hardyp@ballardspahr.com | 215.864.8838 | view full bio

Peter is a national thought leader on money laundering, tax fraud, and other financial crime. He is the author of Criminal Tax, Money Laundering, and Bank Secrecy Act Litigation, a comprehensive legal treatise published by Bloomberg BNA.  Peter co-chairs the Practising Law Institute's Anti-Money Laundering program, and serves on the Steering Committee for the Cambridge Forum on Sanctions & AML Compliance

He advises corporations and individuals from many industries against allegations of misconduct ranging from money laundering, tax fraud, mortgage fraud and lending law violations, securities fraud, and public corruption.  He also advises on compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act and Anti-Money Laundering requirements.  Peter handles complex litigation involving allegations of fraud or other misconduct.

Peter spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor before entering private practice, serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia working on financial crime cases. He was a trial attorney for the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Tax Division in Washington, D.C.

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

On November 16, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued – again –expanded FAQs pertaining to beneficial ownership information (“BOI”) reportable under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”).  These expanded FAQs enlarge upon the previously expanded FAQs set forth by FinCEN in September

The expanded FAQs of course cannot and do not expand upon the statutory and regulatory obligations already established by the CTA.    In that sense, they do not add any additional insight, but rather repeat the rules already set by statute and regulation.  With that in mind, we set forth below the new FAQs, some of which have particular relevance to attorneys and other so-called gatekeepers.

The CTA is scheduled to become effective on January 1, 2024.  In the short time between now and then, FinCEN still must promulgate final regulations regarding access to the BOI database and propose regulations on the alignment between the CTA and the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) Rule applicable to banks.  The time frame in which FinCEN must act is shrinking quickly.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Expands CTA FAQs

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) recently issued Joint Notice FIN-2023-NTC2, “Announnc[ing] New Reporting Key Term and Highlight[ing] Red Flags Relating to Global Evasion of U.S. Export Controls” (the “Joint Notice”). As we have blogged (here and here), these agencies issued two prior joint alerts warning financial institutions (“FIs”) about efforts by individuals or entities to evade Russia-related export controls administered by BIS.

The practical import of the Joint Notice – which re-emphasizes the focus of the U.S. government on fighting sanctions evasion – is that many customers involved in international trade should be subject to some degree of enhanced due diligence by FIs, simply because they participate in international trade.  FIs should review and adjust their risk assessments accordingly.

Continue Reading  FinCEN and BIS Issue Joint Notice on SAR Filings for Evasion of U.S. Export Controls

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

FinCEN announced on October 20 that, once again, it is extending the Geographic Targeting Order, or GTO, which requires U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind so-called “shell companies” used in purchases of residential real estate not involving a mortgage.  FinCEN also has expanded slightly the reach of the GTOs and the FAQs.

The new GTO is here.  FinCEN’s press release is here.  FAQs issued by FinCEN on the GTOs are here.  This is a topic on which we previously have blogged extensively.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Renews and Expands GTO

The new Director of FinCEN, Andrea Gacki, addressed several key topics on October 3, 2023 at the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (“ACAMS”) conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Specifically, Director Gacki addressed the issues of beneficial ownership under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”); the real estate industry; investment advisers; fentanyl trafficking; and whistleblowers

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

Complex Civil and Criminal Cases Converge

On August 17, 2023, Judge Robert Pitman of the federal district court for the Western District of Texas issued an Order granting summary judgment for the U.S. Treasury Department (“Treasury”) in a lawsuit brought by six individuals, and denying the cross-motion for summary judgment filed by the individuals. The lawsuit alleged that Treasury overstepped its authority by imposing sanctions on the coin mixing service Tornado Cash.  Deciding for the government, Judge Pitman determined that Tornado Cash is a “person” that may be designated by OFAC sanctions.  Specifically, the regulatory definition of “person” includes an “association,” and Tornado Cash is an “association” within its ordinary meaning.

Shortly thereafter, on August 23, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) unsealed an indictment returned in the Southern District of New York against the alleged developers of Tornado Cash, Roman Storm (“Storm”), a naturalized citizen residing in the U.S., and Roman Semenov (“Semenov”), a Russian citizen.  The indictment charges them with conspiring to commit money laundering, operate an unlicensed money transmitting business, and commit sanctions violations involving the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA.  When the indictment was unsealed, Storm was arrested and then released pending trial.  Treasury simultaneously sanctioned Semenov, who remains outside of the U.S., adding him to OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN”) List.

These are very complicated cases raising complicated issues.  They are separate but obviously related.  As we will discuss, the factual and legal issues tend to blend together, and how a party characterizes an issue says a lot about their desired outcome:  has the government taken incoherent action against a technology, or has it pursued a group of people attempting to hide behind tech?

Continue Reading  All Roads Lead to Roman: Alleged Tornado Cash Co-Founders Roman Storm Arrested and Roman Semenov Sanctioned, Days After Treasury Defeats Lawsuit Challenging OFAC

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