kearneyb@ballardspahr.com | 215.864.8275 | view full bio

Brian assists corporate clients in white collar criminal and civil matters. His white collar practice includes providing advice on AML and BSA litigation and compliance, including matters involving suspicious activity reports. Prior to law school, Brian spent a decade as an educator at Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia.

Complaint Illustrates Existential Fight Over OFAC’s Ability to Sanction Open-Source Code – and OFAC Responds (?) By Issuing FAQs on Tornado Cash Use

Last month, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) sanctioned Tornado Cash, a virtual currency “mixer” operating on the Ethereum blockchain which allegedly has been used to launder the virtual currency equivalent of more than $7 billion since its creation in 2019, by adding it to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (the “SDN List”). The initial response from certain elements of the crypto community was, not surprisingly, negative: for example, an 8/15 Coin Center whitepaper and an 8/23 letter from Congressman Tom Emmer to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen argued that OFAC lacked the legal authority.

In the intervening month, things have heated up considerably. Last week, six plaintiffs filed a complaint against OFAC and the Treasury Department, as well as Secretary Yellen and OFAC Director Andrea Gacki in their respective official capacities, in the Western District of Texas (Waco Division), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief – specifically, that the court declare OFAC’s addition of Tornado Cash to the SDN List as unlawful, and permanently enjoin the enforcement of the designation and any sanctions stemming therefrom.  Plaintiffs allege that venue is proper due to Plaintiff Joseph Van Loon’s residence in Cedar Park, TX, within the Western District.  Plaintiffs’ decision to opt for the Waco Division, rather than the Austin Division, may be intentional, because the Waco Division has only one judge, who until recently has been the go-to choice for patent litigation plaintiffs.

The complaint has and will continue to draw considerable attention.  It lays out the framework for a fascinating question:  under existing law, can OFAC act directly against a piece of technology such as open-source code?  Or, must OFAC pursue enforcement, through a more difficult, piece meal and time-consuming process, only against specific individuals and specific legal entities? Presumably, both sides will invoke broad policy-related and equity-related arguments regarding “privacy,” “transparency,” and the need to fight crime.  However, the key issue may come down to a more traditional and rather dry legal issue of parsing the meaning of statutory language.

Continue Reading  Civil Complaint Challenges OFAC’s Tornado Cash Sanctions

Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York issued an opinion last week on a motion to dismiss in a putative class action securities fraud case against Deutsche Bank (“DB”) and several current and former bank executives. The opinion, while technically a “split decision,” allows the bulk of plaintiffs’ claims to proceed to the class certification phase – dismissing claims only with regard to the bank’s current and former CFOs.

The case against DB and its current and former CEO now proceeds to the class certification phase – which, if the Court continues at its current pace, may culminate sooner rather than later. Aside from continuing to keep DB in the headlines for all the least desirable reasons, this case may continue to serve as an ongoing object lesson in the costs – legal, financial, reputational – of talking the talk, but potentially failing to walk the walk, with regards to anti-money laundering (“AML”) and “Know Your Customer” (“KYC”) compliance.

Continue Reading  SDNY Allows Putative Class Action Securities Fraud Case Based on Alleged AML Deficiencies to (Mostly) Proceed

Acting Director Suggests that Financial Institutions Should “Welcome” the Program

Himamauli Das, the Acting Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), spoke about the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “Act”)  and FinCEN’s role in its implementation at New York University Law School’s March 25, 2022 Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement.  After discussing the Act’s emphasis on modernizing and improving the effectiveness of the general U.S. anti-money laundering (“AML”) framework, Mr. Das devoted the final portion of his talk, denoted as “Compliance and Enforcement” in his prepared remarks, almost entirely to FinCEN’s whistleblower program.

As we have blogged (here, here and here), the Act’s amendment of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) greatly expands the options for whistleblowers alleging AML violations and should generate litigation and government actions, similar to what occurred over the past decade in the wake of the creation of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower program.  The remarks by Mr. Das highlighted that FinCEN is hiring personnel for its new “Office of the Whistleblower;” is already receiving whistleblower tips; and is actively drafting rules to implement the Act’s whistleblower provision.  However, FinCEN still faces a major hurdle – lack of Congressional funding for the program.
Continue Reading  New AML Whistleblower Program Highlighted by FinCEN Acting Director

We blogged previously on the significant steps the European Union (“EU”) recently has taken toward implementing a rigorous new transnational anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) enforcement framework. This included, inter aliaEU-wide guidelines proposed by the European Banking Authority (“EBA”) for AML/CFT compliance officers. The need for competent, experienced, and sufficiently empowered AML/CFT compliance teams was further underlined by an Opinion and Report (“Opinion”) issued by the EBA last week on the potentially problematic trend of widespread “de-risking” across the EU.

“De-risking” is the term for a financial institution’s decision to terminate a business relationship, or refuse to do business, with an individual or category of individuals associated with a heightened risk of involvement in money laundering or terrorist financing. The EBA was impelled to address this institutional behavior, which, even if consistent with existing Authority guidance, “can be unwarranted and a sign of ineffective ML/TF risk management,” if done “without due consideration of individual customers’ risk profiles.”

The Opinion points out that indiscriminate de-risking can have the unintended effect of excluding certain (non-criminal) categories of individuals and entities from the financial system. This is framed, if not explicitly labeled, as a civil rights issue: the Opinion states that “access to at least basic financial products and services is a prerequisite for participation in modern economic and social life.” In some cases, the Opinion notes, financial institutions themselves have found themselves the targets of de-risking because of their regions’ reputations for ML/TF problems. De-risking these institutions essentially disqualifies them from participation in the EU transnational financial system, potentially affecting the socioeconomic stability of their home EU member state.

Such de-risking also, paradoxically, has the potential to exacerbate risk for the EU as a whole. The Report notes that “customers affected by de-risking may resort to alternative payment channels in the EU and elsewhere to meet their financial needs. As a result, transactions may no longer be monitored, making the detection and reporting of suspicious transactions and, ultimately, the prevention of ML/TF more difficult.” Because, as noted previously, entities need to access “at least basic financial products and services” to participate in modern society, restricting their access to such services may push them to seek alternatives in the so-called “shadow banking system,” an unregulated web of lenders which the EBA has attempted to weaken.
Continue Reading  A Paradox: “De-Risking” Can Increase AML/CFT Risks By Driving People into the “Shadow Banking System”

Farewell to 2021, and welcome 2022 — which hopefully will be better year for all.  As we do every year, let’s look back — because 2021 was a very busy year in the world of money laundering and BSA/AML compliance, and 2022 is shaping up to be the same.

Indicative of the increased pace and

We previously blogged about the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s (“FinCEN’s”) issuance on June 30 of the first government-wide list of priorities for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (“AML/CFT”) (the “Priorities”), as required by the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AML Act”). The eight-item list was a “greatest hits” rundown of

European Commission Proposes EU-Level Supervisory Authority and Cryptocurrency Travel Rule

European Banking Authority Offers New Guidelines on AML Compliance Officers

Just as the United States has expanded significantly its anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) regulatory and enforcement regime through recent passage of the AML Act of 2020, the European Union (“EU”) has taken significant steps this summer towards implementing a rigorous new transnational AML enforcement framework.  Recent legislative proposals by the European Commission (the EU’s executive branch) aim to combat cross-border crime by ensuring uniform implementation and enforcement of AML/CFT principles, rules, and regulations, and by creating new recordkeeping requirement for certain cryptocurrency transactions.  Following the announcement of these legislative proposals, the European Banking Authority proposed in late July new EU-wide guidelines for AML/CFT compliance officers.  We examine each of these in turn.
Continue Reading  European Union Round-Up:  A Summer of AML Enforcement and Compliance Proposals

Indictment Alleges International Scheme Involving Bribes Touching NY Correspondent Bank Accounts

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that U.K. law enforcement officials arrested, at its request, an Austrian national, Peter Weinzierl, for his alleged participation in a wide-ranging money laundering scheme involving Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht S.A. Odebrecht previously pleaded guilty in December

Eighth Blog Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to the BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) contains major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), coupled with other changes relating to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.   In this post, we review several provisions of the AMLA section entitled “Modernizing the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism System.” These provisions signal potentially significant changes in the BSA reporting regime for suspicious activity and currency transactions – albeit in the future, after the performance of studies and reports which Congress has required regarding the effectiveness of Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) and Currency Transaction Report (“CTR”) filings.

These provisions of the AMLA require the Treasury Secretary to acquire a fuller picture of the reporting regime as it currently functions in regards to SAR and CTR filings. We repeatedly have blogged about the ongoing debate regarding the utility of SARs and other BSA reports versus the onus the system places on financial institutions (see, for example, here, here, here and here). The AMLA now creates the opportunity for the government to respond to that debate with a data-driven approach. The theme of these AMLA provisions is feedback – both internal and external – regarding how (and whether) SARs work.  Notably, they also address the issue of whether the monetary filing thresholds for SARs (generally, $5,000) and CTRs ($10,000) should be increased.

Continue Reading  Review, then Reform? AMLA Charts a Path for the Future of SARs and CTRs

Settlement Applies to $700 Million in Luxury Assets; Law Firms Obtain a Carve-Out

Last week, the Justice Department announced a massive settlement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (“1MDB”) case, a matter implicating numerous money laundering and FCPA concerns and one about which we previously blogged here.

The DOJ announced a blanket settlement of all pending civil forfeiture cases against assets acquired by fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho (“Jho Low”) and various members of his family. The assets, consisting of both cash and real property, are currently located in the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland, and exceed $700 million. When combined with prior dispositions, this means the United States government has now recovered over $1 billion associated with the 1MDB scheme. The current settlement constitutes not only the largest recovery by the Department’s recently formed “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative,” but the largest DOJ civil forfeiture on record.

The assets subject to the agreement represent an eye-catching list of high-end baubles, including a jet aircraft; luxurious properties in New York, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and London; stock; and rights to music royalties. The agreement further notes that, although not specifically part of the settlement because they already have been resolved, other related forfeiture cases – including the forfeiture of a gigantic yacht – have been “considered” as part of this global resolution.
Continue Reading  DOJ Announces Historic Civil Forfeiture Settlement in 1MDB Case