piersons@ballardspahr.com | 215.864.8243 | view full bio

Shauna advises financial institution clients on BSA/AML regulatory compliance. She also maintains an active emerging growth practice, which includes counseling start-up companies in the cannabis, hemp and CBD sectors. During law school, Shauna served an internship with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, where she assisted juvenile offenders previously sentenced to life incarceration with reentry planning as they prepared to return to their communities.

High Profile Corruption, High End Real Estate, Shell Companies . . . and Fine Art

Second of Two Posts on Evolving Issues Regarding Real Estate and Money Laundering

In our last post, we blogged on a major regulatory tool to combat the use of real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering: the real estate Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Today we explore a major enforcement tool in action: civil forfeiture of real estate by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).

This summer, the International Unit of the DOJ’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) filed numerous complaints for civil forfeiture for real estate and other assets. This blog post will highlight a few – but not all – of these interesting and high-profile cases. Some of these cases may have been informed by data and leads obtained through the GTOs.

We explore here a trio of civil forfeiture actions pertaining, respectively, to alleged public corruption cases arising out of Gambia, Nigeria, and Malaysia. All of these cases involve foreign public officials who allegedly obtained wealth through corruption schemes committed abroad and laundered that money through shell companies to purchase real estate and other assets – sometimes located in the U.S., but sometimes not. Although the officials’ alleged initial crimes – the “specified unlawful activity,” or SUAs, as underlying crimes are defined under the federal money laundering statutes – took place overseas, the U.S. money laundering statutes provide that foreign misappropriation, embezzlements, and theft of public funds to benefit a public official constitute SUAs, thereby allowing the U.S. government to pursue civil forfeiture claims against assets located in the U.S. or abroad which are linked to the funds from underlying crimes committed primarily or even outside of the U.S.

This is the “civil forfeiture version” of a tactic used with increasing frequency by DOJ on which we repeatedly have blogged: the use of the criminal money laundering statutes to prosecute foreign officials for spending the fruits of entirely foreign crimes, when some of the financial transfers involved in the subsequent money laundering transactions occurred in the U.S.

Finally, another theme running throughout the allegations in these civil forfeiture actions is the unfortunate connection between money laundering and corruption and human rights abuses.
Continue Reading Civil Forfeiture of Real Estate to Fight Money Laundering: A Round-Up

Law Enforcement Has Been Using GTO Data

First of Two Posts on Evolving Issues Regarding Real Estate and Money Laundering

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) has issued a report on the status and effectiveness of the Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) since 2016, and on which we repeatedly have blogged.  The GAO’s report, entitled “Anti-Money Laundering — FinCEN Should Enhance Procedures for Implementing and Evaluating Geographic Targeting Orders,” (“the Report”) is lengthy.  In this post, we will describe the Report at a high level, and will attempt to focus on the portions which shed possible light on two key questions:  (1) how is law enforcement using the information culled from filings received by FinCEN as a result of the GTOs; and (2) whether the information obtained from GTO fillings may fuel legislation or regulations that will permanently subject portions of the real estate industry to anti-money laundering (“AML”) reporting requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).

In our next post, we will turn from regulatory requirements to enforcement actions, and explore some recent high-profile civil forfeiture actions by the Department of Justice — at least some of which may have been fueled by information obtained through GTOs — involving real estate and alleged foreign corruption.  Under any scenario, these forfeiture actions confirm the U.S. government’s sustained focus on real estate as a mechanism for money laundering.
Continue Reading GAO Publishes Report on Effectiveness of Real Estate GTOs Issued by FinCEN

Ballard Spahr to Present on Banking and Cannabis

FinCEN and the National Credit Union Administration Both Issue Guidance on Hemp and Banking

We are really pleased to presenting on July 9, 2020 to the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (“NAFCU”) on banking issues relating to cannabis. The cannabis and hemp industry continues to pose a fascinating mix of competing opportunities and risks – particularly from an anti-money laundering (“AML”) perspective. Changing societal opinions and business opportunities can conflict with daunting legal landscapes and a spectrum of potential AML risks.

This is an important topic with evolving real-world implications, particularly for credit unions, which generally have been more willing to cater to cannabis and hemp-related clients than other financial institutions. Of course, we frequently have blogged on cannabis, hemp and banking, for which the legal landscape would change significantly if pending federal legislation were to pass.

Ultimately, this topic produces constant twists and turns, including two sets of guidance – described below – recently issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”). Both are consistent with a (slowly) growing acceptance of cannabis and hemp-related banking by both government and the financial industry.
Continue Reading The Banking of Cannabis and Hemp-Related Customers: An Update

OIG Audit Alleges DEA Ignored Oversight, Misunderstood Digital Currency, Didn’t Actually “Follow the Money,” and Overstated Accomplishments

A recent audit conducted by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”)’s Office of Inspector General (the “OIG”) revealed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) acted outside the scope of its authority while transacting tens of millions of dollars involving illicit activity during undercover operations from fiscal years 2015 to 2017.

The focus of the audit was a specific type of undercover operation known as Attorney General Exempted Operations (AGEOs). AGEOs are particularly risky because they are income-generating operations, designed to infiltrate and dismantle drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. Because of the sensitive nature of these investigations and the amount of money at stake, AGEOs are meant to be heavily supervised by the Attorney General (AG), other lawyers within DOJ and Congress.

The 72-page, partly redacted audit clearly found that the DEA repeatedly ignored its reporting policies, neglected its internal controls, and flagrantly violated the statutes governing AGEOs. This audit an important reminder that law enforcement agencies, even when pursuing the laudable goal of investing criminals through the often highly successful tool of undercover investigations, are still subject to legal limitations and standards, because agencies themselves are susceptible to fraud and abuse. This audit shows the importance of oversight and accountability, and reveals how bad actors sometimes can exist on both sides of an investigation.  Finally, the audit also suggests that the DEA often failed to pursue investigative leads and did not examine whether businesses and other third parties knowingly laundered the illicit money being transacted through AGEOs: once the target of the AGEO was “in the bag,” spin-off money laundering investigations did not occur.
Continue Reading DEA Accused of Ongoing Missteps in Undercover Operations

A Court Ruling that May Resonate Across the Globe

The High Court in London recently struck down three “Unexplained Wealth Orders” that U.K. law enforcement had hoped would foil an alleged money laundering scheme by Kazakh political elites. Instead, the Court found that the government’s evidence was insufficient to compel family members of the former Kazakh President to explain how they acquired approximately £80 million worth of property in the U.K.

The Court’s Order is detailed, and it carefully parses through some potentially eyebrow-raising facts regarding the players and properties embroiled in this saga. Ultimately, the primary point of contention between the Court and the U.K. enforcement authorities comes down to a very basic question in all global money laundering enforcement: if corporate structures are complex and potentially opaque, is that necessarily a strong sign of underlying illegality? Here, the Court seemed to answer that question in the negative. This appears to be a classic story of suspicion versus persuasive proof, and how that dynamic can play out in a court of law in a concrete dispute. This outcome, and the language used by the Court, likely will resonate for some time.
Continue Reading U.K. Court Strikes Down “Unexplained Wealth Orders” By Parsing Facts and Making Value Judgments About Meaning of Corporate Complexity

Last Thursday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the 20th annual Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Financial Crimes Conference hosted by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) in New York City. His prepared remarks covered three main topics at the intersection of the securities industry and FinCEN’s enforcement goals: (i) AML compliance trends and current challenges; (ii) the value of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) filing data; and (iii) the current regulatory landscape.

El-Hindi not surprisingly stressed transparency and information sharing, the value of BSA reporting data, and the need for legislation regarding the collection of beneficial ownership at the corporate formation stage. El-Hindi also suggested – perhaps without the complete agreement of his audience – that regulators tend to under-regulate, rather than over-regulate. He stated: “But in an area such as ours where we have developed a strong partnership with industry and where we believe that you are just as vested in our mission to thwart bad actors as we are, it is important for us to use our authorities fully.”

His remarks are particularly relevant given the 2020 Examination Priorities recently issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), which states that the OCIE will prioritize examining broker-dealers and investment companies “for compliance with their AML obligations in order to assess, among other things, whether firms have established appropriate customer identification programs and whether they are satisfying their SAR filing obligations, conducting due diligence on customers, complying with beneficial ownership requirements, and conducting robust and timely independent tests of their AML programs.”
Continue Reading FinCEN Stresses Transparency, BSA Filing Data, and Perils of “Under- Regulating” to Securities Industry

Happy New Year! And, happy birthday to Money Laundering Watch, which is entering its fourth year.

Let’s look back2019 has been yet another busy year in the world of money laundering and BSA/AML. We are highlighting 12 of our most-read blog posts, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined during

ABA Tax Fraud Panel to Discuss IRS CI and Crypto Criminals

The Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation (IRS CI) has made it clear that it is focusing on the abuse of digital currencies to further tax evasion, money laundering, and other offenses. IRS-CI also has made it clear that this is an international effort, and that it is trying to partner with law enforcement agencies across the globe in order to coordinate and share investigative leads.

This is a hot topic, and we are honored that Ballard Spahr will be moderating a panel on these very same issues, at the ABA’s annual Tax Fraud/Tax Controversy Conference in Las Vegas on December 12, entitled Charging Cryptocurrency Violations—Tax Crimes or Money Laundering.  We are pleased to be joined by our wonderful panelists, Evan J. Davis, Betty J. Williams, and Ian M. Comiskey.  This is a unique conference, and we invite you to attend if you are interested in the fascinating cross-section of tax evasion and money laundering.

This blog will discuss the recent efforts by IRS-CI to “up its game” in investigating cross-border offenses committed through cryptocurrency, such as its participation in the international Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement task force. We then will discuss a recent high-profile case which exemplifies these two goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials to do so: the notorious “Welcome to Video” case, which led to a global takedown of a darkweb child pornography website, its administrator, and its customers. The Welcome to Video investigation, led by IRS-CI, also illustrates a key point we will discuss at the ABA conference: that cryptocurrency is only “pseudo-anonymous,” and that its protections can yield to a determined combination of modern digital forensics and old-fashioned investigative techniques.
Continue Reading IRS CI Highlights International Efforts to Tackle Cryptocurrency Abuse, Money Laundering and Tax Evasion