Public Risks Posed by Unbanked and Cash-Heavy Industry Deemed Insufficient to Outweigh Federal Law Concerns

As we just blogged, the New York State Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) has published guidance to “clarify the regulatory landscape and encourage” New York, state-chartered banks and credit unions to “offer banking services” to “marijuana related businesses licensed by New York state[,]” thereby identifying New York as a state friendly to financial services for marijuana-related businesses. In stark contrast, Ed Leary, Commissioner of the Utah Department of Financial Institutions (“UDFI”), recently articulated the polar opposite position, thereby exemplifying the increasingly bewildering patchwork quilt of approaches to banking and anti-money laundering (“AML”) policy in regards to state-licensed marijuana businesses.

In a presentation on August 17, 2018 to members of the National Association of Industrial Banks and the Utah Association of Financial Services, Commissioner Leary advised that UDFI will not ask any financial institutions regulated by his department to provide banking or payment processing services to cannabis-related businesses. To the contrary, if any examination conducted by UDFI identifies evidence of cannabis-related banking activities, UDFI will cite the conduct as an apparent violation of federal law.
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In February 2017, we blogged about a whistleblower complaint filed against Bank of the Internet (“BofI”) by its former internal auditor. The blog post addressed what the whistleblower believed was BofI’s wrongdoing in relation to responding to a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), and when dealing with a certain loan customer in potential violation of the Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) rules of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).

Less than two months after our blog post, three BofI stockholders brought a putative class action complaint against BofI seeking to represent a class of individuals who purchased BofI stock, in a case captioned Mandalevey v. BofI Holding, Inc. These plaintiffs alleged BofI violated the Securities Exchange Act through, among other alleged misrepresentations, falsely denying the company was under investigation for money laundering violations.  A federal court recently dismissed all claims against BofI.

This post focuses on that decision, the allegations relating to the federal investigation of BofI, and the Court’s interesting reasoning in dismissing these plaintiffs’ claims. Although the bank won this latest round, the saga involving BofI underscores how financial institutions face an increasing risk that alleged AML and Counter-Terrorism Financing (“CTF”) violations will lead to follow-on allegations of securities law violations – allegations brought not only by the government (see here), but also by investor class action suits (see here, here and here).
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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued a statement earlier this week regarding testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Committee on Financial Services regarding the potential perils of “derisking.”

As described by the GAO, “derisking is the practice of depository institutions limiting certain services or ending

Bank’s Alleged “Tick Box” Approach Failed to Attain Substantive AML Compliance

Late last week, the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”), the United Kingdom’s financial services regulator, imposed a $1.2 million (896,100 pound) fine on the UK division of India’s Canara Bank, an Indian state-owned bank, and ordered a moratorium on new deposits for nearly five months.  The cause—according to Reuters—was Canara’s systemic anti-money laundering (“AML”) failures.

A 44-page final notice published by the FCA explains the multi-year regulatory process that led to a finding of systemic failures and the imposition of penalties.  The FCA’s investigation began in late 2012 and early 2013 with assessments of Canara’s AML systems.  Upon inspection, the FCA “notified Canara of a number of serious weaknesses in its AML systems and controls.”  After promises of remedial action by Canara, an April 2015 visit revealed that the AML systems had not been fixed.  The investigation ended with a final report from a “skilled person,” an expert brought in by the FCA to assess Canara’s AML policies and procedures, completed in January 2016.  Settlement followed, resulting in sanctions and the FCA’s published final notice.

These three visits from the FCA generated a laundry list of Canara’s AML shortcomings.  This enforcement action reflects three main take-aways: (i) the potential risks faced by banks operating in foreign countries in which they have limited AML experience; (ii) the need for swift remedial action after the first examination finding AML deficiencies; and (iii) the need for a substantive AML policy implemented in a substantive way, rather than through a rote reliance on AML-related checklists.
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Commonwealth Bank of Australia (“CBA”), the largest bank in Australia, has agreed to a proposed civil settlement — subject to court approval — of historic proportions, involving a fine of approximately $700 million Australian dollars (roughly equivalent to $530 million U.S. dollars) regarding numerous alleged Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter Terrorism Financing (“CTF”) violations.  The settlement is with the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (“AUSTRAC”) – a government financial intelligence agency whose counterpart in the U.S. would be the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) — and represents the largest such enforcement action in the history of Australia.  Under the settlement, AUSTRAC also will recoup its legal costs of $2.5 million Australian dollars.

As we have blogged, AUSTRAC filed on August 3, 2017 a claim seeking civil monetary penalties against CBA for over 53,000 alleged violations of Australia’s AML/CTF law.  Although the case involves several types of alleged AML violations, it fundamentally rests on the bank’s use of so-called intelligent deposit machines (“IDMs”), a type of ATM which allowed customers to anonymously deposit and transfer cash.  Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, the IDMs also became an alleged favored conduit for money laundering by criminals involved in drug trafficking and illegal firearms.
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And a Tale of Four Countries: Singapore Fines a U.K. Bank, and the U.S. Imposes a Consent Order on a Chinese Bank

Less than a week apart, two major financial institutions (“FIs”) have been hit with penalties for failing to implement adequate anti-money laundering (“AML”) protections. But the penalties imposed by the involved regulators are different.  In this post, we report on the enforcement actions recently lodged against Standard Chartered PLC and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the United States Federal Reserve, respectively.  We also consider the approaches of these two regulators to the banks and the differing outcomes of the enforcement actions.


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Second Part in a Two-Part Series

The Tale of an AML BSA Exam Gone Wrong

As we have blogged, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the decision of the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) to issue a cease and desist order against California Pacific Bank (the “Bank”) for the Bank’s alleged failure to comply with Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations or have a sufficient plan and program in place to do so.

In our first post, we described how the Ninth Circuit rejected the Bank’s constitutional challenge to the relevant regulation, and accorded broad deference to the FDIC in its interpretations of its own regulations, expressed in the form of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council Manual (“FFIEC Manual”).  This post discusses the Court’s review of the Bank’s challenge under the Administrative Procedures Act to the FDIC’s factual findings of AML program failings.

The California Pacific opinion provides a significant piece of guidance for banks questioning the adequacy of its BSA compliance program: consult and abide the FFIEC Manual.  Furthermore, it demonstrates that no shortcuts are permitted when it comes to establishing and maintaining a BSA compliance program.  The BSA and the FDIC’s regulations contain firm guidelines and the FFIEC Manual puts banks of all sizes on notice of what compliance is expected of them.  The independence of both the AML compliance officer and of testing; adequate risk assessments of customer accounts; and the correction of prior regulator findings of AML deficiencies are key.
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Court Defers Heavily to the FDIC and the FFIEC Manual

First Part in a Two-Part Series

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the decision of the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) to issue a cease and desist order against California Pacific Bank (the “Bank”) for the Bank’s alleged failure to comply with Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations or have a sufficient plan and program in place to do so.

This decision, California Pacific Bank v. FDIC, provides a nearly step-by-step analysis of what is required of banks under the BSA and a vivid illustration of an Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) program that did not pass muster in the eyes of a regulator.  It highlights the general rules that banks of all sizes, but particularly smaller community banks, must keep in mind concerning their compliance programs – size does not matter and you are on notice of what compliance entails.

Importantly, and before upholding the FDIC’s factual findings regarding the Bank’s violations, the Ninth Circuit first rejected the Bank’s claim that the regulation at issue (which required the Bank to implement an AML compliance program which complied with the “four pillars” of such a program) was unconstitutionally vague. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit found that the FDIC has broad discretion when interpreting this regulation, described by the Court as “ambiguous.”

This post will summarize the case and the key role played by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council Manual (“FFIEC Manual”) in both the Court’s rejection of the constitutional challenge and the broad deference which the Court accorded to the FDIC and its interpretation of its own regulations.  The second post will turn to the Bank’s alleged AML program failings and the Bank’s challenges to the FDIC’s many factual findings.
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But Bank Customer’s Foreign Tax Evasion Scheme Still May Merit a SAR FilingThe Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) recently advised that a financial institution is not required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) based solely upon a customer’s inquiry into or participation in a foreign tax regularization program.  FinCEN issued this statement on February 21, 2018 in response to Florida International Banker’s Association’s request for guidance (“FIBA Request”) in 2016, which initiated the request because a number of its members expressed an interest in tax regularization programs and sought clarification on the AML implications of such programs.

This issue, perhaps seemingly esoteric, involves a basic question of increasing practical importance, particularly in light of the Panama Papers related international scandals, and global criticism of the U.S. as a potential haven for foreign tax cheats and money launderers: does the possibility of foreign tax evasion by a bank client necessarily trigger the need to file a SAR? Foreign tax evasion can represent potential violations of U.S. law, such as the federal mail or wire fraud statutes, which in turn may support a prosecution theory that related financial transactions involving foreign tax evasion and the U.S. financial system represent potential U.S. money laundering violations (for a detailed article on this issue, please see here).
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Alleged Illicit Activity Included Transactions Promoting North Korea’s Missile Program and an Institutional Commitment to Laundering Money

On February 13, 2018, FinCEN announced that it had proposed a special measure naming ABLV Bank, AS (“ABLV”) an institution of primary money laundering concern pursuant to Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act.  We previously have blogged about FinCEN’s powers pursuant to Section 311 of the U.S. Patriot Act to designate institution “of primary money laundering concern” and impose a special measure which effectively cuts off the bank’s access to the U.S. financial system by requiring U.S. institutions as well as foreign institutions that create an indirect link between the foreign institution and the U.S. to sever ties with the designated bank.

Finding that ABLV was a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern, FinCEN proposed a prohibition under the fifth special measure restricting domestic financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts with or on behalf of ABLV. FinCEN stated that ABLV executives, shareholders, and employees have institutionalized money laundering as a pillar of the bank’s business practices by orchestrating money laundering schemes, soliciting high-risk shell company activity that enables the bank and its customers to launder funds, maintaining inadequate controls over high-risk shell company accounts, and seeking to obstruct enforcement of Latvian anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) rules in order to protect these business practices.  Indeed, included in the illicit financial activity were transactions for parties connected to the U.S. and U.N.-designated entities, some of which are involved in North Korea’s procurement or export of ballistic missiles.

ABLV shot back last Thursday stating that the allegations were based “on assumptions and information that is currently unavailable to the bank,” but that they were “continuing check into these allegations” and were open to cooperation with U.S. authorities.  As a result of FinCEN’s finding, Monday morning, the European Central Bank (“ECB”) halted all payments by ABLV pending further investigation into the allegations set forth in FinCEN’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”).
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