ABA Tax Fraud Panel to Discuss IRS CI and Crypto Criminals

The Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation (IRS CI) has made it clear that it is focusing on the abuse of digital currencies to further tax evasion, money laundering, and other offenses. IRS-CI also has made it clear that this is an international effort, and that it is trying to partner with law enforcement agencies across the globe in order to coordinate and share investigative leads.

This is a hot topic, and we are honored that Ballard Spahr will be moderating a panel on these very same issues, at the ABA’s annual Tax Fraud/Tax Controversy Conference in Las Vegas on December 12, entitled Charging Cryptocurrency Violations—Tax Crimes or Money Laundering.  We are pleased to be joined by our wonderful panelists, Evan J. Davis, Betty J. Williams, and Ian M. Comiskey.  This is a unique conference, and we invite you to attend if you are interested in the fascinating cross-section of tax evasion and money laundering.

This blog will discuss the recent efforts by IRS-CI to “up its game” in investigating cross-border offenses committed through cryptocurrency, such as its participation in the international Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement task force. We then will discuss a recent high-profile case which exemplifies these two goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials to do so: the notorious “Welcome to Video” case, which led to a global takedown of a darkweb child pornography website, its administrator, and its customers. The Welcome to Video investigation, led by IRS-CI, also illustrates a key point we will discuss at the ABA conference: that cryptocurrency is only “pseudo-anonymous,” and that its protections can yield to a determined combination of modern digital forensics and old-fashioned investigative techniques.
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Arrest is Culmination of Elaborate FBI Sting Targeting Banker Who Allegedly Catered to Drug Dealers

On November 12, 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida announced two key money-laundering developments concerning high-profile Guatemalans: the arrest of Alvaro Estuardo Cobar Bustamante, the director of a national Guatemalan bank, and the unsealing of a case against and guilty plea of Manuel Antonio Baldizon Mendez, a former presidential candidate in Guatemala who cooperated in the FBI and DEA sting operation against Cobar.

The government’s press release, coupled with its charging documents discussed below, underscore Guatemala’s strategic importance to drug traffickers and, by extension, money launderers. These developments likewise emphasize: (1) the increasing degree of international coordination often required to root out and prosecute both crimes; and (2) the United States’ willingness to prosecute alleged bad actors abusing the financial system, of which we have blogged about here.

Guatemala’s Strategic Importance to Central and South American Drug Trafficking Organizations

Since at least as early as 2013, the FBI and DEA have conducted extensive and numerous investigations into Drug Trafficking Organizations (“DTOs”) in Guatemala. Both agencies have emphasized the strategic importance of Guatemala for large-scale DTOs because it is a key transportation hub in the cocaine trafficking pipeline that begins in Colombia and moves through Central America and Mexico before branching off into various locations in the United States. Colombian and Mexican DTOs, seeking to avoid detection from U.S. law enforcement, often buy and sell multi-ton quantities of cocaine in Guatemala which, in turn, creates a plethora of opportunities for Guatemalan DTOs to serve as intermediaries receiving and re-selling cocaine.
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A Textbook Case of Alleged Money Laundering?

On November 18, 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest and unsealed the indictment of Bruce Bagley – a 73-year-old college professor whose scholarship focuses on U.S.-Latin American relations, with an emphasis on drug trafficking and security issues. He has been

The Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul, Turkey

Indictment Alleges that Bank and its Officers Used Front Companies to Evade Prohibitions on Iran’s Access to the U.S. Financial System

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has charged Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank (formally known as Türkiye Halk Bankasi A.S.) with money laundering, bank fraud and sanctions offenses under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, arising from the Bank’s alleged involvement in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. As alleged in the six-count indictment, senior officials at Halkbank designed and executed the Bank’s systemic and illicit movement of Iranian oil revenue moving through the Bank to give Iran access to the funds. This case is an extension of prosecutions initiated in late 2017 against nine individual defendants in the scheme, including bank employees and the former Turkish Minister of the Economy.
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A Modest Proposal

The European Union (“EU”) recently has grappled with a series of massive money laundering scandals and strategized about how to more effectively combat international money laundering and corruption. Generally, the EU has continued to issue a series of reports identifying systemic vulnerabilities to money laundering and suggest process-based recommendations for how to address future threats. These recommendations typically mirror the same range of process-based improvements set forth in earlier reports: from enhancing cross-border information sharing to increasing resources for adequate implementation and enforcement of anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter financing of terrorism (“CFT”) policies implemented by EU member states and financial institutions. Noticeably absent from these recommendations is one of the most powerful deterrents available – and a distinctly American approach – prosecuting the bad actors.

Although many of the recent EU money laundering scandals rest on conduct occurring years ago, the recurring waves of scandals strongly suggest that the EU – like the U.S. – has a serious problem with money laundering that is not going away any time soon. They likewise indicate that the EU’s financial system will continue to be abused by bad actors who appear to be unfazed by any potential consequences. The EU therefore should consider emulating – at least in part – the American approach of more aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals, including the corrupt politicians, kleptocrats, drug dealers, fraudsters, and other criminals from around the globe who are laundering sometimes massive amounts of funds through European financial institutions.

Very recently, in a different but related context, the Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), Jay Clayton, delivered a speech during which he bemoaned his perception that his foreign counterparts failed to rigorously enforce their own anti-corruption laws. Specifically, Chairman Clayton asserted the following:

Corruption is corrosive. We see examples where corruption leads to poverty, exploitation and conflict. Yet, we must face the fact that, in many areas of the world, our work may not be having the desired effect. Why? In significant part, because many other countries, including those that have long had similar offshore anti-corruption laws on their books, do not enforce those laws.

Granted, the above comments pertained specifically to enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), and arguably the comments were in furtherance of a pro-American message regarding international competition between countries. The comments nonetheless exemplifies a certain American perception: the U.S. aggressively prosecutes individuals, whereas Europe does not. Obviously, this issue entails a lot of cultural baggage on both sides.

Although there are viable criticisms of the U.S. approach (both in theory and in practice), and although the EU’s strong focus on process and institutions’ AML and CFT systems is critical, any government’s enforcement “tool bag” must include targeted prosecutions of the people responsible for the laundering violations. Otherwise, few bad actors around the world will think twice about continuing to turn to EU institutions for their laundering needs. This blog post explores this idea.
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Director Blanco Stresses Importance of BSA Filings to Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

As we have blogged, Kenneth Blanco, the Director of Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), has publically and repeatedly stressed the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and other Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) filings in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement — arguably, partly in order to provide a counter-narrative to a reform movement which questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current BSA reporting regime.

Last week, and consistent with this approach and a general desire to “message” the importance of the BSA, Director Blanco hosted FinCEN’s fifth annual awards ceremony to recognize the efforts of Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies in using the BSA to pursue and prosecute financial crimes.

In his remarks, Blanco credited the BSA for mandating or encouraging information-sharing and reporting, which “provides leads, helps expand cases, identifies networks of criminal and other bad actors, and often helps to alert the regulatory and law enforcement communities to trends in illicit activity, making our communities safer.” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal P. Mandelker also made remarks, observing that the success stories underlying the awards “make clear that BSA data is critical in the fight against financial crime.”


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First Post in a Two-Part Series

Recent actions in the crypto realm demonstrate that authorities and regulators have not slackened their commitment to applying and enforcing Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations in the crypto industry.  These actions serve as reminders that not only is the government keeping a close eye on cryptocurrency, but its oversight and enforcement can and will come from many angles. What’s more, the government’s recent various proactive and reactive compliance efforts relating to cryptocurrency illustrate the policy principles behind its compliance initiatives from the theoretical to the stark, real world consequences they are intended to avoid.

In this post, we address recent major developments across a spectrum of regulatory, civil, and criminal enforcement cases involving cryptocurrencies, AML and money laundering – courtesy of the combined efforts of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”), and the U.S. Department of Justice.

In our next post, we will discuss a 30-page Guidance just issued today by FinCEN, entitled “Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Certain Business Models Involving Convertible Virtual Currencies” – which was accompanied by a 12-page FinCEN Advisory entitled “Advisory on Illicit Activity Involving Convertible Virtual Currency.”
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Authorities Begin to Focus on Individual Responsibility

This week, Danish prosecutors charged Thomas Borgen, the former chief executive officer of Danske Bank, for his involvement in the money laundering scandal arising out of Danske Bank’s Estonian branch, involving an astonishing 200 billion euros ($224 billion) in alleged suspicious transactions. Borgen, whose home prosecutors reportedly raided

I am really honored to be moderating the Practising Law Institute’s 2019 Anti-Money Laundering Conference in New York City on May 14, 2019, starting at 9 a.m.  My co-chairs are Nicole S. Healy of Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC, and Jamie Boucher of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.  PLI’s AML conference in

UK-based Standard Chartered Bank (“SCB”) announced the terms of significant settlements last week with various U.S. and U.K. governmental agencies, resolving a series of related investigations into the bank’s alleged violations of international sanctions and concomitant failures of anti-money laundering (“AML”) controls over a period stretching from 2007 to 2014. The bank will pay a total of $1.1 billion in combined forfeitures and fines to various national and state agencies in the two countries — and extend, once again, its deferred prosecution agreements (“DPAs”) with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the New York County District Attorney’s Office (“NYDA”).

Specifically, the bank will pay: a $480 million fine and a $240 million forfeiture to the DOJ; approximately $639 million to the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”); over $292 million to the NYDA; almost $164 million to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System; and $180 million to the New York Department of Financial Services.  The bank also will pay over £102 million (an amount approximately equal to over $133 million) to the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”).  After certain payments are credited against some of these penalties, the total will exceed $1 billion.


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