Siana Danch danchs@ballardspahr.com | 215.864.8348 | view full bio

Siana focuses on regulatory compliance and enforcement, white collar defense, internal investigations, tax controversy and complex civil litigation. She advises financial institutions and other businesses on BSA/AML compliance, including issues relating to KYC, beneficial ownership reporting, Suspicious Activity Report filings, Travel Rule compliance, Form 8300 filings, and other BSA/AML reporting and record keeping requirements.  Her work in the AML space includes the digital asset industry and related licensing requirements involving federal and state money-transmitter laws. Similarly, Siana represents financial institutions, other businesses and individuals in regards to conducting internal corporate investigations and defending against government criminal and civil investigations and proceedings, including as to allegations of fraud, money laundering, tax violations, and BSA/AML violations.  She also represents clients in tax controversy cases, from audit to IRS appeals to litigation.

On November 22, 2023, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in close coordination with the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) Criminal Investigation (“CI”), issued an alert (“Alert”) regarding the COVID-19 Employee Retention Credit (“ERC”). The Alert echoes the FinCEN’s previous Notice on payroll tax evasion and workers’ compensation fraud in the construction sector, which was similarly issued by FinCEN in coordination with IRS CI, which has established itself as one of the primary “consumers” of Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reports filed with FinCEN.

Since 2020, IRS CI has investigated more than $2.8 billion of potentially fraudulent ERC claims. The Alert indicates that ERC fraud occurs when fraudulent claims are filed using shell companies or existing but ineligible businesses to pay for personal expenses upon receipt of the credit. The fraud also occurs when businesses are “duped” into filing for the ERC by a third-party, who often provides the business with misinformation about program qualifications and takes a fee to help the business file a claim for the ERC.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Alert on COVID-19 Employee Retention Tax Credit Fraud

A Huge Monetary Penalty for Sprawling Allegations – But Will Zhao Receive a Prison Sentence?

As the world now knows, Binance Holdings Limited, doing business as Binance.com (“Binance” or the “Company”), has entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  

Binance is registered in the Cayman Islands and regarded as the world’s largest virtual currency exchange. It agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program; knowingly failing to register as a money services business (“MSB”); and willfully causing violations of U.S. economic sanctions issued pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”). Despite the plea agreement, Binance will continue to operate.

Changpeng Zhao, also known as “CZ,” also pleaded guilty to violating the BSA by failing to implement and maintain an effective AML program. Zhao is Binance’s primary founder, majority owner, and – until now – CEO. As part of his plea agreement, Zhao has stepped down as the CEO, although he apparently will keep his shares in Binance.

As part of its plea agreement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2,510,650,588 and to pay a criminal fine of $1,805,475,575 for a total criminal penalty of $4,316,126,163. Binance also entered into related civil consent orders with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (“OFAC”). Zhao also entered into a consent order with the CFTC.

The allegations are vast and detailed, and much digital ink already has been spilled regarding this matter. Our discussion therefore will be relatively high-level. Distilled, the government alleges that Binance – under the direction of Zhao – tried to hide the fact that it operated in the U.S., purposefully avoided any meaningful AML compliance, and consequently laundered many millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency involving extremely serious criminal conduct, including terrorism, child pornography, and U.S. sanctions evasion.

As for Zhao, and as we will discuss, whether he will go to prison – and if so, for how long – is an open and very interesting question. His sentencing currently is scheduled for February 23, 2024.

Continue Reading  Binance Settles Criminal and Civil AML and Sanctions Enforcement Actions for Multiple Billions – While its Founder, Owner and Former CEO Zhao Pleads Guilty to Single AML Crime

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (the “Court”) has issued a detailed and complicated Order in the case Banco San Juan Internacional, Inc. v. Fed. Reserve Bank of New York, denying a motion for preliminary injunction by Banco San Juan Internacional, Inc. (“BSJI”), a Puerto Rican bank entity, against the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (the “FRBNY”) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “Board”).

The case arose out of the FRBNY’s decision to close BSJI’s master account for alleged deficiencies in its anti-money laundering (“AML”) system, which thereby posed systemic risk. The Court held, amongst other rulings, that there is no statutory right to a so-called “master account” with a federal reserve bank.

After the Court filed its Order on October 27, BSJI filed its appeal on October 30, and requested an emergency stay pending appeal and an expedited appeal. On November 9, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit referred BSJI’s motion for a stay pending appeal and to expedite to a three-judge motions panel and denied the request for a stay pending appeal.

As we have blogged, and generalizing greatly, having a master account allows financial institutions to operate in the normal course as a custodial bank in the U.S. Having a master account is therefore critical to any institution looking to operate in the U.S. financial system. Accordingly, the FRBNY’s decision, and the Court’s Order, in effect prevent BSJI from operating.

Although some of the background allegations are eye-catching, the Order makes broad legal pronouncements, many of which are not necessarily tied to the alleged facts. The Order therefore emphasizes the significant and unilateral powers of a federal reserve bank, and its discretion to provide or deny master accounts going forward. These powers apply to all financial institutions and require financial institutions to take a serious approach in meeting their AML obligations under the BSA as well as regulator remediation and recommendations regarding the same.  This matter also illustrates how a financial institution can resolve an enforcement action with the Department of Justice, only to find itself still facing an existential threat posed by a regulator for the same underlying activity. 

Continue Reading  SDNY Court Finds Broad Fed Powers Over Master Accounts in Puerto Rican Bank Case Involving AML Concerns

On October 23, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) entitled Proposal of Special Measure Regarding Convertible Virtual Currency Mixing, as a Class of Transactions of Primary Money Laundering Concern.  Section 311 of the Patriot Act, codified at 31 U.S.C. § 5318A (“Section 311”), grants the Secretary of the Treasury authority – which has been delegated to FinCEN – to require domestic financial institutions and agencies to take certain “special measures” if FinCEN finds that reasonable grounds exist for concluding that one or more classes of transactions within or involving a jurisdiction outside of the United States is of “primary money laundering concern.” 

In this NPRM, FinCEN proposes to designate under Section 311 all convertible virtual currency (“CVC”) mixing transactions, as defined by the NPRM.  This designation would require imposing reporting and recordkeeping requirements upon covered financial institutions (“FIs”) regarding transactions occurring by, through, or to a FI when the FI “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves CVC mixing.

The NPRM is complicated and raises complex questions.  We only summarize here, and note selected issues.  Comments are due on January 22, 2024.  FinCEN can expect many comments.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Proposes to Require Recordkeeping and Reporting for CVC Mixing Transactions

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has issued a flurry of publications relating to the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”).  They pertain, in part, to a proposed extension of the filing deadline for certain reports of Beneficial Ownership Information (“BOI”); a proposed revision to the BOI reporting form; and expanded FAQs.  We discuss each in turn.

Continue Reading  CTA Round-Up:  FinCEN Proposes Extended CTA Filing Deadline, Revised Reporting Form, and Privacy Act Exemption; Expands CTA FAQs; and Requests Comments on FinCEN Identifier

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has published a Small Entity Compliance Guide (the “Guide”) for beneficial ownership information (“BOI”) reporting under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”), as well as updated FAQs regarding CTA compliance.

The Guide contains six chapters and an appendix. It is 56 pages long. It appears to be useful to its apparent target audience, which is small businesses confronting relatively simple issues under the CTA. The Guide is relatively clear, simply-worded and contains helpful infographics. However, what neither the Guide nor the updated FAQs does is provide any real insights into how to interpret the BOI reporting regulations. Rather, they reiterate the existing BOI regulatory requirements. Thus, anyone looking for insights into nuanced CTA issues will be disappointed.

The CTA takes effect on January 1, 2024. On that date, FinCEN needs to have implemented a working data base to accept millions of reports by newly-formed companies required to report BOI under the CTA, as well as reports by the even greater population of existing reporting companies, which must report their BOI by January 1, 2025. This is a logistically daunting task, because FinCEN estimates that over 30 million entities will need to register by the 2025 date. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Guidance is that it clearly asserts that the January 1, 2024 date is good, and that the CTA BOI database will be functioning by then.

That claim is debatable. FinCEN still needs to issue important and basic regulations implementing the CTA, including final rules regarding access to the data base, and proposed rules regarding how the existing Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) Rule applicable to banks and other financial institutions might be amended – and presumably, expanded – to align with the different and often broader requirements of the CTA. Further, FinCEN’s notice and request for comment regarding FinCEN’s proposed form to collect and report BOI to FinCEN was criticized roundly. Given the backlash, FinCEN now is revising the proposed reporting form.

Similarly, on June 7, 2023 four members of the U.S. House of Representatives (the Chairpersons of the House Committee on Financial Services; the House Committee on Small Business; the House Subcommittee on  National Security, Illicit Finance, and International Financial Institutions; and the House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government) sent a letter directed to Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury, and Himamauli Das, Former Acting Director of FinCEN, regarding the status of the implementation of the CTA. The letter, fairly or not, stresses the need for transparency by FinCEN, and implies that January 1, 2024 may not be a viable date.

The fact that FinCEN devoted its limited resources to producing a 56-page publication which repeats but does not explicate current regulatory requirements for BOI reporting is unusual, given FinCEN’s many other pressing demands – such as finishing the rest of the regulations under the CTA. However, it is possible that the Guide is a reaction to demands placed upon FinCEN by certain members of Congress, who are pushing for clarity for affected businesses.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Small Entity Compliance Guide for Corporate Transparency Act

On August 30, 2023, the Federal Council of Switzerland announced proposed laws (the “Press Release”) to strengthen its anti-money laundering (“AML”) efforts in important ways.

The proposal includes an obligation for attorneys and other advisers to conduct due diligence; the creation of a centralized, non-public register of beneficial owners (“BO”); and new measures concerning sanctions violations, real estate transactions, and precious metal traders.  

The Federal Council has found that “[m]oney laundering and terrorist financing pose a serious threat to financial system integrity” and that criminals (whether in Switzerland or over the world) misuse legal entities to conceal assets and in furtherance of illicit activity.  As a “major financial centre,” The Federal Council realizes that Switzerland is exposed to these risks.  In the eyes of the world, the United States and Switzerland often have vied for the dubious title of the world’s top haven for tax evasion and money laundering.  And Switzerland has been feeling the pressure due to being one of the world’s top economies which still has not implemented regulations for BOs.

The Federal Council published the proposed laws in German (which we do not review in this blog), and issued in English an FAQ and an informative graphic.  The Federal Council is seeking input until November 29, 2023, and will act on the legislation in 2024.

The aim of the proposed laws is to “contribute significantly to protecting the financial centre from funds of criminal origin, and to strengthening Switzerland as a business location.”  Although the Swiss financial sector has more robust safeguards against money laundering and terrorist financing activities, the FAQ explains that “there are gaps in other, nonfinancial areas in this respect” and that “it is necessary to also include particularly risky activities in the non-financial sector in efforts to prevent and combat financial crime.” The Federal Council has found that the “high money laundering risks associated with legal entities and trusts” require legislation to strengthen the Swiss framework. According to the Press Release, prosecuting authorities would benefit from increased transparency to more quickly and accurate identifying the true owners of legal entities. 

Continue Reading  Switzerland Proposes Due Diligence for Attorneys and Broader Beneficial Owner Reporting Laws

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has issued a notice entitled “FinCEN Calls Attention to Payroll Tax Evasion and Workers’ Compensation Fraud in the Construction Sector” (the “Notice”).  According to the Notice, “state and federal tax authorities [annually] lose hundreds of millions of dollars to these schemes, which are perpetrated by illicit actors primarily through banks and check cashers.”

The Notice describes these combined schemes as follows.  Individuals create a shell company whose sole purpose is to allow construction contractors to avoid paying workers’ compensation premiums as well as state and federal payroll taxes.  The operators of the shell company will take out a minimal workers’ compensation policy and “rent” or sell the policy to construction contractors that employ a much larger number of workers than the policy is designed to cover.  The insurance policy enables the shell company to apply for and receive official business registration status.  The shell company operators will include the business license and tax documents in the package “rented” to the contractors.  This is the insurance fraud aspect.  Although insurance fraud is a state and local crime, it easily can be charged federally through use of the mail and wire fraud statutes.  Mail and wire fraud also can serve as predicate offenses – more precisely, “Specified Unlawful Activities” – underlying federal money laundering charges.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Notice on Payroll Tax Evasion and Workers’ Compensation Fraud in the Construction Industry

As we have blogged repeatedly, there is a close nexus between money laundering and tax crimes.  The frequent connection between the two sets of offenses – and the potentially related methods of combatting them – is a topic that is receiving growing attention.  It is important for many reasons, including the increase in international cooperation and information sharing across countries and law enforcement agencies in regard to both sets of offenses.

We therefore are very pleased to welcome to Money Laundering Watch guest bloggers Emmanuel Mathias and Adrian Wardzynski, who have authored a well-received Working Paper, Leveraging Anti-Money Laundering Measures to Improve Tax Compliance and Help Mobilize Domestic Revenues as part of the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) publication series (“Working Paper”).

As we will discuss, the Working Paper advocates leveraging anti-money laundering (“AML”) measures to enhance tax compliance, tackle tax crimes, and help mobilize domestic revenues.

Emmanuel Mathias heads the Governance and Anti-Corruption division in the IMF’s Legal Department, where he oversees the IMF’s work on anti-corruption and the rule of law. He also worked extensively on AML issues. Prior to joining the IMF in 2005, Emmanuel served as a researcher in economics, was trained as a customs special agent, and worked for the French Financial Intelligence Unit. Emmanuel holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Paris – Pantheon Sorbonne. He graduated from the Institute of political studies of Strasbourg, and was admitted to the French national school of administration.

Adrian Wardzynski works in the Financial Integrity division in the IMF’s Legal Department. In his role as a Counsel he focuses on financial integrity issues relating to money laundering, tax crimes, and corruption. Before joining the IMF in 2021, Adrian was a Tax Policy Advisor at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He also worked on taxation of multinational enterprises and financial institutions in the private sector and Switzerland’s State Secretariat for International Finance. Adrian holds an LL.M. in Taxation from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

The IMF is a global organization which works to achieve sustainable growth and prosperity for all of its 190 member countries. It does so by supporting economic policies that promote financial stability and monetary cooperation, which are essential to increase productivity, job creation, and economic well-being To fulfill these missions, IMF member countries work collaboratively with each other and with other international bodies.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Mr. Mathias and Mr. Wardzynski, in their personal capacities, respond to questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Report. We hope you enjoy this discussion of this important topic. – Peter Hardy and Siana Danch.

Continue Reading  Leveraging AML Measures to Combat Tax Crimes. A Guest Blog.

On March 24, 2023, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a press release and published initial guidance to assist the public in understanding the beneficial ownership information (BOI) reporting requirements under the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA). The guidance comprised Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), a one-pager informative graphic explaining the applicable reporting filing dates, and a one-pager Answers to Key Questions on beneficial owner reporting. Additionally, FinCEN published a one-minute Introductory Video and a more detailed four-and-a-half minute Information Video about the BOI reporting requirement.

In the press release, FinCEN Acting Director Himamauli Das stated that the agency was committed to ensuring the implementation of the CTA’s BOI reporting obligations was “as simple as possible, particularly for small businesses who may have never heard of or interacted with FinCEN before.”

We have blogged extensively on the CTA and FinCEN’s final and proposed regulations (hereherehere, and here), and will not repeat our analysis of these regulations – other than to note that the stated primary goal of the CTA was to enable law enforcement and regulators to obtain information on the “real” beneficial owners of so-called “shell companies,” including foreign entities registered in the United States, in order to “crack down” on the misuse of such companies for potential money laundering, tax evasion and other offenses.

As we will discuss, these publications from FinCEN appear to be designed to assist the general public in understanding the basic rules regarding the CTA and its implementing regulations.  To that extent, they succeed on their own terms.  But, they do not address more difficult or more nuanced issues presented by the statute and the regulations.  Meanwhile, and as we will discuss, FinCEN has been subject to pressure and criticism from both the U.S. Senate and industry groups regarding many of these same difficult and nuanced issues, including (i) whether FinCEN will or can verify the BOI information reported to it under the CTA, and (ii) revising the CTA reporting form currently proposed by FinCEN, which, as we have blogged, invites bad actors to not answer key questions.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Publishes Initial Guidance and FAQs on BOI Reporting Under CTA While Facing Backlash Over Proposed Access Rules and Reporting Form