On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced two developments:  First, the release of a 66-page report, The Role of Law Enforcement in Detecting, Investigating, and Prosecuting Criminal Activity Related to Digital Assets (the “Report”), issued under President Biden’s March 9, 2022 Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets.  Second, the establishment of the Digital Asset Coordinator (“DAC”) Network, a nationwide group of prosecutors designated as legal and technical experts in digital asset cases.

We focus here on the regulatory and legislative recommendations of the Report, which seek to expand significantly the ability of the DOJ to investigate and prosecute offenses involving digital assets. The recommendations include increasing criminal penalties, extending statutes of limitations, expanding venue provisions, enhancing the government’s forfeiture powers, and prohibiting virtual asset service providers from “tipping off” the subjects of grand jury subpoenas received by the providers.  The recommendations also include making clear that the federal criminal law against maintaining an unlicensed money transmitter applies to peer-to-peer platforms that purportedly do not take custody or assume control over the digital asset being exchanged; ensuring that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issues a final rule expanding the application of the Travel Rule under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to digital asset transfers; and expanding or arguably clarifying that the BSA applies to platforms dealing in non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, including online auction houses and digital art galleries.

Continue Reading  DOJ Issues Report on Digital Asset Law Enforcement Seeking Expansive New Powers, and Launches New Crypto Prosecutor Network

Sentencing is a critical stage in the federal criminal process, particularly given the incredibly high rate of guilty pleas in federal court.  There is a very strong argument that sentencing far eclipses the importance of the increasingly rare trial in the federal criminal system.  If a federal criminal investigation cannot be “killed,” then in many cases – particularly in “white collar” cases – the focus early on for both the defense and the prosecution is the sentencing hearing, and how to maximize one’s position, because a federal charge often produces a conviction via plea, or less often, via trial.  Stated otherwise, federal criminal defense is often all about sentencing.

At sentencing, sometimes defendants – and, less often, the prosecution – will make arguments regarding “similarly situated” defendants, and the sentences that they received.  Sometimes these arguments resonate with the sentencing court; sometimes not.  Regardless, these arguments can be tricky because reliable “statistics” are elusive, and it’s not always clear that justifiable comparisons are being drawn by either side.  We therefore were interested when the U.S. Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”) recently issued the Judiciary Sentencing Information (“JSIN”) platform.  Although it is difficult to draw clear conclusions from the JSIN platform, the data is nonetheless fascinating, and we discuss in this blog potential insights into sentences for money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) offenses.

We have reviewed the data and created summary charts for your consideration.  Because the Commission has invited federal judges to use the JSIN platform when sentencing, it by definition is relevant to defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Continue Reading  U.S. Sentencing Commission Data on Money Laundering and BSA-Related Offenses Reveals:  Courts Often Sentence Below the Guidelines Range

Art & Antiquities; Beneficial Owners; Foreign Corruption — and More

We are really pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2021 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 11, 2021, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference again will be entirely virtual — but it will be as informative, interesting and timely as

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) continues to pursue Venezuelan nationals through high-dollar and high-profile money laundering and foreign bribery charges. The latest development in this ongoing saga is the recent sentencing of the former national treasurer of Venezuela, Alejandro Andrade Cedeno (“Andrade”), by the Southern District of Florida to a decade in prison, after Andrade pleaded guilty last year to a single-count information charging him with conspiracy to commit money laundering (specifically, a conspiracy to violation 18 U.S.C. § 1957, the so-called “spending” money laundering provision, which requires transactions involving over $10,000 in criminal proceeds, but no specific intent) in an alleged sprawling bribery and money laundering scheme. His plea agreement (the “Plea”) was one of several connected proceedings unsealed on November 20, most notable of which is the grand jury indictment (the “Indictment”) of fugitive Raúl Gorrín Belisario (“Gorrín”), the owner of Venezuelan cable news network Globovision, erstwhile resident of Miami, and alleged architect of the money laundering conspiracy.

Although he retired to Florida after having served as the head of the Venezuelan treasury, Andrade did not begin his career in the world of high finance. Rather, his climb to power and wealth began when he used to serve as the bodyguard for the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

As we will discuss, there is more to come. Aside from telling a lurid tale of corruption rewarded through high-end bribes involving aircraft, real estate (widely acknowledged as a major vehicle for laundering) and thoroughbred horses, Andrade’s plea agreement contains cooperation language, and his counsel has stated publically that Andrade has been cooperating with the DOJ for some time. Notably, Andrade was charged only with a single count of Section 1957, which has a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years – exactly the sentence imposed on Andrade, whose advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines range was presumably much, much higher. It is fair to assume that Andrade will be pursuing a second sentencing hearing at which his sentence could be reduced based on his cooperation with the government.

Andrade’s case is part of a steady stream of money laundering and bribery charges recently brought by the DOJ which relate to Venezuela, which is reeling from massive inflation and a near-existential economic crisis that is inflicting widespread suffering. His case also represents another instance of the DOJ’s increasing tactic of using the money laundering statutes to charge foreign officials who cannot be charged directly under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).
Continue Reading  Another Sprawling Money Laundering and Bribery Scheme Involving Venezuela: Currency Exchange Rate Manipulation, Rewarded By Aircraft, Real Estate, and Thoroughbred Horses

On August 29, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) a story that other news outlets later have picked up: the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is investigating whether Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman at the center of the alleged embezzlement of $4.5 billion from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (“1MDB”), is paying – via two intermediaries – his U.S.-based lawyers with allegedly tainted funds. The report states that there is no indication at this time that the U.S. attorneys were aware that the funds could have originated from money Mr. Low allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB. Rather, the investigation centers on Low’s potential use of intermediaries to facilitate the payments. The DOJ already has filed civil forfeiture complaints seeking to recover almost $1.7 billion in various high-end assets from Mr. Low and others allegedly bought with the embezzled funds, and it reportedly is investigating Mr. Low individually for potential criminal charges.

In light of this report, and the growing attention paid to the potential money laundering risks faced by third-party professionals and lawyers in particular (on which we have blogged: see here, here, here, here, here, here and here), now is a good time to consider how U.S. money laundering and forfeiture laws may apply to attorneys for their work when they receive potentially tainted fees from clients. As we discuss, the criminal and civil forfeiture laws have a potentially broad reach, even in regards to legal payments.
Continue Reading  Use of Tainted Assets to Pay Attorney Fees: A Primer on the Pitfalls

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Isaac Chotiner of Slate, the daily on-line magazine, regarding the mechanics of the federal money laundering statutes.   Isaac was particularly interested in how those statutes might apply to real estate transactions – a topic of definite interest these days.  Please see the interview here.

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Most individuals convicted of federal money laundering charges face prison time. These prison sentences are often increased by the judge’s determination that certain sentencing enhancements unique to this crime apply.  This post looks at two of those enhancements—those relating to defendants engaged in the “business of laundering funds” and those involved in “sophisticated laundering”—with a brief review of the relevant statutory guidance followed by analysis of recent cases addressing them. The importance of sentencing issues in money laundering cases is underscored by recent developments. Earlier this year, the United States Attorney General released a memorandum establishing the Department of Justice’s policy for charging and sentencing.  In this memorandum, Attorney General Sessions placed renewed emphasis on sentencing and disclosure to the sentencing court of “all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines.”  Even before this memorandum, however, sentencing data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that in 2016, 78.6% of the individuals convicted of money laundering as their “primary offense” were incarcerated—a figure higher than the previous two years (see 2015 data here and 2014 data here).  The mean prison sentence for these individuals was 41 months
Continue Reading  Unique Issues in Sentencing for Money Laundering Convictions:  The “Business of Laundering Funds” and “Sophisticated Laundering” Enhancements

U.S. Money Laundering Charges Stemmed from Foreign Bribes to Foreign Official by Foreign Companies

On August 25, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York sentenced former Guinea Minister of Mines and Geology, Mahmoud Thiam, to seven years in prison, followed by three years of supervised probations, for laundering $8.5 million bribes paid to him by China Sonangol International Ltd. and China International Fun, SA (CIF).  The judge also entered an order for the forfeiture of the full of $8.5 million of laundered funds.  The sentence followed Thiam’s conviction by a jury in May 2017 of money laundering.

Although the alleged money laundering transactions charged in the indictment involved wire transfers from foreign banks to bank accounts held in New York City, all of the bribery which produced the illicit proceeds at issue in the money laundering charges occurred entirely overseas. As we will discuss, this case serves as a reminder that the offense of money laundering centers on a discrete financial transaction, not the underlying illegal activity. This case also illustrates the willingness of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to pursue cases primarily involving conduct which occurred abroad, and also how the DOJ may use the money laundering statutes – assuming that there is a U.S. jurisdictional hook – to pursue certain individuals who would be untouchable under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: the foreign officials themselves who are receiving the bribes.
Continue Reading  Former Guinean Minister of Mines Sentenced to Seven Years in Prison for Laundering $8.5 Million in Bribes Paid by Chinese Companies in Exchange for Mining Rights

On July 26, FinCEN, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California (“NDCA USAO”), assessed a $110,003,314 civil money penalty against BTC-e a/k/a Canton Business Corporation (“BTC-e”) for willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and a $12 million penalty against Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national who is one of the alleged operators of BTC-e, for his role in the violations.  FinCEN’s press release indicates that this is the first enforcement action it has taken against a foreign-located money services business (“MSB”) doing business in the United States.  As we previously have blogged, FinCEN released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is an MSB under the BSA unless a limitation or exemption applies.

In a parallel criminal investigation, Vinnik was arrested and detained in Greece and charged in a 21-count superseding indictment brought by the NDCA USAO and DOJ’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. The superseding indictment alleges that Vinnik and BTC-e operated an unlicensed MSB doing business in the U.S., in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960, and committed money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, by facilitating virtual currency transactions involving various crimes, including computer hacking, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption, and drug trafficking. The superseding indictment also provides some clues to the fate of the collapsed virtual currency exchange Mt. Gox, once reportedly the largest such exchange in the world.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Takes First Action Against Foreign-Located MSB—“The Virtual Currency Exchange of Choice for Criminals”—For Willfully Violating U.S. AML Laws