gershelb@ballardspahr.com | 646.346.8034 | view full bio

Brad focuses his practice on representing individuals and companies in white-collar criminal and civil matters, including government inquiries and internal investigations. Brad has significant experience in a wide range of enforcement, criminal and regulatory matters, including those relating to fraud, foreign bribery, and public corruption. His experience spans multiple state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the DOJ, FINRA, SEC, and New York County District Attorney’s Office. Additionally, he has represented clients in criminal and regulatory investigations for alleged violations of the False Claims Act and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

As the value of bitcoin continues to soar (USD:BTC this past weekend exceeded $19,000.00:1), we thought that now would be a good time to emphasize the need to ensure regulatory compliance with the many federal and state AML rules and regulations, in addition to those segmented across various countries. A caveat: This post is far from exhaustive, and before undertaking any investment in cryptocurrency, it would be wise to consult with an attorney familiar with the rules applicable to the cryptocurrency sector.  Due to the nascency of the sector, the practical application of previously existing laws and regulations is rapidly evolving.

To begin, the notion that bitcoin and other digital tokens represent a currency only for criminals has been dispelled. Indeed, there is no question that investment in cryptocurrencies is inherently lawful and increasingly commonplace.  In 2017 alone, investment in initial coin offerings, or token sales, has exceeded $1.5 billion; in a similar vein, the value of certain cryptocurrencies now exceeds a number of Fortune 50 companies.  Most recently, CBOE and CME, the world’s largest futures exchange, launched bitcoin futures contracts.

With this in mind, and as we have written on this blog before (see herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), it is clear that regulators are moving aggressively to bring the cryptocurrency sector into the fold of existing rules and regulations. To be sure, applying these rules to the burgeoning sector has been like fitting a square peg in a round hole; a bedrock of the initial cryptocurrency boom was the promise of anonymity for its users. Conversely, identity verification is a bedrock of AML compliance. Continue Reading Beyond Best Practices: Regulatory Compliance Now a Necessity in the Cryptocurrency Sector

As 2017 winds down, we are taking a look back at the first year of Money Laundering Watch.

We want to thank our many readers around the world who have made Money Laundering Watch such a success since we launched it less than a year ago. The feedback we receive from financial industry professionals, compliance officers, in-house and external lawyers, AML/BSA consultants, government personnel, journalists, and others interested in this field is invaluable, and we hope you will continue to share your perspectives with us.  We pride ourselves on providing in-depth discussions of the important developments in this ever-evolving area and their potential implications.

2017 has been a busy year in the world of financial corruption. We are highlighting 12 of our most-read blog posts, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined this year.

We also would like to thank the other platforms that host our blog: Digital Currency & Ledger Defense Coalition, Money Laundering Bulletin, and Federal Tax Crimes.

We look forward to continuing to keep you informed in 2018.  If you would like to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch, please click here. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.

We previously have observed that financial institutions face an increasing risk that alleged Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter-Terrorism Financing (“CTF”) violations will lead to follow-on allegations of securities law violations – allegations brought not only by the government, but also by investor class action suits (see here and here).

This phenomenon of AML law and securities law converging is not limited to the United States, as reflected by a recent class action lawsuit filed against one of the biggest banks in Australia – Commonwealth Bank – which arises out of claims by the Australian government that the bank failed to act adequately on indications that drug rings were using its network of “intelligent” deposit machines to launder tens of millions of dollars. Continue Reading Investor Class Action Lawsuit Targets Australian Bank for Alleged AML Failures and Use of “Intelligent” Machines for Anonymous Cash Deposits

On June 29, dual trial verdicts in the Southern District of New York paved the way for the government to seize 650 Fifth Avenue, a 36-story building in Manhattan valued at up to $1 billion (“the Property”). The defendants, representing New York entities that trace their roots to Iran, were convicted of violating U.S. sanctions and money laundering. With this decision, the government can lay claim to the largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture in U.S. history and, as promised, provide the sale’s proceeds to terror victims who had previously won $5 billion in judgments against Iran for terror-related activity.

Continue Reading Lessons in Civil Forfeiture and Attachment: U.S. May Seize 650 Fifth Avenue

On June 5, the SEC filed suit against Salt Lake City-based Alpine Securities, Corp. (“Alpine”). The complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleges that the broker-dealer ran afoul of AML rules by “routinely and systematically” (i) failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) for stock transactions it had flagged as suspicious or, (ii) on thousands of occasions between 2011 and 2015 when Alpine did file SARs, omitting key information, such as the criminal or regulatory history of customers and disclosures as to whether those customers represented a foreign institution.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), Alpine and other broker-dealers must report suspicious transactions in the form of SARs filed with FinCEN. These filings pertain to reports of transactions or patterns of transactions involving at least $5,000 wherein a covered entity “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves funds representing ill-gotten gains; is intended to hide funds obtained from illegal activities; is designed to evade the BSA; or has no business or apparent lawful purpose and the filing institution knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction. SARs have a narrative section for the filer to describe the facts of the suspicious incident, which is regarded by law enforcement as a critical section.

The SEC has alleged that Alpine violated Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder, which require broker-dealers to comply with the recordkeeping, retention and report obligations of the BSA. Although Alpine had an AML/BSA compliance program (as is required for broker-dealers by both the BSA and FINRA Rule 3310), the complaint alleges that the program was not implemented properly in practice and mischaracterized what Alpine actually did. In part, the SEC alleges that Alpine used two standard templates for SAR filings which did not allow the filer to describe any of the red flags or other material information which caused Alpine to file the SAR. Importantly, the complaint also alleges that FINRA had examined Alpine and brought these deficiencies to its attention, but Alpine thereafter failed to take meaningful steps to address them and “continued its pattern of omitting material red flag and other information from its SARs.”

Much of Alpine’s business involves clearing microcap transactions. Although the broker-dealer has a history of disciplinary action by FINRA, the instant action also reflects a trend by the SEC to use AML rules as a means to combat alleged fraud related to the sale of microcap securities. Earlier this year, New York-based Windsor Street Capital also was charged with failing to file SARs; that matter, currently before an SEC administrative law judge, remains pending. All told, the action against Alpine exemplifies the SEC’s heightened interest in ensuring broker-dealers’ adherence to AML rules and standards. It also reiterates the need for any financial institution to implement effectively in practice its AML compliance plan: the best written compliance plan can turn into the centerpiece of regulators’ allegations if it merely becomes a catalogue of what the financial institution failed to do.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

On Monday, the state of Florida moved a step closer towards amending its money laundering statute to include the nefarious use of bitcoin and other virtual currencies. The bill, H.B. 1379, has sailed through a committee vote and will now be presented to the floor. If the bill passes, it will serve, in pertinent part, to define bitcoin and “virtual currency” (“VC”) as “monetary instruments” within the meaning of the state’s money laundering statute; in the same vein, bitcoin will be defined as a “medium of exchange in electronic or digital format that is not a coin or currency of the United States or any other country.” Continue Reading Florida Lawmakers Seek to Bring Virtual Currency into the Fold

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on April 3 to decide whether Jordan-based Arab Bank may be liable for claims including allegations that its New York branch processed transactions for known terrorists. While the central issue before the Court will be the scope of the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) – namely whether it permits corporate liability for violations of international law – Jesner v. Arab Bank also illustrates how alleged AML/BSA failures can lead to yet another avenue for secondary legal liability for financial institutions, as we previously have noted in other contexts. Depending on the outcome of the Court’s opinion in Jesner, such U.S. exposures may extend to foreign financial institutions even when the alleged conduct occurs primarily abroad.Detail view of the United States Supreme Court Continue Reading Weighing Corporate Liability under the Alien Tort Statute: What it Means for AML/CFT Controls

Banks stand to advance the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery by reporting suspicious transactions and other financial activity that raise red flags, according to a report on March 15, 2017. Published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a renowned British think tank, the report notes that banks and other financial service providers are increasingly applying their transaction monitoring and data analyses to hold those who exploit people for sex and labor accountable.

Today, nearly 46 million people are living as slaves or indentured servants, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation. As the trafficking of people is heavily dependent upon the movement of money, the misuse of banks and intermediaries are a key component of keeping the industry afloat. In particular, these institutions not only process payments and serve as the final stop for illicit proceeds, but also act as a conduit for financing the trafficking supply chain itself. For example, money services businesses are exploited to pay transporters, prepaid cards are used to move funds across borders, and individual bank accounts are opened to funnel profits.

Some financial institutions, aware of their misuse, are teaming with regulators and law enforcement alike to seek out ways to stem the tide. In fact, some institutions have looked beyond their standard controls to implement techniques specifically tailored to detect human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Project STAMP – created to promote the enforcement of the BSA and the money laundering statutes – aims to shut down human trafficking organizations by identifying and seizing assets and proceeds derived or used in support thereof. Similarly, FinCEN has published guidance to financial institutions that, inter alia, describes a number of unique red flags, such as atypical remittance patterns and frequent payments to online escort services for “advertising.”

As RUSI’s report makes clear, preexisting AML/CFT controls present a potentially highly effective means of identifying and providing evidence to hold accountable those who provide and solicit human trafficking.  Given the industry’s heavy dependence on financial institutions, together with these institutions’ preexisting AML/CFT programs and vast amounts of financial data on hand, banks and intermediaries alike are in a unique position to make a meaningful impact.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

The Philippines has been identified by the U.S. as a “major money-laundering country” in the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (“Report”), published this month. The country now joins 87 others as one “whose financial institutions engage in currency transactions involving significant amounts of proceeds from international narcotics trafficking.” See 22 U.S.C. § 2291(e)(7).

By way of background, the Report is a legislatively mandated, annual assessment of the efforts of foreign governments to reduce illicit narcotics production, trafficking and use, as well as their efforts to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. Each year, U.S. officials from agencies with AML responsibilities assess the pervasiveness of money laundering in these countries, which includes steps taken (or not taken) to address financial crime and money laundering, and measures to strengthen law enforcement and prosecutorial capabilities.

In regard to the Philippines, the Report concludes that “[m]oney laundering is a serious concern due to [the] international narcotics trade, high degree of corruption among government officials, trafficking in persons, and the high volume of remittances from Filipinos living abroad … [c]riminal groups use the Philippine banking system, commercial enterprises, and particularly casinos, to transfer drug and other illicit proceeds from the Philippines to offshore accounts.”

As support for the heightened designation, the Report cites to the Philippines’ “significant gaps” in its efforts to combat money laundering. For one, the country’s bank secrecy provisions “are among the World’s strictest.” In most cases, Filipino investigators must first obtain a court order to access bank records; such an order is dependent upon a sufficient showing of an ongoing “predicate crime” and neither cybercrime nor tax evasion is classified as such. Despite the country’s effort to centralize AML efforts via the Anti-Money Laundering Council (“AMCL”), since its founding in 2001, cooperation among law enforcement agencies remains “insufficient” and to date, only 49 money laundering cases have been filed. Indeed, Reuters reports that the number of prosecutions and convictions stemming from the 49 has been “virtually nil.”

The Report’s conclusions are an unwelcome development for the Philippines. Though any outcome remains to be seen, their label as a major money-laundering hub may serve as a catalyst for offshore firms to “de-risk” by cutting its ties with local banks and intermediaries.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch.

Despite the staggering $8 billion figure estimated to be spent on global compliance in 2017, U.S.-based rules regarding Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) remain anchored in their 1970s design. Contrary to the generally slow pace of Congressional action, new technologies may reshape the global financial system (“GFS”) and with it, the ability to detect and disrupt money laundering schemes and terrorist plots. Chief among these is blockchain, a peer-to-peer technology first implemented as the backbone of the virtual currency Bitcoin. Continue Reading Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing with a Distributed Ledger