Sentencing is a critical stage in the federal criminal process, particularly given the incredibly high rate of guilty pleas in federal court.  There is a very strong argument that sentencing far eclipses the importance of the increasingly rare trial in the federal criminal system.  If a federal criminal investigation cannot be “killed,” then in many cases – particularly in “white collar” cases – the focus early on for both the defense and the prosecution is the sentencing hearing, and how to maximize one’s position, because a federal charge often produces a conviction via plea, or less often, via trial.  Stated otherwise, federal criminal defense is often all about sentencing.

At sentencing, sometimes defendants – and, less often, the prosecution – will make arguments regarding “similarly situated” defendants, and the sentences that they received.  Sometimes these arguments resonate with the sentencing court; sometimes not.  Regardless, these arguments can be tricky because reliable “statistics” are elusive, and it’s not always clear that justifiable comparisons are being drawn by either side.  We therefore were interested when the U.S. Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”) recently issued the Judiciary Sentencing Information (“JSIN”) platform.  Although it is difficult to draw clear conclusions from the JSIN platform, the data is nonetheless fascinating, and we discuss in this blog potential insights into sentences for money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) offenses.

We have reviewed the data and created summary charts for your consideration.  Because the Commission has invited federal judges to use the JSIN platform when sentencing, it by definition is relevant to defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Continue Reading U.S. Sentencing Commission Data on Money Laundering and BSA-Related Offenses Reveals:  Courts Often Sentence Below the Guidelines Range

Last week, the Southern District of California partially unsealed a superseding indictment (the “Indictment”) revealing allegations against 29 alleged members of an international money laundering organization (“MLO”) tied to some of the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, and who allegedly laundered over $32 million in drug proceeds from the United States

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

On June 23, 2021, the Department of Justice unsealed a criminal complaint and affidavit filed in the Southern District of Florida that alleges a vast scheme to launder money through illegal gold mining.  The DOJ charged Jesus Gabriel Rodriguez, Jr., the CEO and President of Transvalue, Inc., a South Florida-based armored car service, with one count of conspiring to commit money laundering.  The affidavit attached to the complaint alleges that Rodriguez conspired with employees of a South Florida-based gold refining company to import thousands of kilograms of illicitly-sourced gold from Curacao worth millions of dollars, and then use his company’s fleet of armored trucks to thwart the anti-money laundering (“AML”) program of a U.S. precious metals refinery receiving the gold.

As we have blogged, gold is an especially effective medium for money laundering because it has universal and readily ascertainable value and is difficult to trace.  Curacao, a Caribbean island with no gold mines, is commonly part of the route for gold illegally mined in, and smuggled out of, South America (including Venezuela) and Africa.
Continue Reading DOJ Charges Armored Car Service CEO for Elaborate Scheme to Launder Money Through Illegal Gold

Last week, the law enforcement agencies across the globe executed a historic two-day takedown of hundreds of alleged criminals who used securely encrypted communication devices to further their criminal enterprises.  The operation, dubbed “Operation Trojan Shield,” involved over 9,000 law enforcement officers deployed worldwide to search more than 700 locations, which resulted in more than 800 arrests.  Their secret weapon? The encrypted communication devices used by these criminal organizations were manufactured and distributed by a company called ANOM, which just happens to be owned and operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”).

To date, government press releases throughout the world have focused on the arrests and the seizures of contraband:  more than eight tons of cocaine; 22 tons of marijuana; two tons of methamphetamine/amphetamine; six tons of precursor chemicals; 250 firearms; and more than $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies.  However, law enforcement agencies also have been clear that, of course, spin-off investigations are in the works.  As we discuss, money laundering already is a focus, and presumably numerous money laundering charges will be forthcoming over the years as a result of this operation, including as to any third parties or professionals knowingly involved in helping to move the massive amount of illicit proceeds.
Continue Reading The Ultimate Inside Job: FBI-Owned Encrypted Communication Devices Take Down Criminal Syndicates Worldwide – With Money Laundering Cases Across the Globe to Follow

Art & Antiquities; Beneficial Owners; Foreign Corruption — and More

We are really pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2021 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 11, 2021, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference again will be entirely virtual — but it will be as informative, interesting and timely as

Much has occurred in the last two months regarding the relationship between financial institutions and Marijuana-Related Businesses, or MRBs.  In this post, we discuss three major developments, all of which share a complex connection.  First, the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) recently pursued its first enforcement action against a credit union for Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) compliance failures when servicing MRBs.  Second, two cannabis industry executives were convicted of bank fraud for allegedly tricking banks and other financial institutions into unwittingly extending financial services to their MRB.  Third, and despite this enforcement drumbeat regarding MRBs, Congress has introduced again, with bi-partisan support, the SAFE Banking Act, which seeks to normalize the banking of cannabis by prohibiting federal bank regulators from taking certain actions against financial institutions servicing MRBs.
Continue Reading Banking and Cannabis Enforcement Round Up:  NCUA Imposes First Penalty Relating to Cannabis Banking Services; Cannabis Industry Execs Convicted of Defrauding Banks into Providing Financial Services; Congress Re-Introduces the SAFE Banking Act

On February 24, the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Criminal Division Fraud Section released its 2020 Year In Review (“the Report”) touting its white-collar enforcement successes.  Among them: four cases in which the DOJ wielded the United States’ money laundering statutes to pursue alleged overseas bribery recipients who are beyond the reach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).  This is a pattern we have covered previously (here, hereherehere, here, here and here).   While the FCPA imposes liability on American citizens and entities that bribe foreign officials, it does not impose liability on the foreign officials receiving the bribe.  Enter 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957.  As illustrated in the Report’s cases, 2020 marked a continuation of the DOJ’s willingness to use the money laundering statutes to pursue corrupt foreign activity that uses U.S. financial institutions, however tangentially.
Continue Reading DOJ Fraud Section 2020 Year in Review: Money Laundering Statute Remains an Overseas Enforcement Tool