On June 6, Attorney General Merrick Garland (“AG”) issued a report titled “How to Strengthen International Law Enforcement Cooperation For Detecting, Investigating And Prosecuting Criminal Activity Related To Digital Assets” (the “Report). Led by the Department of Justice, the Report represents a collaborative effort with feedback from the Department of State, Department of Treasury, Department of Homeland Security, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Commodities Future Trading Commission (“CFTC”). The Report also comes as U.S. senators Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. recently introduced a sweeping bipartisan bill to bring clarity to cryptocurrency regulation by defining most digital assets as commodities (to be regulated primarily by the CFTC) and enacting rules governing stablecoins.

The Report was required by President Biden’s March 9, 2022 Executive Order, Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets, on which we previously blogged.  The Executive Order addressed concerns about the growing role of digital assets in money laundering crimes and sanctions evasion, and called for a report to be published by the AG for the purpose of strengthening international law enforcement cooperation.  The resultant Report stresses the pragmatic problems facing cross-border investigations – particularly the reluctance or sheer inability of foreign jurisdictions to tackle such investigations independently – and makes three basic recommendations, all of which relate to improved funding, communication and standards.

Continue Reading  DOJ Report Calls For International Cooperation to Fight Digital Asset Crime

Hefty Monetary Penalties – Accompanied by the Possibility of No Prison Time

The legal saga involving the civil and criminal cases against the entity and former individual owners of the Bitcoin Mercantile Exchange, or BitMEX—a large and well-known online trading platform dealing in futures contracts and other derivative products tied to the value of cryptocurrencies (see here, here, and here)—continues unabated. 

Most recently, BitMEX co-founder and former CEO, Arthur Hayes, a high-profile leader in the cryptocurrency industry, settled his civil charges with the CFTC and pleaded guilty to criminal charges brought by the DOJ.  He now faces sentencing in the criminal case, currently scheduled for the end of this week.  As we will discuss, Hayes and the government take very different views regarding his appropriate sentence.

These cases emerged publicly in October 2020 when: (1) the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) filed a civil complaint against the entities operating the BitMEX trading platform and its three individual owners for allegedly failing to register with the CFTC and violating various laws and regulations under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”); and (2) the Department of Justice obtained an indictment against the three individual owners and another individual, including Hayes, charging each with violating, and conspiring to violate, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to maintain an adequate anti-money laundering (“AML”) program.

The cases have raised novel legal questions concerning which, if any regulatory regimes, apply to participants in the cryptocurrency market.  Moreover, Hayes’ upcoming sentencing raises the question of whether an offense is so novel that it can merit probation, despite the high dollar value of the alleged scheme at issue.

Continue Reading  BitMEX Co-Founder and Owner Settles with CFTC and Now Faces Criminal Sentencing

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, the AML Act — and More

We are very pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2022 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 17, 2022, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference will be both live and virtual — and it will be as informative, interesting and timely as always. 

Questions of which, if any, regulatory regimes apply to the variety of participants in the cryptocurrency market continue to dog the industry.  On February 28, 2022, whether a cryptocurrency futures trading platform constitutes a “futures commission merchant” (“FCM”) under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”) subject to Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations took center stage in a U.S. District Court decision denying a motion to dismiss an indictment alleging violations of the BSA against the founders and chief executives of BitMEX.

As we will discuss, the District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a motion to dismiss the indictment, in which the defendants argued that they lacked notice under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment that they could face criminal charges based on two technical questions, the answers to which were “unknowable” at the relevant time: (1) whether Bitcoin is a “commodity;” and (2) was BitMEX an FCM brokering cryptocurrency futures.
Continue Reading  Cryptocurrencies as Commodities Plays Out in BitMEX Criminal Prosecution Under the BSA

On February 8, 2022, the Department of Justice announced the seizure of a record $3.6 billion in stolen BTC it alleges was tied to the 2016 hack of Bitfinex, a virtual currency exchange.  A husband-wife duo, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan of New York, New York were arrested the same day and charged via a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the United States.  Lichtenstein and Morgan are being held on $5 million and $3 million in bail, respectively, and will be on house arrest pending trial.

The Statement of Facts by the government in support of the criminal complaint filed against the defendants reveals a vast and complicated web of transactions that allegedly permitted Lichtenstein and Morgan to transfer approximately 25,000 of the 119,754 BTC stolen by hackers—valued at “only” $71 million at the time of the theft but now worth about $4.5 billion—to various virtual currency exchangers.  According to the Statement of Facts, the stolen BTC was shuttled to an unhosted wallet (i.e., a cryptocurrency wallet not controlled by a third-party but by the user) with over 2,000 BTC addresses, then to various accounts at the “darknet market AlphaBay,” later to a number of accounts at four different virtual currency exchangers, then to more unhosted BTC wallets, and finally to accounts at six more virtual currency exchangers where it was converted into fiat currency, gift cards, and precious metals.  The defendants further allegedly liquidated BTC through a BTC ATM and purchasing non-fungible tokens.

As if the sheer volume and layers of accounts was not enough, the duo allegedly:

  • Moved the funds in a “series of small amounts, totaling thousands of transactions”;
  • Used software to “automate transactions” which allowed for “many transactions to take place in a short period of time”;
  • “Layered” transactions by depositing and withdrawing the BTC through many accounts to obfuscate the trail, including through extensive layering activity that employed the “peel” chain technique; and
  • “Chain hopped” by converting BTC to anonymity-enhanced virtual currency to cut and disguise the blockchain trail.


Continue Reading  A Record $3.6 Billion Seizure and the Twisting Paths of Money Laundering in the Digital World

We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Business Better podcast series, The Business of Cryptocurrency.  In this episode, we discuss the basics of money transmitter and Bank Secrecy Act registration and compliance program requirements. The episode also covers more complex regulatory issues confronting cryptocurrency exchanges, financial institutions, and other businesses

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