Department of Justice (DOJ)

“Front” Seafood Businesses Allegedly Hid the Proceeds From Smuggled Shark Fins and Marijuana Distribution

Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia unsealed an indictment returned in July, charging twelve defendants and two businesses with wire and mail fraud conspiracy, drug trafficking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy. The indictment describes a transnational criminal organization that allegedly began as early as 2010 and spanned multiple locations including, Georgia, District of Columbia, California, Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Canada. The indictment accuses the defendants of submitting false applications for import/export licenses to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and using two seafood businesses and dozens of bank accounts to hide the proceeds of illegal activities.

According to the indictment, the criminal organization engaged in an international wildlife trafficking scheme involving shark finning—where a shark is caught at sea, its fins are removed, and the remainder of the living shark is discarded and left to die in the ocean. According to the indictment, shark finning supports the demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Shark finning is among many illegal wildlife trade practices.
Continue Reading DOJ and Multi-Agency Task Force Charge International Money Laundering, Drug Trafficking, and Illegal Wildlife Trade Scheme

Can BSA/AML Requirements Lead to Deemed Knowledge of Borrower Fraud?

The first two weeks of August brought a milestone of sorts in the ongoing recovery from the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) ended its enrollment period on August 8, 2020 and the window for borrowers to apply to have their PPP loans forgiven opened on August 10, 2020.

The PPP was a centerpiece of the over $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) that, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published on July 22, 2020 had to that point saved between 1.4 and 3.2 million jobs. Less formally observed but possibly more widely agreed, the PPP caused at least as many headaches with its rocky initial rollout and the ongoing uncertainty over applicable loan forgiveness standards. But, whereas implementing the PPP poses challenges to lenders now, due to the rampant fraud in the program (which, along with all COVID-19-related enforcement actions and policy statements, we track here) and its funding mechanics, it creates substantial downstream enforcement risk through the False Claims Act (“FCA”) for participating financial institutions.

Numerous districts already have charged borrowers with PPP-related fraud. To date, cases generally involve one of these scenarios:

  • Borrowers submitted fraudulent loan applications and supporting documents to seek PPP funds for businesses that either already had failed pre-pandemic or that they did not actually own.
  • Borrowers lied about amount, or even existence, of employees and payroll. These schemes involve inflated numbers of employees for companies, or even completely fake companies.
  • Borrowers certified that they would use loan funds to support payroll expenses or other allowable expenses, but in fact used all or most loan funds to pay personal and non-business expenses.

The prosecutions to date have all centered on relatively obvious fraud by borrowers, not lenders. But, wider-reaching investigations are occurring and though we are very much at the beginning of the enforcement phase, the magnitude of fraud in these programs is coming into focus. On September 1, 2020, the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a preliminary analysis finding, among other things, over $1 billion in fraudulent PPP loans were issued and identifying red flags with respect to an additional $2.98 billion in loans made to 11,000 borrowers.

And, as we discuss, the anti-money laundering (“AML”) requirements of lenders imposed under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) may expose lenders to greater risk under the FCA, which can impose civil liability for the reduced mental state of reckless disregard. Many lenders have extended PPP loans to previously-existing customers. This is a rational business decision, given typically lower business risks presented by existing customers and lower compliance costs, because existing customers do not need to provide beneficial ownership information under the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) rule of the BSA. However, because lenders also are required under the BSA to understand to a degree the historical and current activities of its customers, lenders may be deemed in future FCA actions to have “known” about red flags generated by fraudulent borrowers because of information obtained by the lenders properly executing their AML programs. That is, compliance with the BSA ironically may generate evidence for downstream FCA enforcement actions based on deemed “knowledge” by the lender of borrower malfeasance. This irony may be exacerbated by any disconnect in real time between the AML compliance staff at financial institutions and the front-line business people extending loans, particularly given the incredible speed with which institutions have extended PPP loans, at the government’s urging.

The point here is not that PPP lenders will face direct regulatory liability for alleged BSA/AML failures – although they may. Rather, the point is that PPP lenders may face enhanced FCA liability due to borrower information obtained through an entirely functional BSA/AML program. This phenomenon highlights the need for the “front” and “back” offices at lenders to communicate.
Continue Reading PPP Lenders and Fraudulent Borrowers: False Claims Act Liability and AML Risk

High Profile Corruption, High End Real Estate, Shell Companies . . . and Fine Art

Second of Two Posts on Evolving Issues Regarding Real Estate and Money Laundering

In our last post, we blogged on a major regulatory tool to combat the use of real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering: the real estate Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Today we explore a major enforcement tool in action: civil forfeiture of real estate by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).

This summer, the International Unit of the DOJ’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) filed numerous complaints for civil forfeiture for real estate and other assets. This blog post will highlight a few – but not all – of these interesting and high-profile cases. Some of these cases may have been informed by data and leads obtained through the GTOs.

We explore here a trio of civil forfeiture actions pertaining, respectively, to alleged public corruption cases arising out of Gambia, Nigeria, and Malaysia. All of these cases involve foreign public officials who allegedly obtained wealth through corruption schemes committed abroad and laundered that money through shell companies to purchase real estate and other assets – sometimes located in the U.S., but sometimes not. Although the officials’ alleged initial crimes – the “specified unlawful activity,” or SUAs, as underlying crimes are defined under the federal money laundering statutes – took place overseas, the U.S. money laundering statutes provide that foreign misappropriation, embezzlements, and theft of public funds to benefit a public official constitute SUAs, thereby allowing the U.S. government to pursue civil forfeiture claims against assets located in the U.S. or abroad which are linked to the funds from underlying crimes committed primarily or even outside of the U.S.

This is the “civil forfeiture version” of a tactic used with increasing frequency by DOJ on which we repeatedly have blogged: the use of the criminal money laundering statutes to prosecute foreign officials for spending the fruits of entirely foreign crimes, when some of the financial transfers involved in the subsequent money laundering transactions occurred in the U.S.

Finally, another theme running throughout the allegations in these civil forfeiture actions is the unfortunate connection between money laundering and corruption and human rights abuses.
Continue Reading Civil Forfeiture of Real Estate to Fight Money Laundering: A Round-Up

FBI Highlights Feared AML Deficiencies in Combating Private Equity Money Laundering

Courtesy of a leaked internal Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) document, it’s now no secret that the FBI suspects that many investment vehicles, such as private equity firms and hedge funds, are widely utilized for money laundering. The FBI apparently compiled a January 2019 report titled “Financial Crime Threat Actors Very Likely Laundering Illicit Proceeds Through Fraudulent Hedge Funds and Private Equity Firms to Obfuscate Illicit Proceeds.” Now, a recently leaked May 1, 2020 internal FBI report similarly titled “Threat Actors Likely Use Private Investment Funds to Launder Money, Circumventing Regulatory Tripwires” (the “Report”) purports to supplement the January 2019 report “by providing recent reporting of hedge funds and private equity firms used to launder illicit proceeds, and expands the threat context beyond financial threat actors to include foreign adversaries.”

The Report does more than simply identify the financial threat posed by this type of money laundering; it uses some real-world examples to explain the process by which criminals are perceived to be infiltrating the global financial system using hedge funds and private equity firms, and how the current anti-money laundering (“AML”) regulatory regime is ill-equipped to stop them. It’s safe to say the FBI certainly did not intend for this play-by-play money laundering “how to” guide to go public. Investment advisors and firms should consider whether this leaked Report might add at least some momentum to the otherwise moribund (and controversial) effort by FinCEN in 2015 to propose regulations that would have made investment advisors subject to the requirement to create and maintain full AML programs under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).
Continue Reading Leaked FBI Report Reveals Private Equity Under Enhanced Money Laundering Scrutiny

OIG Audit Alleges DEA Ignored Oversight, Misunderstood Digital Currency, Didn’t Actually “Follow the Money,” and Overstated Accomplishments

A recent audit conducted by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”)’s Office of Inspector General (the “OIG”) revealed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) acted outside the scope of its authority while transacting tens of millions of dollars involving illicit activity during undercover operations from fiscal years 2015 to 2017.

The focus of the audit was a specific type of undercover operation known as Attorney General Exempted Operations (AGEOs). AGEOs are particularly risky because they are income-generating operations, designed to infiltrate and dismantle drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. Because of the sensitive nature of these investigations and the amount of money at stake, AGEOs are meant to be heavily supervised by the Attorney General (AG), other lawyers within DOJ and Congress.

The 72-page, partly redacted audit clearly found that the DEA repeatedly ignored its reporting policies, neglected its internal controls, and flagrantly violated the statutes governing AGEOs. This audit an important reminder that law enforcement agencies, even when pursuing the laudable goal of investing criminals through the often highly successful tool of undercover investigations, are still subject to legal limitations and standards, because agencies themselves are susceptible to fraud and abuse. This audit shows the importance of oversight and accountability, and reveals how bad actors sometimes can exist on both sides of an investigation.  Finally, the audit also suggests that the DEA often failed to pursue investigative leads and did not examine whether businesses and other third parties knowingly laundered the illicit money being transacted through AGEOs: once the target of the AGEO was “in the bag,” spin-off money laundering investigations did not occur.
Continue Reading DEA Accused of Ongoing Missteps in Undercover Operations

The Border with North Korea

Indictment Again Highlights the Role of Correspondent Banking in Money Laundering

On May 28, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) unsealed a 50-page indictment against 28 North Korean and 5 Chinese bankers accused of using more than 250 front companies to obscure $2.5 billion in illicit financial dealings (“the Indictment”). The complex and far-flung scheme purportedly involved covert branches of North Korea’s state-owned Foreign Trade Bank (“FTB”)—all opened in foreign countries in an attempt to access the U.S. financial system, and to circumvent sanctions intended to guard against threats to national security, foreign policy, and the U.S. economy. The Indictment charges the individuals with conspiring to launder money, violations of the “international” prong of the money laundering statute (about which we have blogged), bank fraud, and violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Although the Indictment is interesting standing alone, it also represents the latest in a series of enforcement actions involving North Korea and the U.S. financial system.
Continue Reading 28 North Korean and 5 Chinese Bankers Accused of a $2.5 Billion Laundering Scheme

Recent DOJ Forfeiture Action Against High-End Real Estate in Notorious Corruption Scheme Underscores Issues 

We are pleased to be presenting on Money Laundering and the Real Estate Industry on May 20 before the Real Estate Services Providers Council (RESPRO), a national non-profit trade association representing businesses before federal and state policy makers, and

We are really pleased to be moderating the Practising Law Institute’s 2020 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 12, 2020, starting at 9 a.m. Perhaps needless to say, this year’s conference will be entirely virtual.  But the conference still should be as informative, interesting and timely as always.  Our conference co-chair, Nicole S. Healy of Ropers

The District of Connecticut recently vacated a defendant’s convictions at trial for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) — but declined to similarly vacate his related money laundering convictions.  This case provides another example of how the money laundering statutes can be a particularly powerful and flexible tool for federal prosecutors, and how they can yield convictions even if the underlying offenses do not (and perhaps are not even charged).

The case involves Lawrence Hoskins, a British citizen who had been employed by Alstom UK Limited but worked primarily for a French subsidiary of Alstom, the parent company.  Hoskins allegedly participated in a corruption scheme involving a project in Indonesia.  The bidding process for the project also involved Alstom Power Inc. (“API”), another subsidiary of Alstom that is based in Windsor, Connecticut.  According to the government, Alstom hired two consultants, Sharafi and Aulia, who bribed Indonesian officials to secure the contract for the project.

Much ink has been spilled by the media and legal commentators regarding the district court’s decision (which the government is appealing) to vacate the defendant’s FCPA convictions, on the grounds that he did not qualify as an “agent” of API for the purposes of the FCPA statute.  We will not focus on that issue here. Rather,  we of course will focus on the fact that the defendant’s convictions for money laundering, and conspiring to launder money, nonetheless survived.  Importantly for the money laundering charges, the district court did not find that there in fact was no underlying corruption scheme.  Rather, the court found that the defendant could not be convicted under the FCPA for allegedly participating in this scheme.  Thus, there was still a “specified unlawful activity,” or SUA, which produced “proceeds” to generate money laundering transactions.

The case also reminds us that, as we have blogged, it is relatively easy for the U.S. government to prosecute foreign individuals for conduct occurring almost entirely overseas, because the nexus between the offense conduct and the U.S. does not need to be robust for U.S. jurisdiction to exist.
Continue Reading High-Profile FCPA Prosecution Reflects: Government Can Lose on Lead Corruption Charges But Still Win on Related Money Laundering Charges

Case Sheds Light on Latest Methods to Evade Detection: “Peeling” Chains

On March 2, the U.S. government sanctioned and indicted two Chinese nationals for helping North Korea launder nearly $100 million in stolen cryptocurrency. The indictment, filed in the District of Columbia, charges the defendants with conspiring to commit money laundering transactions designed to both “promote” and “conceal” the underlying crimes of wire fraud (the theft of the cryptocurrency via hacking) and operating as an unlicensed money transmitter — the latter of which is also charged in the indictment as an additional count.

According to the related and detailed civil forfeiture complaint, these funds were only a portion of those stolen in 2018 by state-sponsored hackers for North Korea from a South Korean exchange. These actions, notable in several respects, provide a glimpse at the latest methods of laundering cryptocurrency.

Anyone attempting to launder illicit cryptocurrency faces at least two big challenges. First, due to rigid know-your-customer rules, one cannot simply deposit large amounts of funds at an exchange without raising red flags. Second, because all cryptocurrency transactions are recorded on a blockchain, they can be traced.

To clear these hurdles, the complaint alleges that North Korean hackers used “peeling chains.” In a peeling chain, a single address begins with a relatively large amount of cryptocurrency. A smaller amount is then “peeled” off this larger amount, creating a transaction in which a small amount is transferred to one address, and the remainder is transferred to a one-time change address. This process is repeated – potentially hundreds or thousands of times – until the larger amount is pared down, at which point the amount remaining in the address might be aggregated with other such addresses to again yield a large amount in a single address, and the peeling process goes on.
Continue Reading Two Chinese Nationals Charged with Money Laundering Over $100 Million in Cryptocurrency for North Korea