gurstelleg@ballardspahr.com | 612.371.3537 | view full bio

Gretchen guides clients through all stages of federal and state civil, criminal, and regulatory proceedings, from responding to government subpoenas and conducting internal investigations to negotiating with government representatives and litigating any resulting claims or charges. Her practice also focuses on complex civil litigation. Gretchen has represented clients in contract disputes, insurance coverage disputes, and False Claims Act cases. Her white-collar experience includes representing clients facing federal money laundering charges, allegations of federal mail and wire fraud, tax fraud, health care fraud, mortgage fraud, theft, and embezzlement.

We regularly blog about the conflict between state and federal law related to cannabis and the uncertainty regarding how federal criminal and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) law will, or will not, be enforced against financial institutions providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses (“MRBs”). Because of this continuing uncertainty, many MRBs must operate on a cash-only basis. This creates significant safety and security concerns for both the MRBs and the communities in which they operate, causes regulatory and tax compliance challenges, and handicaps business growth.

This post provides an update on very recent efforts to provide a level of federal protection to financial institutions which provide banking services to MRBs. First, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing regarding challenges faced by financial institutions and businesses in the cannabis sector. Second, the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) issued guidance regarding servicing hemp producers and the cannabis industry. This NCUA guidance came quickly on the heels of a statement by the chairman of the NCUA that his agency won’t sanction federally-chartered credit unions for working with state-legal MRBs.
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Second Post in a Two-Post Series on the ILLICIT CASH Act

A discussion draft of legislation recently introduced in the Senate, the Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings (ILLICIT CASH) Act (the “Act”), seeks to modernize federal anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) laws. The Act’s bipartisan drafters assert that the “US AML-CFT laws have not kept pace with the growing exploitation of the global financial system to facilitate criminal activities.” The proposed legislation – which is 102 pages long – would update and expand the tools available to regulators and law enforcement and overhaul domestic AML-CFT policies.

In part one of this series, we blogged about the Act’s proposed new reporting requirements for beneficial ownership information. This post focuses on the Act’s many other proposals for improving the resources available to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and facilitating increased communication between law enforcement, regulators and financial institutions, including provisions regarding “no action” letters by FinCEN and “keep open” letters sent by law enforcement to financial institutions.
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We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series — a weekly podcast focusing on the consumer finance issues that matter most, from new product development and emerging technologies to regulatory compliance and enforcement and the ramifications of private litigation.

In this podcast, we review the many recent

The state-legal marijuana industry in the United States continues to grow – as does support for it. Ten states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational adult use and 23 other states allow some form of medical cannabis. According to recent polling, 65% of Americans favor legalization of marijuana. Although interest and investment in state-legal cannabis show no sign of slowing, marijuana still remains classified as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substance Act (“CSA”).

Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions that provide even basic banking services to marijuana-related businesses (“MRBs”) face signficant regulatory risk, even if the real-world chances of any criminal enforcement currently appear very remote. For this reason, although some credit unions and state-chartered banks are opening accounts for MRBs, most financial institutions, including the largest banks, remain reluctant to do so.

As we previously blogged, the conflict between state and federal law and the uncertainty regarding how federal laws will be enforced against financial institutions leave most MRBs operating on a cash-only basis. Operating solely as a cash business raises obvious safety and security concerns for both the MRBs and the communities in which they operate, and causes regulatory and tax compliance challenges. Additionally, MRBs may struggle to obtain access to financing needed for operations and expansion.

Recognizing these issues, Congress is taking action — possibly.  We discuss here two proposed cannabis reform efforts, the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act of 2019 (“SAFE Banking Act”) and the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment through Entrusting States Act (“STATES Act”). If passed, both bills would provide federal protections to financial institutions servicing MRBs, thereby signficantly increasing MRBs’ access to the banking system. Both bills have received broad bipartisan support, along with support from affected industry groups.  Either of these bills, if passed, would represent a major change.

(Please also check out our related podcast on financial services and the cannabis industry, which more generally reviews the many recent developments in this area, including state approaches to banking services, the status of hemp legalization, the interplay between federal and state cannabis law, FinCEN guidance on Bank Secrecy Act expectations, the status of federal regulatory and enforcement activity.)
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The Danske Bank money laundering scandal continues to reveal its many permutations and confirm its status as the largest money laundering case in history. We summarize here certain events since November 2018, since we last have blogged about the case (see here, here, and here). Proving that no one is immune from the potential taint, notable events include an investigation announced by the Estonian financial regulator; an investigation into that same Estonian regulator itself; the commencement of the inevitable investor lawsuit; and scrutiny of what some have described as the “cleanest” bank in the world, Swedbank, one of the most important banks in Northern Europe.
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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.
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Happy New Year! But while 2018 is still (just barely) with us, let’s take a look back.

2018 has been a very busy year in the world of money laundering and AML/BSA. We are highlighting 12 of our most-read blog posts, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined this year.

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

NYDFS Action Highlights the Need for Good Monitoring – and Good Consultants

In part one of this two-part post, we provided some practical tips for financial institutions to increase the chances that their Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) programs will withstand regulators’ scrutiny, including: (1) promoting a culture of AML/Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance; (2) focusing on transaction monitoring; (3) improving information sharing; (4) identifying and handling high-risk accounts appropriately; and (5) knowing your risks and continually improving your AML program to control those risks.

In this post we’ll discuss the consequences of potentially failing to heed these practical tips in a specific case: the New York Department of Financial Services’ (DFS) recent enforcement action against Mashreqbank. Further, we look forward to discussing all of these issues in an upcoming podcast in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series. So please continue to stay tuned.

Mashreqbank is the oldest and largest private bank in the United Arab Emirates. Its New York branch is Mashreqbank’s only location in the United States. It offers correspondent banking and trade finance services and provides U.S. dollar clearing services to clients located in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. In 2016, the branch cleared more than 1.2 million USD transactions with an aggregate value of over $367 billion. In 2017, the branch cleared more than one million USD transactions with an aggregate value of over $350 billion.

The DFS enforcement action asserted that Mashreqbank’s AML/BSA program was deficient in a number of respects and that the New York branch had failed to remediate identified compliance issues. The enforcement action began with a DFS safety and soundness examine in 2016. In 2017, DFS and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) conducted a joint safety and soundness examination. DFS provided a report of its findings to which Mashreqbank submitted a response.

In a consent order signed on October 10, 2018, Mashreqbank admitted violations of New York laws and accepted a significant monetary penalty and increased oversight for deficiencies in its AML/BSA and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) programs. Regulators pursued the enforcement action despite the New York branch’s strong cooperation and demonstrated commitment to building an effective and sustainable compliance program. Among other things, Mashreqbank agreed to pay a $40 million fine; to hire a third-party compliance consultant to oversee and address deficiencies in the branch’s compliance function including compliance with AML/BSA requirements; and to develop written revised AML/BSA and OFAC compliance programs acceptable to DFS.

The DFS and FRBNY examination findings demonstrate Mashreqbank’s failure to follow the practical tips identified in part one of this post. Specifically, the regulators found that Mashreqbank failed to: (1) have appropriate transition monitoring; (2) identify and handle high-risk accounts appropriately; and (3) know its risk and improve its AML program to control those risks.

Further, and as our discussion will reflect, the Mashreqbank enforcement action is also notable in two other respects. First, the alleged AML failures pertain entirely to process and the general adequacy of the bank’s AML program – whereas the vast majority of other AML/BSA enforcement actions likewise discuss system failures, they usually also point to specific substantive violations, such as the failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) regarding a particular customer or set of transactions. Second, although the use of external consultants usually represents a mitigating factor or even a potential reliance defense to financial institution defendants, the DFS turned what is typically a defense shield into a government sword and instead criticized Mashreqbank for using outside consultants who, according to DFS, were just not very rigorous. This alleged use of consultants performing superficial analysis became part of the allegations of affirmative violations against the bank, thereby underscoring how financial institutions must ensure that their AML/BSA auditors or other consultants are experienced, competent, and performing meaningful testing, particularly when addressing issues previously identified by regulators.
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According to the Financial Flow from Human Trafficking report recently published by the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) and the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, human trafficking is estimated to generate $150.2 billion per year. Human trafficking remains one of the fastest growing and most profitable forms of international crime affecting nearly every country in the world. The FATF report examines the financial flow associated with human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor, sexual exploitation, and the removal of organs, and the common and unique ways that the proceeds from these types of exploitation are laundered.

The FATF report identifies issues related to designing better efforts to detect money laundering related to human trafficking. First, the more exposure the offender and/or the victim have to the formal financial sector or government, the greater the opportunities for identifying signs of money laundering. Second, no single indicator alone is likely to confirm money laundering from human trafficking. Third, wider contextual information can prove useful in identifying signs of trafficking. Fourth, human trafficking may be easiest to identify at the victim level or at the lowest level of a criminal organization; at higher levels of criminal organizations, the indicators may be more opaque and suggest a variety of crimes.
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