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

FBI Highlights Feared AML Deficiencies in Combating Private Equity Money Laundering

Courtesy of a leaked internal Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) document, it’s now no secret that the FBI suspects that many investment vehicles, such as private equity firms and hedge funds, are widely utilized for money laundering. The FBI apparently compiled a January 2019 report titled “Financial Crime Threat Actors Very Likely Laundering Illicit Proceeds Through Fraudulent Hedge Funds and Private Equity Firms to Obfuscate Illicit Proceeds.” Now, a recently leaked May 1, 2020 internal FBI report similarly titled “Threat Actors Likely Use Private Investment Funds to Launder Money, Circumventing Regulatory Tripwires” (the “Report”) purports to supplement the January 2019 report “by providing recent reporting of hedge funds and private equity firms used to launder illicit proceeds, and expands the threat context beyond financial threat actors to include foreign adversaries.”

The Report does more than simply identify the financial threat posed by this type of money laundering; it uses some real-world examples to explain the process by which criminals are perceived to be infiltrating the global financial system using hedge funds and private equity firms, and how the current anti-money laundering (“AML”) regulatory regime is ill-equipped to stop them. It’s safe to say the FBI certainly did not intend for this play-by-play money laundering “how to” guide to go public. Investment advisors and firms should consider whether this leaked Report might add at least some momentum to the otherwise moribund (and controversial) effort by FinCEN in 2015 to propose regulations that would have made investment advisors subject to the requirement to create and maintain full AML programs under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).
Continue Reading Leaked FBI Report Reveals Private Equity Under Enhanced Money Laundering Scrutiny

Recent DOJ Forfeiture Action Against High-End Real Estate in Notorious Corruption Scheme Underscores Issues 

We are pleased to be presenting on Money Laundering and the Real Estate Industry on May 20 before the Real Estate Services Providers Council (RESPRO), a national non-profit trade association representing businesses before federal and state policy makers, and

As expected, on May 8, 2020, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) reissued its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) requiring U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate performed without a bank loan or similar form of external financing.  The monetary threshold remains at $300,000,

We are really pleased to be moderating the Practising Law Institute’s 2020 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 12, 2020, starting at 9 a.m. Perhaps needless to say, this year’s conference will be entirely virtual.  But the conference still should be as informative, interesting and timely as always.  Our conference co-chair, Nicole S. Healy of Ropers

Examiners Should Focus on Risk, Not Technical Perfection

On April 15, 2020, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) released updates to the Bank Secretary Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) examination manual (the “Manual”). As the FFIEC Interagency press release described, the Manual provides “instructions to examiners when assessing the adequacy of a bank’s BSA/AML compliance program.” The “release of the updated sections provides further transparency into the BSA/AML examination process and does not establish new requirements.” The press release further stated the revisions were made to, among other objectives, emphasize examiners should be “tailoring BSA/AML examination to a bank’s risk profile,” to “ensure language clearly distinguishes between mandatory regulatory requirements and supervisory expectations” for examiners, and to “incorporate regulatory changes since the last update of the Manual in 2014.”

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) also issued a press release regarding the updates. Its statement recognized “financial institutions are faced with uncertainty during this unprecedented time,” therefore the FDIC cautioned the update, “which supports tailored examination work, has been in process for an extended period and should not be interpreted as new instructions or as an augmented focus.”

The updates focus on four steps in the examination process:

  • Scoping and Planning
  • BSA/AML Risk Assessment
  • Assessing the BSA Compliance Program
  • Developing Conclusions and Finalizing the Examination

The updates emphasize examiners should take a “risk-focused” approach to tailor the review of a regulated institution’s BSA/AML compliance program, meaning the examination should be tailored to the risk profile of that specific institution.  The Manual updates incorporate guidance on more recent developments such as Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) and Beneficial Ownership requirements and a recognition of innovations in collaborations among smaller institutions.  Importantly, the Manual reminds examiners that banks have flexibility in the design of their BSA/AML compliance programs, and that minor weaknesses, deficiencies, and technical violations alone do not indicate an inadequate program.
Continue Reading FFIEC BSA/AML Examination Manual Updates Reveal Exam Process and Expectations

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

Second Post in a Two-Post Series on Recent FATF Activity

As we just blogged, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) issued a statement from its President on COVID-19 and measures to combat illicit financing during the pandemic (the “Statement”). Before turning its attention to COVID-19, however, FATF issued a more traditional report, and one with potentially longer-term implications: its 3rd Enhanced Follow-up Report & Technical Compliance Re-Rating of the United States’s Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter-Terrorist Financing (“CTF”) (the “United States Report”) measures. The United States Report was the third follow-up on a mutual evaluation report of the United States that was adopted in October 2016. During the first two evaluations, “certain technical compliance deficiencies” were identified. The United States Report evaluates the United States efforts’ in addressing those deficiencies. Moreover, FATF evaluated the United States’ progress in implementing new recommendations since February 2016.

FATF’s judgment: The United States has improved, particularly in the area of customer due diligence and the identification of beneficial ownership.
Continue Reading Financial Action Task Force Grades America’s AML Compliance

Some Commentary on the Unfortunate Relationship Between Crisis and Fraud

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) released today an update (“Update”) on its March 16, 2020 COVID-19 Notice, on which we previously blogged, for the stated reason of assisting “financial institutions in complying with their Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and announc[ing] a direct contact mechanism for urgent COVID-19-related issues.” Further, the Update states that “FinCEN is committed to promoting the success of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), including the need to facilitate expeditious disbursal of CARES Act funds.”  This post will summarize briefly the Update, and make a few high-level comments.

The COVID-19 pandemic — pernicious, unpredictable and continually evolving — resists facile pronouncements.  With that caveat, it is rational to predict that many financial institutions subject to the BSA will face significant issues in the very near future because of the unfortunate confluence of increased fraud schemes seeking to capitalize on the pandemic, coupled with the fact that many BSA/AML compliance teams will be straining in this age of “social distancing” and enforced working remotely to maintain an adequate amount of staff and degree of communication needed to catch and report suspicious activity, among other obligations under the BSA.  Stated otherwise, we are entering a time of maximum fraud and a reduced capacity to stand guard.

Further, as the pandemic continues and then recedes, the previously existing fraud schemes will come to light — just like during the financial crisis of 2008, when the Bernie Madoffs of the world were exposed — because desperate investors will be demanding their cash back, and some soon will discover that their money actually was stolen a while ago.  Investigations, prosecutions and litigations will ensue.

Turning to the Update by FinCEN, we summarize here greatly.  In our view, the Update provides some generally helpful information, but little in the way of concrete guidance.
Continue Reading FinCEN Issues COVID-19 AML Update for Financial Institutions

Second Post in a Two-Post Series

On March 19, 2020, Swedbank received its first sanction at the conclusion of parallel investigations by Swedish and Estonian authorities for its role in the seemingly non-stop Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) debacle centered around Danske Bank and its now-notorious Estonian Branch. In the first of what will likely be multiple sanctions, Swedbank AB was ordered to pay a record 4 billion Swedish Krona ($38 million) and its subsidiary, Swedbank AS, has been ordered to improve its AML risk control systems to comply with applicable requirements.

In our first post, we discussed the various public AML-related investigations and enforcement actions plaguing Swedbank. In this post, we discuss the details and implication of the report of internal investigation regarding Swedbank’s alleged deficiencies in its AML processes performed by an outside law firm at the request of Swedbank, which has made the report publically available.

The Report is lengthy and detailed.  As we discuss, however, the Report highlights some basic, evergreen issues in AML compliance and enforcement: the need to implement adequate systems to manage high-risk customers; the need to identify beneficial ownership; the need for top management to understand and truly respect AML compliance; the need for transparency with regulators; and the need for transparency by financial institutions with investors and the public.


Continue Reading AML Problems Plague Swedbank: The Internal Investigation Report