We blogged previously on the significant steps the European Union (“EU”) recently has taken toward implementing a rigorous new transnational anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) enforcement framework. This included, inter aliaEU-wide guidelines proposed by the European Banking Authority (“EBA”) for AML/CFT compliance officers. The need for competent, experienced, and sufficiently empowered AML/CFT compliance teams was further underlined by an Opinion and Report (“Opinion”) issued by the EBA last week on the potentially problematic trend of widespread “de-risking” across the EU.

“De-risking” is the term for a financial institution’s decision to terminate a business relationship, or refuse to do business, with an individual or category of individuals associated with a heightened risk of involvement in money laundering or terrorist financing. The EBA was impelled to address this institutional behavior, which, even if consistent with existing Authority guidance, “can be unwarranted and a sign of ineffective ML/TF risk management,” if done “without due consideration of individual customers’ risk profiles.”

The Opinion points out that indiscriminate de-risking can have the unintended effect of excluding certain (non-criminal) categories of individuals and entities from the financial system. This is framed, if not explicitly labeled, as a civil rights issue: the Opinion states that “access to at least basic financial products and services is a prerequisite for participation in modern economic and social life.” In some cases, the Opinion notes, financial institutions themselves have found themselves the targets of de-risking because of their regions’ reputations for ML/TF problems. De-risking these institutions essentially disqualifies them from participation in the EU transnational financial system, potentially affecting the socioeconomic stability of their home EU member state.

Such de-risking also, paradoxically, has the potential to exacerbate risk for the EU as a whole. The Report notes that “customers affected by de-risking may resort to alternative payment channels in the EU and elsewhere to meet their financial needs. As a result, transactions may no longer be monitored, making the detection and reporting of suspicious transactions and, ultimately, the prevention of ML/TF more difficult.” Because, as noted previously, entities need to access “at least basic financial products and services” to participate in modern society, restricting their access to such services may push them to seek alternatives in the so-called “shadow banking system,” an unregulated web of lenders which the EBA has attempted to weaken.
Continue Reading  A Paradox: “De-Risking” Can Increase AML/CFT Risks By Driving People into the “Shadow Banking System”

Meaningful Overlap or Superficial Similarities?

On October 3, the release of the Pandora Papers flooded the global media, as millions of documents detailed incidents of wealthy and powerful people allegedly using so-called offshore accounts and other structures to shield wealth from taxation and other asset reporting. Data gathered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the architect of the Pandora Papers release, suggests that governments collectively lose $427 billion each year to tax evasion and tax avoidance. These figures and the identification of high-profile politicians and oligarchs involved in the scandal (Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, to name a few) have grabbed headlines and spurred conversations about fairness in the international financial system – particularly as COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated economic disparities.

Much of the conduct revealed by the Pandora Papers appears to involve entirely legal structures used by the wealthy to – not surprisingly – maintain or enhance wealth.  Thus, the core debate implicated by the Pandora Papers is arguably one of social equity and related reputational risk for financial institutions (“FIs”), rather than “just” crime and anti-money laundering (“AML”). Media treatment of the Pandora Papers often blurs the distinction between AML and social concerns – and traditionally, there has been a distinction.

This focus on social concerns made us consider the current interest by the U.S. government, corporations and investors in ESG, and how ESG might begin to inform – perhaps only implicitly – aspects of AML compliance and examination.  ESG, which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance, are criteria that set the foundation for socially-conscious investing that attempts to identify related business risks.  At first blush, the two are separate fields.  But as we discuss, there are ESG-related issues that link concretely to discrete AML issues: for example, transaction monitoring by FIs of potential environmental crime by customers for the purposes of filing a Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR, under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Moreover, there is a bigger picture consideration regarding BSA/AML relating to ESG:  will regulators and examiners of FIs covered by the BSA now consider – consciously or unconsciously – whether FIs are providing financial services to customers that are not necessarily breaking the law or engaging in suspicious activity, but whose conduct is inconsistent with ESG principles?

If so, then ESG concerns may fuel the phenomenon of de-risking, which is when FIs limit, restrict or close the accounts of clients perceived as being a high risk for money laundering or terrorist financing.  Arguably, and as we discuss, there also would be a historical and controversial analog – Operation Chokepoint, which involved a push by the government (not investors) for FIs to de-risk certain types of customers.  Regardless, interest in ESG means that FIs have to be even more aware of potential reputational risk with certain clients.  Even if the money in the accounts is perfectly legal, the next data breach can mean unwanted publicity for servicing certain clients.

These concepts are slippery, involve emerging trends that have yet to play out fully, and the similarities between AML and ESG can be overstated.  Nonetheless, it is possible that these two fields, both of which are subject to increasing global interest, may converge in important respects.  A preliminary discussion seems merited, however caveated or subject to debate.
Continue Reading  ESG, AML Compliance and the Convergence of Social Concerns

Second Post in a Series on the FATF Plenary Outcomes

As we blogged, last month the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) held its fourth Plenary, inviting delegates from around the world to (virtually) meet and discuss a wide range of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas. Following the Plenary, FATF identified a number of strategic initiatives for future research and publication, and issued six reports to detail their findings on specific topics. One such report, Money Laundering from Environmental Crime (the “Report”), and its implications for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorist (“CFT”), will be the focus of this post.

The 66-page Report is compiled from case studies and best practices submitted by over 40 countries, as well as input from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. While this Report is the first deep dive into environmental crimes and recommendations for members of the FATF Global Network, it is not the first time FATF has addressed environmental issues. The current Report aims to build upon FATF’s previous study on money laundering and the illegal wildlife trade, on which we also blogged. The current Report is also connected to earlier FATF studies on money laundering risks from the gold trade and the diamond trade.  Indeed, the Report references U.S. enforcement cases involving money laundering and gold or diamonds on which we previously have blogged (see here, here and here).

As this post will discuss, these areas of money laundering risk are often overlooked and are especially difficult to monitor. Further, the Report finds that “[l]imited cooperation between AML/CFT authorities and environmental crime and protection agencies in most countries presents a major barrier to effectively tackle [money laundering] from environmental crimes.”  Stated otherwise, government AML/financial flow experts and government environmental law experts don’t understand or even consider each other’s area of expertise, and often don’t communicate with each other, resulting in missed enforcement opportunities.  With global environmental crimes generating up to $281 billion per year, the Report suggests that government interventions are not proportionate to the severity of this issue. By issuing this Report, FATF hopes to raise awareness of the scope and scale of harm caused by environmental crimes and related money laundering, and enhance collaboration by financial crime and environmental crime enforcement officials.
Continue Reading  FATF Issues First-Ever Report on Environmental Crime and Money Laundering

Fifth Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) makes major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and the U.S. approach to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.  For example, the AMLA requires covered businesses to report beneficial ownership information to a central federal database; broadens the stated purpose of the BSA; expands the options and protections for whistleblowers alleging AML violations; and expands the U.S. government’s authority to subpoena information from foreign financial institutions with U.S. correspondent bank account relationships.

In addition to these changes, Congress also has used the AMLA as a tool to gather information on complex issues involving money laundering risks and BSA/AML compliance by requiring many studies and reports.  In this post, we focus on two important issues for which Congress has required reports from the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”):  human trafficking and de-risking.

The willingness to address these problems through the AMLA shows that Congress is aware of the nexus between money laundering and human rights violations—and more importantly, appears ready to leverage the information gathered by the GAO in order to potentially address that nexus through future legislation.  Congress is not alone in its concern.  For example, the United Nations issued a report earlier this month on how transnational financial crime can impair sustainable development across the globe, worsen inequality, and fuel instability.
Continue Reading  Congress Tasks GAO to Study the Intersection of Money Laundering and Humanitarian Issues:  Human Trafficking and De-Risking

Revisions to BSA Will Inform Regulatory Examinations for Years to Come

Third Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”), contains major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), coupled with other changes relating to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.  In this post, we focus on some fundamental changes set forth in the AMLA’s very first provision, entitled “Establishment of national exam and supervision priorities.”

This new provision sets forth broad language affecting basic principles underlying the BSA and AML/CTF compliance. Specifically, it revises and expands the stated purpose of the BSA; enumerates specific factors for regulators to consider when examining financial institutions’ AML program compliance; requires the Secretary of the Treasury to establish public priorities for AML/CTF policy; and expands the duties and powers (and responsibilities) of the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”).  We discuss each of these changes in turn.

As always, future regulations will determine how these abstract statements of principle will be applied in practice.  Ultimately, however, these AMLA amendments acknowledge the reality that AML/CTF compliance has become much more complex and nuanced since the early days of the BSA, and is a critical component of the soundness of the global financial system.
Continue Reading  First Principles: AMLA Expands Stated Purpose of BSA and Exam Priorities

In the past month, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”), a non-partisan legislative agency that monitors and audits government spending and operations, has issued a series of reports urging banking regulators and certain executive branch agencies to adopt recommendations related to trade-based money laundering (“TBML”) and derisking. These reports underscore (1) the importance of TBML as a key, although still inadequately measured, component of money laundering worldwide, and (2) that the GAO remains interested in assessing how banks’ regulatory concerns may be influencing their willingness to provide services.

Taken together, the GAO’s recent activity signals that even in the face of unprecedented public health and regulatory challenges posed by COVID-19, the GAO still expects banking regulators and agencies alike to fulfill its prior commitments on other, unrelated topics.


Continue Reading  Government Accountability Office Roundup: Recent Activity on Topics Related to Trade-Based Money Laundering and Derisking

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest bloggers Gretta Fenner and Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”). The Basel Institute recently issued its Basel AML Index for 2019. As they explain below, this data-rich and fascinating Index, on which we blogged last year, is one of several online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime.  The Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption, and is an Associated Institute of the University of Basel. The Basel Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Gretta Fenner is the Managing Director of the Basel Institute, where she also holds the position of Director of the Institute’s International Centre for Asset Recovery. She is a political scientist by training and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Otto-Suhr-Institute at the Free University Berlin, Germany, and the Paris Institute for Political Science (Sciences Po), France. She also holds an MBA from the Curtin University Graduate School of Business, Australia.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska respond to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2019. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses AML compliance vs. actual effectiveness, kleptocracy, transparency, de-risking, and more. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading  What the Basel AML Index Reveals About Global Money Laundering Risks

On July 22, 2019, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) (collectively the federal banking agencies), issued a joint statement entitled Joint Statement on Risk-Focused Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering Supervision (the “statement”).

The specific emphasis of the statement is to reiterate that the federal agencies will take a risk-focused approach to examinations. The statement itself does not purport to create new requirements but rather is a tool to enhance transparency in the approach used by the federal banking agencies in planning and performing BSA/AML examinations. As the statement notes, it “aligns with the federal banking agencies’ long-standing practices for risk-focused safety and soundness examinations.”

Risk Profiles

At the outset, the federal banking agencies urge banks to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, which are deemed “a critical part of sound risk management.” Specifically, banks themselves have unique risk profiles given each bank’s focus (i.e., “a bank with a localized community focus likely has a stable, known customer base”) and complexity, which must be assessed at the outset when developing and implementing an adequate BSA/AML program.

Of particular note, the federal banking agencies state that banks that “operate in compliance with applicable law, properly manage customer relationships and effectively mitigate risk by implementing controls commensurate with those risk are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing banking services.”  The statement goes on to assert that “banks are encouraged to manage customer relationships and mitigate risks based on customer relationships rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers.”
Continue Reading  Joint Statement Issued by Federal Banking Agencies Highlights Importance of Banks’ Risk-Assessments

Foreign Banks Reliant on U.S. Correspondent Services Should Take Note of New Rules

We are pleased to present this guest blog by Hdeel Abdelhady, who is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and Principal at MassPoint Legal and Strategy Advisory PLLC, her boutique law and strategy firm. Ms. Abdelhady focuses on regulatory compliance and transactional matters, including cross-border trade and finance transactions and regulation.

As Ms. Abdelhady discusses, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued on June 21, 2019 an interim final rule (the “IFR”) amending provisions of the Reporting, Procedures, and Penalties Regulations applicable to OFAC-administered sanctions programs at 31 C.F.R. Part 501. The IFR became effective upon publication in the Federal Register on June 21. OFAC has requested public comments, which are due by July 22, 2019. The IFR has many important potential consequences, including for foreign banks that rely on U.S. correspondent banking services, as well as U.S. financial institutions facing additional compliance burdens.

As legal counsel to U.S. and foreign banks, other financial services providers, and businesses, Ms. Abdelhady has advised on sanctions, anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, and counter-terrorism finance regulation and compliance under U.S. law and international standards, including the FATF Recommendations and Wolfsberg Standards. She has served as in-house counsel on secondment to banks in the United States and abroad, including in connection with the first major USA Patriot Act enforcement by the Comptroller of the Currency and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). In addition, Ms. Abdelhady has advised on the establishment of money services businesses and Foreign Banking Organizations in the United States.

Ms. Abdelhady serves on the board of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Association of Certified Financial Crime Specialists (ACFCS), is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University Law School. Ms. Abdelhady writes frequently on banking, finance, and regulatory compliance matters. Among other publications, Reuters, the World Bank Legal Review, and Law360 has published her work.  We hope that you enjoy this discussion by Ms. Abdelhady of this important development.  –Peter Hardy

In addition to effectuating technical and conforming amendments, the IFR revises Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) penalties and amends reporting requirements and procedures applicable to initial and annual blocked property reports, unblocked property reports, and the unblocking of funds due to mistaken identity. Additionally, the IFR revises reporting requirements applicable to “rejected transactions.” The rejected transactions amendment is the most substantial of the revisions, and is the focus of this update.
Continue Reading  OFAC’s Revised Reporting Rules Create New Compliance Requirements for All U.S. Persons

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued a statement earlier this week regarding testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Committee on Financial Services regarding the potential perils of “derisking.”

As described by the GAO, “derisking is the practice of depository institutions limiting certain services or ending