Department of Justice (DOJ)

In its first use of Section 9714(a) of the Combating Russian Money Laundering Act, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a notice of enforcement order (the “Order”) on January 18, 2023 against the cryptocurrency exchange Bitzlato Limited (“Bitzlato”), which has operated globally and is registered in Hong Kong.  The Order was issued in conjunction with the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) arrest of Bitzlato’s founder, Russian national Anatoly Legkodymov.  Bitzlato has processed over four billion dollars in cryptocurrency transactions since 2018.  According to the government, a substantial portion of those transactions involved criminal proceeds.

Legkodymov, who resided in China until his arrest in the United States, has been charged initially, via complaint and warrant, with conducting an unlicensed money-transmitting business under 18 U.S.C. § 1960, although the allegations against Bitzlato appear to extend far beyond mere unlicensed money transmission. Both the Order and the lengthy affidavit in support of the complaint stress that Bitzlato openly touted its intentional lack of any sort of real anti-money laundering (“AML”) program.  For example, “Bitzlato’s website advertised for years (and as recently as March 31, 2022) that the site offered ‘Simple Registration without KYC.  Neither selfies nor passports required.  Only your email needed.’  Similarly, a blog post on Bitzlato’s website stated:  ‘On Bitzlato no KYC is required for you to trade.’”

This post will focus on FinCEN’s Order, which identifies Bitzlato as a “primary money laundering concern,” and prohibits certain money transmission involving Bitzlato by covered financial institutions.  The Order also highlights the threats posed to U.S. national security and the integrity of the U.S. financial sector by Bitzlato’s active facilitation of laundering of Russian illicit finance. However, FinCEN’s press release makes clear that Bitzlato is just one part of a larger ecosystem of Russian cybercriminals, including ransomware attackers, operating with impunity in Russia.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Enforcement Order Against Crypto Exchange Bitzlato in First-Time Use of Section 9714(a)

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

On October 19, 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., on behalf of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), filed a civil complaint against Larry Dean Harmon (“Harmon”), seeking $60 million in civil penalties for alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) in connection with Harmon’s involvement in now-defunct cryptocurrency services Helix and Coin Ninja LLC.  The complaint seeks to obtain a judgment on FinCEN’s 2020 Assessment of Civil Money Penalty against Harmon (“Assessment”), which is attached to the complaint and includes a detailed statement of facts.

As we have blogged, Harmon previously pled guilty to operating an unlicensed money transmitter business.  Harmon’s sentencing hearing in the criminal case has been continued, and he reportedly has been attempting to cooperate with the government.  It appears that the civil complaint may represent something of a formality:  it seeks to reduce the assessment against Harmon to an actual civil judgment, upon which the government can collect in theory, in anticipation of Harmon’s criminal sentencing and any potential additional matters in which he may attempt to cooperate.

According to the complaint, starting in 2014, Harmon operated Helix, a bitcoin “mixing” service, which Harmon allegedly advertised explicitly as a way for customers to conceal their identities from the government.  The statement of facts attached to the Assessment alleged that Harmon “publicly advertised Helix on Reddit forums dedicated to darknet marketplaces, actively seeking out and facilitating high-risk transactions directly through customer service and feedback.”  Such “mixing” services – designed to maximize anonymity – increasingly have drawn the ire of the government, as reflected by the recent and controversial action by the Office of Foreign Assets Control to sanction virtual currency “mixer” – or passive technology – Tornado Cash.  

Continue Reading  DOJ Files Lawsuit for $60 Million in Civil Penalties for Alleged BSA Violations by Crypto “Mixer”

With Guest Speaker Matthew Haslinger of M&T Bank

We are extremely pleased to offer a podcast (here) on the legal and logistical issues facing financial institutions as they implement the regulations issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) pursuant to the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (AMLA) and the Corporate Transparency Act

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

How effective is the current framework for filing Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs?  The AML Act mandates that federal law enforcement agencies provide statistics to assist Congress, regulators, and financial institutions answer this question.  Specifically, it requires the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to annually produce a report to the Secretary of the Treasury containing statistics, metrics and other information on the use of Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reports.  It further requires the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), to the extent possible, to periodically disclose to financial institutions summary information on SARs that proved useful to law enforcement; it also requires FinCEN to review SARs and publish information on threat patterns and trends.

Yet, on August 25, 2022, the United States Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) published a report, Action Needed to Improve DOJ Statistics on Use of Reports on Suspicious Financial Transactions, describing how the DOJ has not fulfilled that statutory mandate.  The GAO’s report sets forth two recommendations: (1) the DOJ should include data on the use of BSA reports in its ongoing agency-wide efforts to improve data collection; and (2) involve its Chief Information Officer and Statistical Official in the design of its annual BSA statistical report. 

Arguably, the most eye-catching observation of the report is that FinCEN itself “cannot currently provide comprehensive feedback on the impact of BSA reports [to the DOJ] because agencies do not provide FinCEN with comprehensive data on their use of those reports or the effect they had.”  Accordingly, and despite ongoing calls for FinCEN to provide meaningful feedback (now, a statutory requirement under the AML Act), FinCEN “cannot connect their data on report searches to the impact of those reports on case outcomes.”

Continue Reading  GAO Report: DOJ Cannot Provide Meaningful Feedback on SAR Use

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.