Testimony Supports Bill Requiring States to Collect Beneficial Ownership Information at Entity Formation

As we have blogged, the proposed Corporate Transparency Act of 2019 (the “Act”) seeks to ensure that persons who form legal entities in the U.S. disclose the beneficial owners of those entities. Specifically, the Act would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to compel the Secretary of Treasury to set minimum standards for state incorporation practices. Thus, applicants forming a corporation or LLC would be required to report beneficial ownership information directly to FinCEN, and to continuously update such information.

If passed, the Act would build significantly upon FinCEN’s May 11, 2018 regulation regarding beneficial ownership (“the BO Rule,” about which we blog frequently and have provided practical tips for compliance here and here). Very generally, the BO Rule requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identities of the beneficial owners of legal entity customers at account opening. The issue of beneficial ownership is at the heart of current global anti-money laundering efforts to enhance the transparency of financial transactions.

On May 21, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, held a hearing entitled: “Combating Illicit Financing by Anonymous Shell Companies Through the Collection of Beneficial Ownership Information.” This hearing, which provided fuel for passage of the Act, featured the exact same trio of speakers who had appeared before the Committee during a November 2018 hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform,” which pertained to a broader set of potential changes to the BSA. The speakers were:

  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Bank Supervision Policy and Community Affairs at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) (written remarks here)
  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here); and
  • Steven D’Antuono, Acting Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI (written remarks here).

Unlike the broader November 2018 hearing, which featured some distinct tensions between certain positions of the OCC and those of FinCEN and the FBI, this hearing reflected close alignment amongst the speakers. Every speaker stressed the advantages to be reaped by law enforcement, regulators and the public if a national database of beneficial owners was required and created. Only the OCC acknowledged the need to consider the issue and sometimes competing concern of the regulatory burden imposed on financial institutions by the current BSA/AML regime, and even the OCC seemed to assume that a national database on beneficial ownership would represent only a boon to financial institutions, as opposed to yet more data – however helpful – to be absorbed and acted upon to the satisfaction of regulators. None of the speakers addressed some of the potential ambiguities and problems inherent in the current language of the Act, such as the fact that the Act lacks precision and fails to define the critical terms “exercises substantial control” or “substantial interest,” both of which drive the determination of who represents a beneficial owner. Continue Reading Senate Committee Hears from OCC, FinCEN and FBI on Risks Posed by Anonymous Corporate Structures