katon@ballardspahr.com |  215.864.8330 | view full bio

Nick focuses on white collar defense and the defense of financial institutions and other companies in civil litigation.  Prior to attending law school, Nick worked as an investigator who sought justice for wrongfully convicted prisoners. He located witnesses and evidence for trial and appellate court petitions and developed trial strategy and innocence case theories with attorneys.

On June 3, 2022, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) that seeks public comment on the implementation of a “no-action letter” process at FinCEN.  The “no-action letter” is “a form of an exercise of enforcement discretion wherein an agency issues a letter indicating its intention not to take enforcement action against the submitting party for the specific conduct presented to the agency.”  These no-action letters “address only prospective activity not yet undertaken by the submitting party.” 

This proposal has been slowly winding its way through the agency rulemaking process.  The Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) directed FinCEN to assess the feasibility of no-action letters.  In July 2021, FinCEN issued an assessment (the “Assessment”) of a no-action letter process (which we covered here), finding in part that FinCEN should conduct a rulemaking to create such a process.  Now nearly a year later, FinCEN is seeking public comment on myriad questions involving the specific of no-action letters.  Currently, the public comment period closes August 5, 2022. 

As we discuss, the ANPRM grapples with how to make the no-action letter process efficient, by avoiding the potential delays of consulting with its regulator counterparts, and effective, by establishing an advisory process that does not yield inconsistent results between regulators.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Seeks Public Comments on No-Action Letters

On March 1, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury (“Treasury”) published its National Risk Assessment for Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Proliferation Financing (the “NMLRA”), identifying the national threats, vulnerabilities, and risks facing the U.S. financial system.  The NMLRA is 74 pages long and comprehensively covers many different perceived threats and vulnerabilities, including the misuse of legal entities, virtual assets, real estate, investment advisors, and casinos.  This post therefore selects three key issues for closer analyses.

First, cybercrime (a topic we cover frequently) in the form of ransomware received the dubious honor of representing “a larger and growing share of the overall money laundering threat in the United States.”  Second, professional money laundering organizations (“PMLOs”) continue to peddle their illicit services internationally to launder the proceeds of cybercrime, narcotics trafficking, and other schemes on behalf of organized criminal enterprises.  Third, merchants and professionals, such as lawyers, real estate professionals, and financial services employees, continue to perform – knowingly or unknowingly – critical functions in support of money laundering schemes and obfuscating the source of ill-gotten gains.
Continue Reading  U.S. Treasury Identifies Ongoing and Emergent Money Laundering Risks and Vulnerabilities

Consent Order Stresses that Only Three AML Analysts Struggled to Review 100 “Alerts” Per Day, Each – and Notes in Passing that “Outside Examiners” Blessed the Bank’s AML Program for the Same Five Years that the Bank Allegedly Maintained a Willfully Deficient Program

On December 16, 2021, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) entered into a Consent Order with CommunityBank of Texas, N.A. (“CBOT”), in which CBOT admitted to major shortcomings with respect to the implementation and effectiveness of its anti-money laundering (“AML”) program. The monetary penalties imposed on CBOT are substantial: FinCEN assessed an $8 million penalty, although CBOT will receive credit for a separate $1 million penalty to be paid to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”).

The Consent Order, available here, offers valuable insight into FinCEN’s reasoning for its enforcement actions.  According to the Consent Order, CBOT has a regional footprint and operates several branches in Texas.  It serves small and medium-sized businesses and professionals.  And, in the “back of the house,” CBOT established a typical AML system designed to detect and escalate alerts for suspicious activity for investigation and potential filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). However, FinCEN alleged that over a period of at least four years, CBOT “willfully” failed to effectively implement its AML, program, leading to a failure to file SARs and otherwise detect specific suspicious activity.  As detailed below, many of the alleged shortcomings of CBOT’s AML program flowed from a lack of compliance resources and personnel between 2015 and 2019: too few analysts were assigned to review and investigate potentially suspicious transactions, and as a result, downstream investigations and due diligence suffered, including an alleged failure to file at least 17 specific SARs.

Because the detailed Consent Order offers a somewhat rare opportunity to glean FinCEN’s reasoning behind its enforcement actions generally, we explore the alleged failures in some detail below.  Then, we summarize key details of the Consent Order, offer key takeaways, and note several questions that the Consent Order still leaves unresolved.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Assesses Civil Penalty Against CommunityBank of Texas for AML Program Weaknesses

Lawmakers Targeted “Gatekeeper” Professions Following the Pandora Papers Leak

Motivated by revelations contained in the recently-released Pandora Papers, on October 6, 2021, four U.S. Representatives – Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), Steve Cohen (D-TN), and Joe Wilson (R-SC) – introduced House Resolution 5525, named the Establishing New Authorities for Business Laundering and Enabling Risks to Security (“Enablers”) Act.  Generally, the Pandora Papers are an 11.9 million document stockpile published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) that revealed the offshore accounts of dozens of world leaders and more than one hundred billionaires, celebrities, and business leaders.  Analysis of the leaks unveiled how the wealthy allegedly used offshore accounts, hidden trusts, and shell companies to hide trillions of dollars, evade tax collectors, and launder money.

The Enablers Act targets the so-called “middlemen” in the United States who allegedly assist with those bad acts.  In a press release, Representative Wilson stated bluntly who he believed to be the “U.S. enablers of kleptocracy”: “unscrupulous lawyers, accountants, and others” that allegedly fail to conduct adequate due diligence in international transactions.

The Act, if passed, would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to require the Treasury Department to promulgate due diligence requirements for the “middlemen,” which include investment advisors, art dealers, attorneys involved in financial activity, accountants, third-party payment providers, and others.

The Act is nascent proposed legislation that is still subject to refinement as it winds its way through the House Financial Services Committee.  Suffice to say, however, there are some initial questions about the bill’s scope and function that give us pause.  The details are catalogued below.
Continue Reading  The ENABLERS Act Seeks to Impose BSA/AML Requirements on an Array of “Middlemen” Professionals

Case Presages Mandatory BSA Obligations for Antiquities Dealers under the AML Act

Exhibit A to the Amended Forfeiture Complaint: The Dream Tablet

In the midst of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent civil instability, thousands of cultural artifacts were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq.  Among them: the Dream Tablet of Gilgamesh (the “Dream Tablet”), a clay tablet at least 3,000 years old, inscribed with part of the oldest works of narrative poetry in the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Dream Tablet illegally wound its way to the United States in 2003, and Hobby Lobby purchased it in 2014 for $1.67 million.  Now, it is returning to Iraq.  Per a July 27, 2021 Department of Justice (“DOJ”) press release, the Eastern District of New York ordered Hobby Lobby to forfeit the Dream Tablet because its importation violated the United States’ ban on the importation of Iraqi archaeological and ethnological materials.

Although this is not a pure money laundering case, this forfeiture action implicates the intersection of the antiquities and art trades and anti-money laundering (“AML”) concerns, a subject we cover frequently, including in a recent guest post by on potential AML regulations for the antiquities and art market.  Of course, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AML Act”) in part imposes Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) obligations on antiquities dealers by defining a “person engaged in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant, or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation or the sale of antiquities” as a “financial institution” covered by the BSA.  The Dream Tablet case illustrates the issues that antiquities dealers will have to face under a mandatory BSA/AML regime, including the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”).
Continue Reading  DOJ Obtains Forfeiture of the Dream Tablet of Gilgamesh

Treasury Offers Something for Everyone to Comply With: Trades and Businesses, Banks, Crypto Exchangers and Individuals

On May 21, 2021, the U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) released its American Families Plan Tax Compliance Agenda (“Agenda”), a comprehensive set of initiatives to increase tax compliance and close the “tax gap” between the amount taxpayers owe and the amount that is actually paid.  While part of the $80 billion plan calls for providing Treasury and specifically the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) with additional resources to combat tax evasion, the Agenda also proposes revisions to current regulations and leveraging existing infrastructure to “shed light on previously opaque income sources;” namely, cryptocurrency.  Although the sweeping Agenda obviously focuses on tax compliance, it also has related consequences for Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance in areas where the BSA and the tax code overlap as to cryptocurrency.

The Agenda also represents the latest in a string of initiatives by the U.S. government regarding the increasing regulation of the use of cryptocurrency, whether by direct users, exchangers of cryptocurrency, or financial institutions with customers dealing in cryptocurrency.  The Agenda represents both an acknowledgement by the U.S. Treasury that cryptocurrency use has become “normalized,” coupled with a clear signal that its use will be highly scrutinized and regulated.
Continue Reading  As Treasury Eyes Crypto in Tax Compliance Agenda, Reporting Obligations May Increase – Including a Crypto “Form 8300” for Transactions over $10K

On February 24, the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Criminal Division Fraud Section released its 2020 Year In Review (“the Report”) touting its white-collar enforcement successes.  Among them: four cases in which the DOJ wielded the United States’ money laundering statutes to pursue alleged overseas bribery recipients who are beyond the reach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).  This is a pattern we have covered previously (here, hereherehere, here, here and here).   While the FCPA imposes liability on American citizens and entities that bribe foreign officials, it does not impose liability on the foreign officials receiving the bribe.  Enter 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957.  As illustrated in the Report’s cases, 2020 marked a continuation of the DOJ’s willingness to use the money laundering statutes to pursue corrupt foreign activity that uses U.S. financial institutions, however tangentially.
Continue Reading  DOJ Fraud Section 2020 Year in Review: Money Laundering Statute Remains an Overseas Enforcement Tool

On October 13, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a COVID-19-related Advisory “to alert financial institutions to unemployment insurance (“UI”) fraud observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.” It is the fourth in a series of Advisories related to financial crimes arising from the pandemic (we covered previous Advisories on medical scams, imposter and money