Correspondent Bank Accounts

Case Highlights the Role of Correspondent Bank Accounts and Circumvention of AML Programs

Court Order Describes Seizure as a “Reckoning” for Atrocities in the Ukraine

On April 4, 2022, Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the government’s Application for Warrant to Seize Property Subject to Forfeiture, finding that there was probable cause to believe that the yacht Tango, a 255-foot luxury yacht allegedly owned by sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, was subject to forfeiture based on alleged violations of U.S. bank fraud, money laundering, and sanction statutes.  The Tango is located in a shipyard on the Spanish island of Mallorca, and the warrant and subsequent seizure by the United States and its allies was part of Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement task force designed to help deploy U.S. prosecutorial and law enforcement resources to identify sanctions evasion and related criminal conduct.

Sanctions were imposed on Vekselberg and the company he founded, the Renova Group, in April 2018 by the Treasury Department. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vekselberg was hit with new penalties by the U.S. government on March 11, 2022.  These sanctions were pursuant to various Executive Orders under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) imposed against persons responsible for or complicit in certain activities with respect to Ukraine.
Continue Reading  Russian Oligarch’s Yacht Subject to Forfeiture Based on Alleged Violations of Bank Fraud, Money Laundering, and U.S. Sanction Statutes

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a recent 27-page decision, held that Halkbank, the state-owned Turkish lender, cannot claim sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) in a money laundering and sanctions-related prosecution.  Upholding a decision by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman, the court ruled that even if the FSIA could shield the bank in a criminal case, the charges against Halkbank fall under the “commercial activity” exception to FSIA immunity.  This interpretation of the commercial activity exception significantly limits the immunity bestowed under the FSIA in criminal cases and furthers American deterrence against foreign financial institutions that allegedly facilitate evasion of U.S. sanctions or launder funds through the U.S. financial system.  Halkbank now faces potential trial for an alleged $20 billion money laundering scheme, bank fraud, and conspiracy charges.
Continue Reading  Second Circuit Says Turkish Halkbank Must Face Criminal Charges In Money Laundering and Iran Sanctions Case

Caracas, Venezuela

Indictment Alleges $1.6 Billion in Corrupt Contracts, Funneled Through Shell Companies and Correspondent Accounts, and Paid With Gold Sold on Behalf of Venezuela

On October 21, 2021, a grand jury indictment was unsealed in the Southern District of Florida charging two Venezuelan and three Colombian citizens with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and four counts of money laundering.  The indictment revealed an alleged bribery scheme involving a former Venezuelan state governor and Venezuelan government authorities that provide food and medicine to citizens in need.  A portion of the $1.6 billion in contracts secured by alleged bribes was laundered into or through the United States through a web of accounts and businesses.  This indictment serves as yet another example of the United States Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) use of money laundering charges to combat corruption in Venezuela (as we have blogged about repeatedly: here, here, here, here, here and here).  It also represents another example of DOJ using the money laundering statutes to charge foreign government officials at the highest levels when the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cannot apply.
Continue Reading  (More) Money Laundering Charges Announced for Alleged $1.6 Billion Venezuelan Corruption Scheme

Second Post in a Series on the FATF Plenary Outcomes

As we blogged, last month the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) held its fourth Plenary, inviting delegates from around the world to (virtually) meet and discuss a wide range of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas. Following the Plenary, FATF identified a number of strategic initiatives for future research and publication, and issued six reports to detail their findings on specific topics. One such report, Money Laundering from Environmental Crime (the “Report”), and its implications for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorist (“CFT”), will be the focus of this post.

The 66-page Report is compiled from case studies and best practices submitted by over 40 countries, as well as input from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. While this Report is the first deep dive into environmental crimes and recommendations for members of the FATF Global Network, it is not the first time FATF has addressed environmental issues. The current Report aims to build upon FATF’s previous study on money laundering and the illegal wildlife trade, on which we also blogged. The current Report is also connected to earlier FATF studies on money laundering risks from the gold trade and the diamond trade.  Indeed, the Report references U.S. enforcement cases involving money laundering and gold or diamonds on which we previously have blogged (see here, here and here).

As this post will discuss, these areas of money laundering risk are often overlooked and are especially difficult to monitor. Further, the Report finds that “[l]imited cooperation between AML/CFT authorities and environmental crime and protection agencies in most countries presents a major barrier to effectively tackle [money laundering] from environmental crimes.”  Stated otherwise, government AML/financial flow experts and government environmental law experts don’t understand or even consider each other’s area of expertise, and often don’t communicate with each other, resulting in missed enforcement opportunities.  With global environmental crimes generating up to $281 billion per year, the Report suggests that government interventions are not proportionate to the severity of this issue. By issuing this Report, FATF hopes to raise awareness of the scope and scale of harm caused by environmental crimes and related money laundering, and enhance collaboration by financial crime and environmental crime enforcement officials.
Continue Reading  FATF Issues First-Ever Report on Environmental Crime and Money Laundering

Indictment Alleges International Scheme Involving Bribes Touching NY Correspondent Bank Accounts

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that U.K. law enforcement officials arrested, at its request, an Austrian national, Peter Weinzierl, for his alleged participation in a wide-ranging money laundering scheme involving Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht S.A. Odebrecht previously pleaded guilty in December

Fourth Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”), contains major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), coupled with other changes relating to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.  In this post, we explore the AMLA’s significant expansion of the U.S. government’s authority to subpoena information from foreign financial institutions that maintain correspondent banking relationships with U.S. banks.
Continue Reading  AMLA Expands DOJ Grand Jury Subpoena Power Over Correspondent Bank Accounts and Foreign Banks

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been busy lately, and has issued a flurry of proposed rulemakings and requests for comment. Although “reform” is often in the eye of the beholder, all of these proposals will have a practical impact.

As part of Ballard Spahr’s webcast series, Consumer Financial Services in Turbulent Times, we

Court Rejects Halkbank’s Claim That the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act Shields the Bank From Prosecution

A motion to dismiss an indictment accusing Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank of money laundering, bank fraud and Iran-related sanctions offenses was denied by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman of the Southern District of New York in a recent 16-page decision.  The Court ruled that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) does not bestow immunity in U.S. criminal proceedings on financial institutions owned in whole or in part by foreign governments. Even if it did, the FSIA’s commercial activity exemptions would apply and support Halkbank’s prosecution. This development is the latest in the ongoing, complex battle between Halkbank the U.S. Department of Justice – a prosecution involving potential political battles as well.

As we have blogged, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York charged Halkbank on October 15, 2019 with a six count indictment for bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), stemming from the bank’s alleged involvement in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.  The Court later rejected an attempt by Halkbank to enter a “special appearance” contesting jurisdiction, making it clear that international financial institutions must appear for arraignment in criminal actions.  The decision served as a warning to foreign defendants brought into U.S. federal court: issues of jurisdiction in criminal cases must be litigated only after arraignment.

Judge Berman’s most recent ruling found that Halkbank is not immune from criminal prosecution in the United States under FSIA, and that the allegations in the indictment were plead sufficiently to avoid dismissal.  This ruling of course has a potentially broader application to any foreign majority state-owned entities which allegedly scheme to violate U.S. criminal law: given sufficient nexus between the scheme and the United States, FSIA will not shield the foreign entities, because the Act only applies to civil matters that do not fall under its “commercial activities” exceptions.
Continue Reading  Turkey’s Majority State-Owned Halkbank Is Not Immune from U.S. Prosecution in Iran Sanctions and Money Laundering Case

Final Post in a Three-Post Series Regarding Recent Regulatory Action by FinCEN

On September 29, 2020, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) published a request for comment on existing regulations regarding enhanced due diligence (“EDD”) for correspondent bank accounts. The notice seeks to give the public an opportunity to comment on the existing regulatory requirements and burden estimates. Written comments must be received on or before November 30, 2020.

Currently, Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations for due diligence and EDD for correspondent bank accounts require certain covered entities (banks, brokers or dealers in securities, futures, commission merchants, introducing brokers in commodities, and mutual funds) to establish due diligence programs that include risk-based, and, where necessary, enhanced policies, procedures, and controls reasonably designed to detect and report money laundering conducted through or involving any correspondent accounts established or maintained for foreign financial institutions. The regulations also require that these same financial institutions establish anti-money laundering (“AML”) programs “designed to detect and report money laundering conducted through or involving any private banking accounts established by the financial institutions.”

In issuing the request, FinCEN has not proposed any changes to the current regulations for correspondent or private banking. Instead, the request is intended to cover “a future expansion of the scope of the annual hourly burden and cost estimate associated with these regulations.”

This is the third and final post in a series of blogs regarding a recent flurry of regulatory activity by FinCEN. In our prior posts, we discussed a final rule by FinCEN extending BSA/AML regulatory requirements to banks lacking a Federal functional regulator, and FinCEN’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking as to potential regulatory amendments regarding “effective and reasonably designed” anti-money laundering (“AML”) programs. Unlike the first two regulatory actions discussed in our series, FinCEN’s request for comments on the burdens of correspondent bank account due diligence and EDD seems purely procedural: it simply asks covered institutions to report how much time and resources are spent on compliance. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to conclude that this request for comment is a prelude to some future, more substantive action regarding correspondent bank account regulation. The U.S. Department of Treasury identified correspondent banking as a “key vulnerability” for exploitation by illicit actors in its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing. Further, and as we will discuss, correspondent banking has long had a troubled status: such accounts are simultaneously necessary to the world economy but also regarded as higher risk from an AML perspective. As a real-world example, an alleged lack of diligence regarding the risks posed by correspondent bank accounts played a prominent role in the major alleged AML failures suffered by Westpac, Australia’s second-largest retail bank, which contributed to the bank recently agreeing to a whopping $1.3 billion penalty for violating Australia’s AML/CTF Act.

Continue Reading  Regulatory Round Up: FinCEN Solicits Comments on Due Diligence for Correspondent and Private Bank Accounts

Internal Investigation Report Stresses Lack of Intentional Misconduct – But the Investigation May Broaden

Westpac Banking Corporation (“Westpac”), Australia’s second largest retail bank, has been besieged by serious allegations of violating Australia’s Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter-Terrorism Financing (“CTF”) Act. Just as Westpac was attempting to put some of these problems behind it, new potential AML/CTF problems have come to light.

In this post, we discuss what to expect for Westpac going forward, and the potential broadening of Australian regulator’s investigation into Westpac – a recent revelation quickly coming on the heels of Westpac’s public release on June 4 of the findings by the bank’s own internal investigation report into allegations that systemic compliance failures resulted in Westpac committing over 23 million breaches of Australia’s AML/CTF laws, pertaining in part to financial transactions involving alleged child exploitation. We previously have blogged on these alleged breaches (and the Statement of Claim brought by AUSTRAC, Australia’s AML/CTF regulator, stemming from those breaches), as well as on the private securities suits that followed these serious revelations.

The headline finding in the internal investigation report — which has been criticized — was its conclusion that the significant AML/CTF violations and failures it admitted were “due to technology failings and human error,” and that “[t]here was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.” Consistent with a theme that emerges in many AML scandals, the lack of adequate and sufficiently trained personnel has been a key factor here.  Likewise, the Westpac internal investigation report also underscores the limits of automated AML/CFT systems.  Ultimately, any AML/CFT program is only as good as the people running it.
Continue Reading  Westpac’s Alleged AML Failures Back in the News