Years in the making, on February 13, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) to include “investment adviser” (“IA”) within the definition of “financial institution” under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). FinCEN has posted a fact sheet on the NPRM here.

The NPRM subjects broad categories of IAs to statutory and regulatory anti-money laundering/countering terrorist financing (“AML/CTF”) compliance obligations. FinCEN is accepting comments on the NPRM until April 15, 2024.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Seeks to Make Investment Advisers Subject to Bank Secrecy Act

Farewell to 2023, and welcome 2024.  As we do every year, let’s look back.

We highlight 10 of our most-read blog posts from 2023, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined during the past year: criminal money laundering enforcement; compliance risks with third-party fintech relationships; the scope of authority of bank regulators; sanctions

Priorities Echo Prior Alerts and Enforcement Actions

The SEC’s Division of Examinations (the “Division”) released on October 16 a report on its “Examination Priorities” (the “Report”) for fiscal year 2024.  This release occurred earlier than in prior years, which the Report’s prefatory message characterizes as an example of the Division’s “intention to provide more transparency” and “to move forward together with investors and industry to promote compliance.”

The Report

The Report highlights four major areas of focus for the Division’s examinations in the coming year, which it terms “risk areas impacting various market participants”:

  1. Anti-money laundering (“AML”);
  2. Information security and “operational resilience”;
  3. Crypto and emerging financial technologies (“fintech”); and
  4. Regulation systems compliance and integrity (“SCI”).

As to AML, the Report first rehearses the requirement of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) for broker-dealers: namely, that they establish AML programs tailored to their unique risk profile – their location, size, customer base, menu of products and services, and method of delivery of those products and services. The Report further notes that such AML programs must be reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the BSA and related regulations, must undergo independent testing of their viability, and must include customer due diligence procedures and ongoing transaction monitoring – including, where appropriate, filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”).  Although the Report also references “certain registered investment companies,” investment advisers as a group are not (yet) subject to the BSA.

Continue Reading  SEC Exam Priorities Target AML

On July 31, 2023, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) published an alert outlining deficiencies the Division of Examinations has observed in broker-dealers’ (“BD”) compliance with anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering terrorism financing (“CTF”) requirements.  While the alert addresses overarching compliance requirements for BDs, it focuses on deficiencies the Division of Examinations has observed with regard to independent testing of BDs’ AML programs, personnel training and identification and verification of customers and their beneficial owners.

The alert makes two over-arching observations.  First, BDs “did not appear to devote sufficient resources, including staffing, to AML compliance given the volume and risks of their business.”  Second, the “effectiveness of policies, procedures, and internal controls was reduced when firms did not implement those measures consistently.”  Emphasizing the key elements of an adequate AML program BDs must implement, the Alert then shifts its focus to independent testing and training and customer identification and customer due diligence.

Continue Reading  SEC Issues Alert Outlining Deficiencies in Broker-Dealers’ AML Compliance

We previously blogged about the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s (“FinCEN’s”) issuance on June 30 of the first government-wide list of priorities for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (“AML/CFT”) (the “Priorities”), as required by the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AML Act”). The eight-item list was a “greatest hits” rundown of

Amicus Briefs Urge that Only FinCEN, Not the SEC, Should Enforce the BSA in Regards to Broker-Dealers

In the next stage of the Alpine Securities saga (as we blogged about here, here and here), a petition for a writ of certiorari is pending before the Supreme Court, asking the Court to decide whether the Southern District of New York and the Second Circuit correctly decided that the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) may bring suit directly to enforce compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Distilled, the Second Circuit and the District Court ruled that by promulgating Rule 17a-8, which states in part that “[e]very registered broker or dealer who is subject to the requirements of the [BSA] shall comply with the reporting, recordkeeping and record retention requirements of [BSA regulations promulgated by FinCEN],” the SEC is properly exercising its own independent authority under Rule 17a-8 and Section 17(a) of the Exchange Act when it regulates broker-dealers for the record-keeping and reporting requirements of the BSA.

Alpine Securities’ petition (the “Petition”) has received support in the form of amicus briefs from former officials of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the Cato Institute (“CATO”), both of which argue the SEC does not have the power to enforce violations of the BSA.  As we will discuss, the amicus briefs argue that only FinCEN may enforce the BSA, and that a contrary system would undermine FinCEN and create unacceptably conflicting interpretations, standards, and penalties for BSA/anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance.
Continue Reading  Circular Delegation: Amicus Support By Former FinCEN Officials and the Cato Institute in the Alpine Securities Saga

Action Highlights that Even Sophisticated Companies Serious about Compliance are not Immune from AML Enforcement – and the Importance of Cooperation When Cutting a Deal

On May 12, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued an Order instituting a cease-and-desist proceeding under Sections 15(b) and 21C of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”), and imposed a $1.5 million monetary penalty against broker-dealer, GWFS Equities, Inc. (“GWFS”) for its alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) due to its claimed failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) when it was required to do so, and because certain filed SARs were inadequate.  The suspicious activity at issue involved primarily so-called “account takeovers” by cyber criminals, which is of course a growing and pernicious threat.

What is particularly notable about the case is that the SEC targeted GWFS for enforcement for allegedly filing 297 deficient SARs between September 2015 through October 2018 (the “Relevant Period”), despite GWFS having a seemingly otherwise robust  anti-money laundering (“AML”) program, a designated and capable BSA/AML Officer, a SAR review committee, written supervisory procedures that stressed the importance of providing “clear, complete, and concise descriptions of” suspicious activity, including the five essential elements of the suspicious activity—who, what, when, where and why (the “five essential elements”)—and GWFS providing formal and informal training to combat and report suspicious activity.  Stated otherwise, this AML enforcement action involves an actor clearly serious in general about compliance, rather than a compliance “outlier” representing an easy enforcement target. Crucially, cetain filed SARs allegedly omitted the “five essential elements” required in a SAR, even though GWFS allegedly knew the information and also knew that it was obligated to include the information in its SARs.  Instead, GWFS utilized a generic format for its SARs that did not contain much useful information.

The lesson here is clear: in regards to the allegedly inadequate filed SARs, the SEC is sending a message that a perceived cookie-cutter, cut-and-paste approach to fulfilling one’s obligations under the BSA will not be enough to stave off scrutiny and potential costly liability from government regulators.  With incidences of identity theft and other cybercrimes showing no signs of abating, and the government’s interest in ensuring that financial institutions are playing their role to guard against and to combat cybercrime, additional regulatory actions for deficient compliance are likely to follow.  It is not enough to just have a compliance program in place.  Broker-dealers should ensure that their compliance staff is well-trained and reports suspicious activity through the issuance of SARs that, at a minimum, contain the five essential elements.
Continue Reading  SEC Extracts AML Settlement From Broker-Dealer Based on Alleged Failure to Comply with “Five Essential Elements” of SAR Filings Regarding Cyber Crime

On March 29, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) began to make good on its promise to make AML a key examination priority in 2021 by issuing a risk alert authored by the Division of Examinations (“EXAMS”) detailing the results of a review of broker-dealers’ compliance with anti-money laundering (“AML”) requirements (the “Alert”).

The Alert details the obligations of broker-dealers to comply with AML programs and SAR monitoring and reporting requirements pursuant to the “AML Program Rule,” 31 C.F.R. § 1023.210, and the “SAR Rule,” 31 C.F.R. § 1023.320, as well as similar obligations under Rule 17a-8 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), which incorporates the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reporting and record-keeping obligations applicable to broker-dealers.  The Alert further issues findings that indicate certain firms are experiencing shortcomings when it comes to establishing and implementing sufficient suspicious activity monitoring and reporting policies and procedures, which is leading to inadequate SAR reporting in several respects.

Perhaps not coincidentally, EXAMS issued the Alert shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in December 2020 in SEC vs. Alpine Securities Corp. that the SEC has the authority to bring an enforcement action against broker-dealers under Section 17(a) and Rule 17a-8 of the Exchange Act on the basis of alleged BSA failures, including failures to comply with the SAR Rule.  Whether the Alert is a true “heads up” or a forewarning of enforcement actions to come, firms are encouraged not to replicate the specific deficiencies identified in the Alert.
Continue Reading  Broker-Dealers Fail SEC AML Examinations

Bottom Line: Biden Administration May Revive FinCEN’s Proposed Rule For Investment Advisers

Unlike broker-dealers, investment advisers are not currently required to maintain anti-money laundering (“AML”)/counter-terrorist financing (“CTF”) compliance programs under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), or file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”).  In 2015, during President Obama’s second term, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) proposed exactly such a rule for certain investment advisers.  Although FinCEN then never moved forward, the stars may be aligning for the implementation of a similar rule in the new Biden Administration.

Industry watchdog groups will push for this.  For example, after Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, the independent Financial Accountability & Corporate Transparency Coalition wrote a memorandum, asking him to “[f]inalize the proposed Obama-era rule requiring investment advisers to establish AML programs.”  Action on this front also would be generally consistent with the 2020 Examination Priorities issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), which stated that the OCIE will prioritize examining broker-dealers “for compliance with their AML obligations in order to assess, among other things, whether firms have established appropriate customer identification programs and whether they are satisfying their SAR filing obligations, conducting due diligence on customers, complying with beneficial ownership requirements, and conducting robust and timely independent tests of their AML programs.”  Moreover, the FBI’s concern over money laundering through private equity and hedge funds may increase the likelihood of the administration reviving some version of the 2015 proposed rule.  A leaked FBI Intelligence Bulletin from May 2020 stated that “threat actors[, or money launderers,] likely use the private placement of funds, including investments offered by hedge funds and private equity firms, to launder money, circumventing traditional” AML protections in place at other financial institutions already subject to such regulations.  According to its Intelligence Bulletin, the FBI made this assessment in “high confidence.”
Continue Reading  Investment Advisers May Be Subject to AML Regulations Under Revival of Proposed Rule

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