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

Is Art an “Ideal Playing Ground” for Money Laundering?

Last week, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for the U.S. Senate released a detailed, 147-page report titled “The Art Industry and U.S. Policies That Undermine Sanctions” (“the Report”). Although the Report ostensibly addresses the evasion of U.S. sanctions law, much of the Report actually focuses on the connection between high-end art and potential money laundering schemes and anti-money laundering (“AML”) risks. Among other proposals, the Report recommends that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) be amended to include art dealers as “financial institutions” subject to AML obligations under the BSA.

The Report focuses on an elaborate case study documenting how certain Russian oligarchs allegedly used transactions involving high-end art and shell companies to evade U.S. sanctions, imposed on them on March 20, 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. We will not focus on the detailed allegations in the Report regarding the particular facts of this alleged scheme, or the alleged involvement of certain major art auction houses. Rather, we will focus on the more general sections in the Report relating to systemic concerns about the potential role of high-end art in money laundering schemes, and the more general findings of fact and recommendations generated by these concerns.

The Report was not issued in a vacuum; rather, it clearly was written in part to spur legislative action. Proposed legislation on BSA/AML reform is pending before the U.S. Congress and Senate, including a proposal – currently nestled within a lengthy proposed amendment to a defense spending bill – to (i) add to the list of “financial institutions” covered by the BSA “a person trading or acting as an intermediary in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation of the sale of antiquities;” and (ii) require a study by the Secretary of the Treasury “on the facilitation of money laundering and terror finance through the trade of works of art or antiquities,” including an evaluation of whether certain art industry markets (“by size, entity type, domestic or international geographic locations, or otherwise”) should be regulated under the BSA. And, this general issue has been percolating for some time. Last year, we blogged in detail about the potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes, and the voluntary AML programs which art dealers might adopt to combat such schemes.
Continue Reading Using Art to Evade Sanctions and Launder Money: The Senate Report

On April 17, 2019, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida (the “Government”) announced its non-prosecution agreement (available here) entered into with a Miami-based gold refinery, Republic Metals Corp. (“RMC”), related to the refinery’s failure to maintain a robust anti-money laundering (“AML”) program. RMC is the second American refinery whose AML program has been identified as deficient by the Government as part of its ongoing probe into gold imports from South American countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador (dubbed “Operation Arch Stanton”). The Government’s decision to decline prosecution against RMC stands in stark contrast to its prosecution last year of another refinery, Texas-based Elemetal LLC (“Elemetal”), arising from the same probe.
Continue Reading Gold and Money Laundering

On April 2nd, the New Directions in Anti-Kleptocracy Forum, organized by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, will identify emerging issue areas relating to kleptocracy. I am excited to be serving as a co-panelist on the forum’s Art Market as a Node of Kleptocracy panel, which will discuss beneficial ownership and the luxury

The potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes has attracted increasing attention over the last several years, particularly as the prices for such objects steadily rise and a tightening global enforcement and regulatory net has rendered other possible avenues for money laundering increasingly less attractive. The effort to subject U.S. dealers in art and antiquities to Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) obligations recently has gained new life.  As we blogged, the House Financial Services Committee just released three proposed bills to codify many of the reform ideas that have been swirling around the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”) and AML and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) laws.  One of the bills — entitled as the “To make reforms to the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” —  catalogues various detailed provisions seeking to reform the BSA and AML laws.  Nestled admist all of the other, generally higher-profile proposals (such as the creation of a BSA whistleblower program), one short section of this bill simply expands the list of defined “financial institutions” covered by the BSA to include “dealers in art or antiquities,” and then states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall issue implementing regulations within 180 days of the bill’s enactment.

Regardless of whether this provision ultimately is enacted, the underlying issue will persist.  This post discusses some of the general concerns that the art and antiquities world can be misused as a conduit for dirty money.  We then discuss the AML Standards for Art Market Operators proposed by the Basel Institute on Governance, and similar standards set forth by the Responsible Art Market, both of which attempt to set forth a framework for those in the business of trading art to mitigate their money laundering risks.
Continue Reading Art and Money Laundering