But Court Gives Turkish Bank Another Chance to Avoid Charges Under Common-Law Sovereign Immunity

On April 19, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a highly-anticipated decision in the case of Turkiye Halk Bankasi A.S., aka Halkbank v. United States.  The court ruled that Turkish state-owned Halkbank remained subject to criminal prosecution in U.S. courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) for fraud, money laundering and sanctions-related charges related to the bank’s alleged participation in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions involving Iran.  Specifically, in a seven to two decision, the Court held that the FSIA does not provide foreign states and their instrumentalities with immunity from U.S. criminal proceedings.  However, the Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to determine whether Halkbank still can claim sovereign immunity under common law principles.  The Court’s opinion clearly extends beyond just financial institutions owned by foreign governments, and instead implicates any number of foreign state-owned entities.

Continue Reading  Supreme Court Rules Halkbank is Not Immune from Prosecution Under FSIA

On March 15, 2023, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York unsealed a twelve-count Indictment that charges Ho Wan Kwok (“Kwok”) and his financier, Kin Ming Je (“Je”), with various sprawling schemes – including one involving cryptocurrency – in which the defendants solicited investments in several entities and other programs via fraudulent misrepresentations to hundreds of thousands of Kwok’s online followers. Moreover, the Indictment alleges that Kwok and Je misappropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulently obtained funds during the conspiracy.

Specifically, the Indictment charges Kwok with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, securities fraud, bank fraud, and money laundering. He was also charged with the underlying acts of wire fraud, securities fraud, international “promotional” money laundering (in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(A)), international “concealment” money laundering (in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(B)(i)), and “spending” money laundering (in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1957), with the last charge resting on a single $100 million wire transfer. Je was also charged with these crimes, in addition to obstruction of justice.

In regards to the money laundering schemes, the Indictment alleges that the defendants attempted to conceal the source of their illicit proceeds by transferring “money into and through more than approximately 500 accounts held in the names of at least 80 different entities or individuals[,]” through bank accounts in the U.S., the Bahamas, and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”).  Further, the Indictment alleges that the defendants used over $300 million of fraudulent proceeds for the benefit of themselves and their family members.  The Indictment therefore contains a detailed notice of forfeiture, listing numerous assets that allegedly constituted or were derived from proceeds traceable to the charged offenses.  These assets include numerous bank account balances collectively amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as a luxurious mansion in New Jersey, several extremely high-end automobiles, and a 46-meter “superyacht.”  The government’s press release includes photos of some of these assets, included in the visual above.

Continue Reading  Indictment Alleges Investor Fraud of Over $1 Billion – And Elaborate Money Laundering and Lavish Spending

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced on March 15, 2023 that in a coordinated effort between U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, Europol, and German police, the darknet cryptocurrency mixing service ChipMixer has been shut down.  The operation involved the U.S. government’s court-authorized seizure of two domains that directed users to the ChipMixer service and one Github account.  In addition, German authorities seized $46 million in cryptocurrency, as well as ChipMixer’s back-end servers used to run the site. 

Further, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a criminal complaint against ChipMixer’s suspected founder, Vietnamese national, Minh Quoc Nguyen (“Nguyen”), alleging that Nguyen openly flouted financial regulations and instructed users how to use ChipMixer to evade reporting requirements while obscuring his true name under a series of stolen and fictitious identities. The complaint also alleges that ChipMixer, described as a popular platform for laundering illicit funds gained from unlawful activities like drug trafficking, ransomware attacks (according to Europol, ransomware actors Zeppelin, SunCrypt, Mamba, Dharma, Lockbit have used ChipMixer), and payment card fraud, was used to launder more than $3 billion in cryptocurrency since 2017.  Nguyen has been charged with money laundering, operating an unlicensed money transmitting business, and identity theft in connection with the operation of ChipMixer. 

Continue Reading  Darkweb Cryptocurrency Mixer ChipMixer Shut Down for Allegedly Laundering $3 Billion Worth of Crypto

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York recently unsealed an indictment of Charles McGonigal (“McGonigal”), a former high-ranking FBI official, who has been accused of helping Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska (“Deripaska”) avoid U.S. sanctions. Last Thursday, Chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees wrote letters to U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, and FBI Director, Christopher Wray demanding information.

We discuss here the letters, which are extremely pointed.  But first, it’s worth examining the allegations in the indictment, which paint a dramatic tale of abuse of office, concealment through shell companies, and a former high-level law enforcement officer allegedly engaging in the same of behavior that, until very recently, he was sworn to detect, investigate and prevent.

Continue Reading  Senate and House Judiciary Committees Demand Answers Regarding Indictment of Former High-Ranking FBI Official for Sanctions Conspiracy

Factual Statement Is a Tale of Whistleblowing, High-Risk Customers, and Misleading U.S. Banks

Earlier this month, Danske Bank was sentenced in the Southern District of New York to three years of probation and forfeiture of $2.059 billion.  The sentencing capped a tumultuous and global scandal that became public several years ago, as the enormous scope of the bank’s anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance problems emerge:  several hundred billion in suspicious transactions allegedly were processed over time at the bank’s former Estonian branch.  As a result of the sentencing, Danske Bank was ordered to make an actual payment of $1,209,062,646; the bank received credit for the rest of the forfeiture amount on the basis of a $178.6 million payment to the Securities and Exchange Commission and a $672.3 million payment to Denmark authorities.

Danske Bank was charged not with violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), but rather with bank fraud.  According to the press release issued in December 2022  by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) at the time of the bank’s plea, the bank had “defrauded U.S. banks regarding Danske Bank Estonia’s customers and [AML] controls to facilitate access to the U.S. financial system for Danske Bank Estonia’s high-risk customers, who resided outside of Estonia – including in Russia.”  The DOJ’s choice to charge bank fraud presumably was predicated upon issues relating to U.S. jurisdiction and the actual applicability of the BSA to Danske Bank and activities in Estonia – but the heart of the criminal case is that Danske Bank allegedly hid its own AML failures from three U.S. banks, thereby thwarting the U.S. banks’ own AML programs and compliance with the BSA.

The plea agreement contains a lengthy statement of facts full of eye-catching allegations.  As we describe, it sets forth a tale of intentional and sometimes brazen misconduct by Estonian branch employees, coupled with lax oversight and implicit approval, or at least tolerance, of such conduct by some people in upper management.  Further, it involves another example of a financial institution, in the eyes of law enforcement and regulators, over-valuing profit and under-valuing compliance systems.  The case also highlights, again, the potential risks associated with correspondent bank accounts held by non-U.S. banks, the importance of having fully integrated and coordinated monitoring systems, and the potential role of whistleblowers.

Finally, this saga is not necessarily over entirely.  Danske Bank is subject to three years of probation.  The plea agreement requires numerous compliance commitments by the bank, including signed certificates of compliance and self-reporting of potential AML failures.  Danske Bank’s troubles also have involved lawsuits brought by investors claiming to have been defrauded, although the bank has had success in fending off these actions (see here, here and here).

Continue Reading  SDNY Sentences Danske Bank in Massive AML Scandal

Rodeo Drive

Indictment Alleges Use of Shell Companies, Nominees, Foreign Bank Accounts and Real Estate

On December 7, 2022, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York (“DOJ”) unsealed a seven-count indictment against Andrii Derkach.  In the corresponding press release, Derkach is described as a “Kremlin-backed Ukrainian politician and oligarch” who attempted to “influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election on behalf of the Russian Intelligence Services.”  Derkach was charged with conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), bank fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and four counts of money laundering.  His wife, Oksana Terekhova, is alleged to be a co-conspirator and is referred to as “Co-Conspirator 1” in the indictment.  The investigation was “coordinated through the Justice Department’s Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement task force dedicated to enforcing the sweeping sanctions, export controls, and economic countermeasures that the United States . . . has imposed in response to Russia’s unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine.”

In connection with the indictment, the DOJ is requesting both criminal forfeiture of two Beverly Hills condominiums at issue in the indictment, as well as civil forfeiture in a parallel proceeding.  If successful, the DOJ would seize both the condominiums and proceeds in an investment and banking account held by Derkach’s alleged business entity.  Derkach remains at large.

This appears to be another in the long line of actions and sanctions brought against alleged Russian oligarchs and Russian agents, especially those with close connections to Russian Intelligence Services, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (of which we have blogged about here and here).  As long as Russia remains active in Ukraine, it is likely that federal law enforcement will continue to focus on the actions and assets of high-profile Russian oligarchs and agents in the U.S.  Financial institutions should continue to remain vigilant, as we have blogged about here, in rooting out attempts to evade sanctions.

Continue Reading  Russian Agent’s Beverly Hills Condominiums Subject to Forfeiture Based on Alleged Violations of Bank Fraud, Money Laundering, and U.S. Sanctions Statutes

Indictment Focuses on “High Risk” Transactions Involving Mexico, Bulk Cash, and Zero SAR Filings

On September 13, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York announced that defendant Hanan Ofer pleaded guilty to “failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program.”  Ofer and his co-defendant, Gyanendra Asre, were named in a March 2021 indictment (the “Indictment”) alleging they funneled “hundreds of millions of dollars from high-risk foreign jurisdictions” – primarily, Mexico – from 2014 to 2016, through “small, unsophisticated financial institutions” without implementing an anti-money laundering program as required by the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Ofer and Asre were charged with failure to maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program, failure to file (any) Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”), and the operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business.

As we discuss, it is a little difficult to draw clear lessons from the Indictment.  Although the DOJ press release emphasizes the eye-catching number of $1 billion, neither the press release nor the Indictment actually describe these transactions as “suspicious,” much less as involving specific illicit proceeds.  Rather, and as we discuss, the transactions are described merely as “high risk.” Thus, and although it is entirely possible that the government has access to evidence which it did not reference in the charges, the Indictment appears to rely heavily on a very process-oriented theory of prosecution:  the defendants failed to implement adequate processes to monitor and/or prevent transfers that were “high risk,” but not demonstrably related to illicit funds involving specific underlying criminality.

It is also important to acknowledge the Indictment’s allegations against both defendants for operating, apparently “on the side,” a separate unlicensed money transmitter business of their own.  Here, the allegations are more concretely severe:  the unlicensed money transmitter business “involved the transportation and transmission of funds that were known to the defendants to have been derived from a criminal offense or were intended to be used to promote and support unlawful activity.”  Although it is impossible to know, this charge presumably pressured in part Mr. Ofer to plead guilty to more process-oriented BSA charges involving the $1 billion in “high risk” transfers at other financial institutions.

Continue Reading  AML Compliance “Expert” Pleads Guilty to Failure to Maintain Effective AML Program for Over $1 Billion in High-Risk Transactions

On Friday, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced two developments:  First, the release of a 66-page report, The Role of Law Enforcement in Detecting, Investigating, and Prosecuting Criminal Activity Related to Digital Assets (the “Report”), issued under President Biden’s March 9, 2022 Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets.  Second, the establishment of the Digital Asset Coordinator (“DAC”) Network, a nationwide group of prosecutors designated as legal and technical experts in digital asset cases.

We focus here on the regulatory and legislative recommendations of the Report, which seek to expand significantly the ability of the DOJ to investigate and prosecute offenses involving digital assets. The recommendations include increasing criminal penalties, extending statutes of limitations, expanding venue provisions, enhancing the government’s forfeiture powers, and prohibiting virtual asset service providers from “tipping off” the subjects of grand jury subpoenas received by the providers.  The recommendations also include making clear that the federal criminal law against maintaining an unlicensed money transmitter applies to peer-to-peer platforms that purportedly do not take custody or assume control over the digital asset being exchanged; ensuring that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issues a final rule expanding the application of the Travel Rule under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to digital asset transfers; and expanding or arguably clarifying that the BSA applies to platforms dealing in non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, including online auction houses and digital art galleries.

Continue Reading  DOJ Issues Report on Digital Asset Law Enforcement Seeking Expansive New Powers, and Launches New Crypto Prosecutor Network

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