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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.


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Danske Bank: “If we’re going down, you’re coming with us.”

First Post in a Two-Post Series

On March 19, 2020, Swedbank received the first of what will likely be multiple sanctions regarding alleged deficiencies in its Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) processes and mishandling of information exchanges with public investigations. At the conclusion of parallel investigations by Swedish and Estonian authorities, Swedbank AB must now 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 the applicable requirements. These penalties are all prelude to the ongoing investigations by the Latvian Police Department, European Central Bank, Swedish Economic Crime Authority, several United States authorities and, presumably, the inevitable private securities litigation to come.

In this post, we will discuss the various public AML-related investigations and enforcement actions plaguing Swedbank.  In our next post, we will discuss the details and implications of the report of internal investigation regarding these problems performed by an outside law firm at the request of Swedbank, which has made the report publicly available.  The bigger picture: the saga of Swedbank is just part of the larger and seemingly non-stop AML debacle centered around Danske Bank and its now-notorious Estonian Branch.
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Report Focuses on Anonymity, Real Estate Transactions and Complicit Lawyers

Report Also Signals Upcoming AML Regulation for Certain Niche Institutions

Second Post in a Two-Post Series

In its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2020 Strategy”), the U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) has laid out its AML and money laundering enforcement priorities. Last week, we blogged about the 2020 Strategy and focused on the document’s findings and recommendations for increased transparency into beneficial ownership; strengthening international regulation and coordination, and modernization of the BSA/AML regime in regards to technological innovation.

Here, we focus on the 2020 Strategy as it relates to combating money laundering relating to real estate transactions and gatekeeper professions in general, such as lawyers, real estate professionals and other financial professionals, including broker dealers. Importantly, the 2020 Strategy also notes that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) is working on a proposed regulation which would extend AML obligations for banks and other financial institutions not subject to a federal functional regulator; there are an estimated 669 such institutions in the U.S.
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