The Office of Foreign Asset Control (“OFAC”) announced on June 20 that Swedbank Latvia AS (“Swedbank Latvia”), a subsidiary of Swedbank AB (“Swedbank AB”) headquartered in Riga, Latvia, agreed to pay $3,430,900 to settle its potential civil liability for 386 “apparent” violations of OFAC sanctions involving Crimea. Specifically, Swedbank Latvia allegedly allowed a client to initiate payments from Crimea through an e-banking platform that ultimately were processed by a U.S. correspondent bank. The settlement amount reflects OFAC’s determination that Swedbank Latvia’s conduct was “non-egregious” – but not voluntarily self-disclosed.
Although unrelated to this OFAC action, Swedbank Latvia was the topic of a 2019 internal investigation report commissioned by Swedbank AB revealing that from before 2007 through 2016, Swedbank Latvia (and Swedbank Estonia) actively pursued certain high-risk customers as a business strategy. This conduct, related to the Danske Bank scandal and its now-notorious Estonian Branch, resulted in Swedish and Estonian authorities ordering Swedbank AB in 2020 to pay a record 4 billion Swedish Krona (then, approximately $38 million) in anti-money laundering related penalties.
This OFAC enforcement action involves alleged conduct which occurred even before Russia’s 2022 unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the ensuing host of expanded U.S. sanctions, and the recent drive by U.S. regulators and prosecutors to combat the attempted evasion of Russia sanctions and export controls. The enforcement action reflects how OFAC can learn of potential sanctions violations through other financial institutions. It also emphasizes, once again, some of the risks inherent in providing correspondent bank services to foreign banks, and the need for good communication between U.S. and foreign banks. It further reflects the need for a financial institution (or any company) to integrate customer data into a sanctions compliance program, keep up to date on evolving sanctions, and pursue potential red flags of non-compliance – including in the face of customer representations of compliance.