Correspondent Bank Accounts

Opinion Allows DOJ Broad Access to Foreign Banks’ Correspondent Account Records Relating to Alleged Front Company Operating for North Korea

On August 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia kept in place $50,000-per-day fines on three Chinese banks—whose identities are redacted—for refusing to comply with subpoenas issued by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) for records of a Hong Kong company (“Company”) that allegedly facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions for a North Korean state-owed entity (“NKE”), in violation of U.S. sanctions.

We will focus on the court’s ruling that a subpoena issued under a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act allows access to records held by foreign banks that use U.S. correspondent accounts, including records of transactions that do not themselves pass through a U.S. correspondent account, if those transactions were part of a larger scheme to access dollar funding through a U.S. correspondent account.

Background

According to the U.S. government, North Korea’s weapons programs pose “a grave and growing threat” to the security of the U.S. and—indeed—the world. In order to finance those programs, North Korea “uses state-owned entities and banks” to conduct financial transactions “in support” to finance its efforts. To impede those efforts, the U.S. maintains a robust sanctions regime against North Korea and the various entities it controls. Certain of those sanctions—enacted in 2013— are intended to cut off North Korea’s access to the U.S. financial system. But North Korea is said to evade those restrictions through, among other means, its use of front company transactions originating in foreign-based banks, which are in turn processed through correspondent bank accounts in the U.S.
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Foreign Banks Reliant on U.S. Correspondent Services Should Take Note of New Rules

We are pleased to present this guest blog by Hdeel Abdelhady, who is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and Principal at MassPoint Legal and Strategy Advisory PLLC, her boutique law and strategy firm. Ms. Abdelhady focuses on regulatory compliance and transactional matters, including cross-border trade and finance transactions and regulation.

As Ms. Abdelhady discusses, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued on June 21, 2019 an interim final rule (the “IFR”) amending provisions of the Reporting, Procedures, and Penalties Regulations applicable to OFAC-administered sanctions programs at 31 C.F.R. Part 501. The IFR became effective upon publication in the Federal Register on June 21. OFAC has requested public comments, which are due by July 22, 2019. The IFR has many important potential consequences, including for foreign banks that rely on U.S. correspondent banking services, as well as U.S. financial institutions facing additional compliance burdens.

As legal counsel to U.S. and foreign banks, other financial services providers, and businesses, Ms. Abdelhady has advised on sanctions, anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, and counter-terrorism finance regulation and compliance under U.S. law and international standards, including the FATF Recommendations and Wolfsberg Standards. She has served as in-house counsel on secondment to banks in the United States and abroad, including in connection with the first major USA Patriot Act enforcement by the Comptroller of the Currency and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). In addition, Ms. Abdelhady has advised on the establishment of money services businesses and Foreign Banking Organizations in the United States.

Ms. Abdelhady serves on the board of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists (ACFCS), is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University Law School. Ms. Abdelhady writes frequently on banking, finance, and regulatory compliance matters. Among other publications, Reuters, the World Bank Legal Review, and Law360 has published her work.  We hope that you enjoy this discussion by Ms. Abdelhady of this important development.  –Peter Hardy

In addition to effectuating technical and conforming amendments, the IFR revises Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) penalties and amends reporting requirements and procedures applicable to initial and annual blocked property reports, unblocked property reports, and the unblocking of funds due to mistaken identity. Additionally, the IFR revises reporting requirements applicable to “rejected transactions.” The rejected transactions amendment is the most substantial of the revisions, and is the focus of this update.
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Former Bank Employee Testimony Highlights Limited Whistleblower Protections in Europe

In September, the Danish law firm Bruun & Hjejle’s report (“B&H Report”) released its internal investigation report into alleged money laundering conducted through the Estonian branch of Danske Bank (“Danske”). The enormity of the scandal outlined in the report cannot be understated: from 2007 through 2015, at least 200 billion Euros were laundered through Danske. The release of the B&H Report has triggered the predictable cascade of resignations, investigations, hearings, recriminations and stock plunges that have begun playing out over the past eight weeks. These events, in turn, are beginning to illuminate the two principal sides of the scandal: the institutional failures at a large, sophisticated, international bank that allegedly allowed wrongdoing on this scale to go unchecked for eight years; and the efforts countries like Russia will make – and individuals and entities they will exploit – to illegally channel substantial wealth to the West.

As we previously blogged, the B&H Report found that Danske processed 200 billion Euros in suspicious transactions made by thousands of non-resident customers, principally from Russia and former Soviet states. According to the B&H Report, the success of the laundering was due to the near-total failure of the Estonian Danske branch to implement adequate anti-money laundering (“AML”) procedures and the parent Danske Bank Group’s failure to recognize and act upon numerous red flags that should have alerted it to the Estonian branch’s issues. However, while finding that the Estonian branch violated numerous legal obligations in failing to have and implement adequate AML processes and procedures, the B&H Report stopped short of accusing Danske’s Board of Directors, Chairman, Audit Committee, Chief Executive Officer or any executive of violating their legal obligations in regard to these failures.

Recent testimony by former Danske employee turned whistleblower painted a less forgiving picture.
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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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FinCEN recentlty announced entry of a $2 million assessment against Lone Star National Bank, a private bank operating out of Texas, for the bank’s allegedly willful violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and inadequate Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) monitoring programs.  The primary violations relate to Lone Star’s alleged failure to comply with due diligence requirements imposed by Section 312 of the USA PATRIOT Act in establishing and conducting its correspondent banking relationship with a Mexican bank.  As a result of Lone Star’s insufficient due diligence and AML program, the Mexican bank was “allowed to move hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in suspicious cash shipments through the U.S. financial system in less than two years.”  The FinCEN’s announcement warns that this “action underscores the dangers that institutions face when taking on international correspondence activities without properly equipping themselves” to manage the enhanced obligations that arise with such relationships.

This new FinCEN assessment underscores the continued regulatory interest in the AML risks presented by correspondent banking relationships. We therefore first will provide a brief overview of correspondent banking relationships and the enhanced regulatory attention often paid to them. Armed with this context, we then will analyze the findings and lessons learned from the Lone Star assessment, including the value touted by FinCEN of Lone Star’s efforts to cooperate with its own investigation. Further, this new assessment suggests that the U.S. government does not always present a consistent voice regarding correspondent banking relationships: although the U.S. Treasury has tried to encourage financial institutions in general to not “de-risk” and thereby terminate correspondent banking relationships, we see that enforcement agencies continue to penalize institutions in individual cases for not mitigating sufficiently the risks of correspondent banking.
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On September 15th, FinCEN issued its latest “Advisory on FATF-Identified Jurisdictions with AML/CTF Deficiencies.”  The FATF, or the Financial Action Task Force, is a 37-member intergovernmental body, including the United States, that establishes international standards to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  As part of its listing and monitoring process to ensure compliance with its international Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) standards, the FATF identifies certain jurisdictions as having “strategic deficiencies” in their AML/CFT regimes. In its latest Advisory, FinCEN notes the changes in the FATF-named jurisdictions and directs financial institutions to consider these changes when reviewing their obligations and risk-based policies, procedures and practices relating to the named jurisdictions.  We will discuss these changes and some practical takeaways for U.S. financial institutions seeking to ensure compliance with these changes in their AML programs.
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As widely reported, the Spanish police raided last year the Madrid offices of the Chinese state-run Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (“ICBC”), the world’s biggest bank by assets. In the nearly 18 months following that raid and the numerous arrests made at that time, very little information about this money laundering investigation became known publically. That is, until Reuters recently published a lengthy article resulting from its review of “thousands of pages of confidential case submissions” and its “interviews with investigators and former ICBC employees.” The article raises numerous questions regarding the enforcement of European money laundering laws against Chinese banks operating abroad, as well as certain unique political and diplomatic considerations that may exist in those enforcement efforts. Below, we will compare these efforts with similar U.S. enforcement efforts, which are potentially gaining steam.
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On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a civil forfeiture complaint in the Southern District of Texas seeking recovery of approximately $144 million in assets that allegedly represent the proceeds of foreign corruption and which were laundered in and through the U.S. The complaint’s narrative focuses on Diezani Alison-Madueke, who is Nigeria’s former Minister for Petroleum Resources.  The 52-page complaint, which contains additional attachments, is very detailed – but nonetheless interesting reading – so we will discuss here only three salient points:

  • The most eye-catching property subject to forfeiture, the spectacular yacht Galactica Star (which you can inspect here), apparently has no discernible nexus to the U.S. – except that the funds used to acquire the yacht allegedly were transferred through correspondent bank accounts at financial institutions which process their U.S. dollar wire transactions through the U.S.
  • The complaint emphasizes the continued enforcement focus on high-end U.S. real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering from abroad.
  • The complaint purports to quote a recording of a conversation allegedly made by Ms. Alison-Madueke herself, in which she allegedly offers a co-schemer some critiques on his approach to laundering illicit funds.


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Two days after North Korea’s successful long-range ballistic missile test, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unsealed a memorandum opinion which granted the Department of Justice “damming” warrants to seize all funds in bank accounts belonging to five Chinese companies which allegedly were used to hide transactions with North Korea using U.S. currency in violation of U.S. sanctions and money laundering laws. The underlying conduct allegedly resulted in over $700 million of prohibited transactions being processed by eight international banks. The opinion is noteworthy not only because it demonstrates the important relationship between money laundering laws and foreign policy, but also for the government’s use of anticipatory warrants to seize the assets upon arrival to the targeted accounts, and to prevent those assets from exiting.


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