Second of Three Posts in a Related Series on Recent AML and Money Laundering Prosecutions

The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has been very active in the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) / Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) space, as reflected by a recent series of individual prosecutions and corporate non-prosecution agreements (“NPAs”).  

In the first blog post in this series, we discussed a significant prosecution of an individual, and two related corporate NPAs, involving the gaming industry.  In our final post, we will discuss the prosecution and sentencing of a lawyer who allegedly became part of the fraud and money laundering scheme perpetrated by his crypto client.

In this second post, we will discuss two unusual prosecutions involving, respectively, an individual executive of a bank and an alleged AML specialist working with small financial institutions.  

As we previously noted, all of these cases, although all unique, are also united in certain ways – particularly in regards to the need for institutions and professionals to perform sufficient due diligence regarding the conduct and source of funds of high-risk clients and customers.

Continue Reading  Criminal Case Round-Up: Recent Prosecutions Involving Financial Institution Officers

First of Three Posts in a Related Series on Recent AML and Money Laundering Prosecutions

The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has been very active in the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) / Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) space, as reflected by a recent series of individual prosecutions and corporate non-prosecution agreements (“NPAs”). 

In this first blog post, we will discuss a significant prosecution of an individual, and two related corporate NPAs, involving the gaming industry

In the next related post, we will discuss two unusual prosecutions involving, respectively, an individual executive of a bank and an alleged AML specialist working with small financial institutions.  

In our final post, we will discuss the prosecution and sentencing of a lawyer who allegedly became part of the fraud and money laundering scheme perpetrated by his crypto client.

Although these cases are all unique and interesting in their own way, they are also all united in certain ways – particularly in regards to the need for institutions to perform sufficient due diligence regarding the conduct and source of funds of high- or higher-risk customers, and the related need for institutions to ensure that their own employees are not undermining the institutions’ AML compliance programs.

Continue Reading  Criminal Case Round-Up: Recent Prosecutions Involving Casinos

A Huge Monetary Penalty for Sprawling Allegations – But Will Zhao Receive a Prison Sentence?

As the world now knows, Binance Holdings Limited, doing business as Binance.com (“Binance” or the “Company”), has entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  

Binance is registered in the Cayman Islands and regarded as the world’s largest virtual currency exchange. It agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program; knowingly failing to register as a money services business (“MSB”); and willfully causing violations of U.S. economic sanctions issued pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”). Despite the plea agreement, Binance will continue to operate.

Changpeng Zhao, also known as “CZ,” also pleaded guilty to violating the BSA by failing to implement and maintain an effective AML program. Zhao is Binance’s primary founder, majority owner, and – until now – CEO. As part of his plea agreement, Zhao has stepped down as the CEO, although he apparently will keep his shares in Binance.

As part of its plea agreement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2,510,650,588 and to pay a criminal fine of $1,805,475,575 for a total criminal penalty of $4,316,126,163. Binance also entered into related civil consent orders with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (“OFAC”). Zhao also entered into a consent order with the CFTC.

The allegations are vast and detailed, and much digital ink already has been spilled regarding this matter. Our discussion therefore will be relatively high-level. Distilled, the government alleges that Binance – under the direction of Zhao – tried to hide the fact that it operated in the U.S., purposefully avoided any meaningful AML compliance, and consequently laundered many millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency involving extremely serious criminal conduct, including terrorism, child pornography, and U.S. sanctions evasion.

As for Zhao, and as we will discuss, whether he will go to prison – and if so, for how long – is an open and very interesting question. His sentencing currently is scheduled for February 23, 2024.

Continue Reading  Binance Settles Criminal and Civil AML and Sanctions Enforcement Actions for Multiple Billions – While its Founder, Owner and Former CEO Zhao Pleads Guilty to Single AML Crime

On September 29, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) entered into a consent order with Shinhan Bank America (“SHBA”), which imposed a $15 million dollar civil penalty against SHBA for allegedly willfully failing to implement and maintain an AML program that meets the minimum requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and for allegedly willfully failing to accurately and timely report suspicious transactions to FinCEN.

In its press release, FinCEN noted that, as a result of SHBA’s inactions, “tens of millions of dollars in suspicious transactions were not reported to FinCEN in a timely manner, including transactions connected to tax evasion, public corruption, money laundering, and other financial crimes.”

Working in collaboration with FinCEN, the FDIC also separately issued a civil penalty against SHBA in the amount of $5 million dollars – which FinCEN will credit toward its own fine, leaving an amount owed of $10 million dollars – and the NYDFS also issued a stand-alone civil penalty in the amount of $10 million dollars.

As we will discuss, this enforcement action involves several typical allegations by the government, including an alleged failure to file required SARs, prior regulatory problems, and insufficient AML compliance staffing and funding.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues $15 Million Dollar Civil Penalty Against Shinhan Bank America for Alleged Failure to Implement and Maintain Effective AML Compliance Program

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

Notice Also Stresses New BSA Whistleblower Provisions

On July 26, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Justice released a joint compliance notice (the “Compliance Notice”) updating and summarizing each agency’s position regarding the voluntary self-disclosure by businesses of potential violations of sanctions, export controls, and other national security laws.

Asserting that voluntary self-disclosure can provide many benefits to a reporting business – potentially providing for a non-prosecution agreement or a 50 percent decrease in “base penalties” – the Compliance Notice provides each entity’s current position as to voluntary self-disclosure.  The Compliance Notice also references the still-evolving whistleblower program under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), which now pertains to not only potential BSA violations, but also potential violations of sanctions law.

Continue Reading  “Tri-Seal” Compliance Notice: U.S. Authorities Release Joint Guidance on Voluntary Self-Disclosure of Potential Sanctions and Export Control Violations

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, Regulatory Developments — and More

I am very pleased to co-chair again the Practicing Law Institute’s 2023 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 16, 2023, starting at 9 a.m. in New York City (the event also will be virtual). 

I am also really fortunate to be working with co-chair Elizabeth (Liz) Boison

On February 14, 2023, both the American Bankers Association (“ABA”) and the Bank Policy Institute (“BPI”) submitted comments to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) on FinCEN’s notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) relating to access to beneficial ownership information (“BOI”) reported to FinCEN under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”). While both organizations had similar comments, mainly being that the proposed limits on FIs’ ability to use BOI retrieved from the database contradicts the CTA’s objective, the ABA recommended that FinCEN entirely withdraw the NPRM. Below, we break down each organization’s comments and strong critiques regarding the NPRM.

Continue Reading  Bank Industry Groups Heavily Criticize FinCEN’s Proposed Rule on Access to Beneficial Ownership Information

Factual Statement Is a Tale of Whistleblowing, High-Risk Customers, and Misleading U.S. Banks

Earlier this month, Danske Bank was sentenced in the Southern District of New York to three years of probation and forfeiture of $2.059 billion.  The sentencing capped a tumultuous and global scandal that became public several years ago, as the enormous scope of the bank’s anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance problems emerge:  several hundred billion in suspicious transactions allegedly were processed over time at the bank’s former Estonian branch.  As a result of the sentencing, Danske Bank was ordered to make an actual payment of $1,209,062,646; the bank received credit for the rest of the forfeiture amount on the basis of a $178.6 million payment to the Securities and Exchange Commission and a $672.3 million payment to Denmark authorities.

Danske Bank was charged not with violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), but rather with bank fraud.  According to the press release issued in December 2022  by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) at the time of the bank’s plea, the bank had “defrauded U.S. banks regarding Danske Bank Estonia’s customers and [AML] controls to facilitate access to the U.S. financial system for Danske Bank Estonia’s high-risk customers, who resided outside of Estonia – including in Russia.”  The DOJ’s choice to charge bank fraud presumably was predicated upon issues relating to U.S. jurisdiction and the actual applicability of the BSA to Danske Bank and activities in Estonia – but the heart of the criminal case is that Danske Bank allegedly hid its own AML failures from three U.S. banks, thereby thwarting the U.S. banks’ own AML programs and compliance with the BSA.

The plea agreement contains a lengthy statement of facts full of eye-catching allegations.  As we describe, it sets forth a tale of intentional and sometimes brazen misconduct by Estonian branch employees, coupled with lax oversight and implicit approval, or at least tolerance, of such conduct by some people in upper management.  Further, it involves another example of a financial institution, in the eyes of law enforcement and regulators, over-valuing profit and under-valuing compliance systems.  The case also highlights, again, the potential risks associated with correspondent bank accounts held by non-U.S. banks, the importance of having fully integrated and coordinated monitoring systems, and the potential role of whistleblowers.

Finally, this saga is not necessarily over entirely.  Danske Bank is subject to three years of probation.  The plea agreement requires numerous compliance commitments by the bank, including signed certificates of compliance and self-reporting of potential AML failures.  Danske Bank’s troubles also have involved lawsuits brought by investors claiming to have been defrauded, although the bank has had success in fending off these actions (see here, here and here).

Continue Reading  SDNY Sentences Danske Bank in Massive AML Scandal

Indictment Focuses on “High Risk” Transactions Involving Mexico, Bulk Cash, and Zero SAR Filings

On September 13, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York announced that defendant Hanan Ofer pleaded guilty to “failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program.”  Ofer and his co-defendant, Gyanendra Asre, were named in a March 2021 indictment (the “Indictment”) alleging they funneled “hundreds of millions of dollars from high-risk foreign jurisdictions” – primarily, Mexico – from 2014 to 2016, through “small, unsophisticated financial institutions” without implementing an anti-money laundering program as required by the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Ofer and Asre were charged with failure to maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program, failure to file (any) Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”), and the operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business.

As we discuss, it is a little difficult to draw clear lessons from the Indictment.  Although the DOJ press release emphasizes the eye-catching number of $1 billion, neither the press release nor the Indictment actually describe these transactions as “suspicious,” much less as involving specific illicit proceeds.  Rather, and as we discuss, the transactions are described merely as “high risk.” Thus, and although it is entirely possible that the government has access to evidence which it did not reference in the charges, the Indictment appears to rely heavily on a very process-oriented theory of prosecution:  the defendants failed to implement adequate processes to monitor and/or prevent transfers that were “high risk,” but not demonstrably related to illicit funds involving specific underlying criminality.

It is also important to acknowledge the Indictment’s allegations against both defendants for operating, apparently “on the side,” a separate unlicensed money transmitter business of their own.  Here, the allegations are more concretely severe:  the unlicensed money transmitter business “involved the transportation and transmission of funds that were known to the defendants to have been derived from a criminal offense or were intended to be used to promote and support unlawful activity.”  Although it is impossible to know, this charge presumably pressured in part Mr. Ofer to plead guilty to more process-oriented BSA charges involving the $1 billion in “high risk” transfers at other financial institutions.

Continue Reading  AML Compliance “Expert” Pleads Guilty to Failure to Maintain Effective AML Program for Over $1 Billion in High-Risk Transactions