Department of Justice (DOJ)

Organization Excels at Niche Branding but Stumbles in Avoiding Enforcement

The first paragraph of the press release sums it up:

Today the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action against Evil Corp, the Russia-based cybercriminal organization responsible for the development and distribution of the Dridex malware.  Evil Corp has used the Dridex malware to infect computers and harvest login credentials from hundreds of banks and financial institutions in over 40 countries, causing more than $100 million in theft.  This malicious software has caused millions of dollars of damage to U.S. and international financial institutions and their customers.  Concurrent with OFAC’s action, the Department of Justice charged two of Evil Corp’s members with criminal violations, and the Department of State announced a reward for information up to $5 million leading to the capture or conviction of Evil Corp’s leader.  These U.S. actions were carried out in close coordination with the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA).  Additionally, based on information obtained by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the Treasury Department’s Office of Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Protection (OCCIP) released previously unreported indicators of compromise associated with the Dridex malware and its use against the financial services sector.

The Department of Treasury press release is extremely detailed.  Summarized very broadly, it observes that OFAC’s designation targets 17 individuals and seven entities, including Evil Corp, its “core cyber operators, multiple businesses associated with a group member, and financial facilitators utilized by the group.”  The designation means that all property and interests in property of these persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited in engaging in transactions with them.

As noted below, the U.S. government is alleging that these cyber criminals are working with the Russian government.  FinCEN and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the Department of Homeland Security also have issued an Alert to financial institutions regarding how to try to detect, mitigate and report the presence of the pernicious Dridex malware.
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Arrest is Culmination of Elaborate FBI Sting Targeting Banker Who Allegedly Catered to Drug Dealers

On November 12, 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida announced two key money-laundering developments concerning high-profile Guatemalans: the arrest of Alvaro Estuardo Cobar Bustamante, the director of a national Guatemalan bank, and the unsealing of a case against and guilty plea of Manuel Antonio Baldizon Mendez, a former presidential candidate in Guatemala who cooperated in the FBI and DEA sting operation against Cobar.

The government’s press release, coupled with its charging documents discussed below, underscore Guatemala’s strategic importance to drug traffickers and, by extension, money launderers. These developments likewise emphasize: (1) the increasing degree of international coordination often required to root out and prosecute both crimes; and (2) the United States’ willingness to prosecute alleged bad actors abusing the financial system, of which we have blogged about here.

Guatemala’s Strategic Importance to Central and South American Drug Trafficking Organizations

Since at least as early as 2013, the FBI and DEA have conducted extensive and numerous investigations into Drug Trafficking Organizations (“DTOs”) in Guatemala. Both agencies have emphasized the strategic importance of Guatemala for large-scale DTOs because it is a key transportation hub in the cocaine trafficking pipeline that begins in Colombia and moves through Central America and Mexico before branching off into various locations in the United States. Colombian and Mexican DTOs, seeking to avoid detection from U.S. law enforcement, often buy and sell multi-ton quantities of cocaine in Guatemala which, in turn, creates a plethora of opportunities for Guatemalan DTOs to serve as intermediaries receiving and re-selling cocaine.
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A Textbook Case of Alleged Money Laundering?

On November 18, 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest and unsealed the indictment of Bruce Bagley – a 73-year-old college professor whose scholarship focuses on U.S.-Latin American relations, with an emphasis on drug trafficking and security issues. He has been

Settlement Applies to $700 Million in Luxury Assets; Law Firms Obtain a Carve-Out

Last week, the Justice Department announced a massive settlement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (“1MDB”) case, a matter implicating numerous money laundering and FCPA concerns and one about which we previously blogged here.

The DOJ announced a blanket settlement of all pending civil forfeiture cases against assets acquired by fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho (“Jho Low”) and various members of his family. The assets, consisting of both cash and real property, are currently located in the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland, and exceed $700 million. When combined with prior dispositions, this means the United States government has now recovered over $1 billion associated with the 1MDB scheme. The current settlement constitutes not only the largest recovery by the Department’s recently formed “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative,” but the largest DOJ civil forfeiture on record.

The assets subject to the agreement represent an eye-catching list of high-end baubles, including a jet aircraft; luxurious properties in New York, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and London; stock; and rights to music royalties. The agreement further notes that, although not specifically part of the settlement because they already have been resolved, other related forfeiture cases – including the forfeiture of a gigantic yacht – have been “considered” as part of this global resolution.
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The Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul, Turkey

Indictment Alleges that Bank and its Officers Used Front Companies to Evade Prohibitions on Iran’s Access to the U.S. Financial System

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has charged Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank (formally known as Türkiye Halk Bankasi A.S.) with money laundering, bank fraud and sanctions offenses under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, arising from the Bank’s alleged involvement in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. As alleged in the six-count indictment, senior officials at Halkbank designed and executed the Bank’s systemic and illicit movement of Iranian oil revenue moving through the Bank to give Iran access to the funds. This case is an extension of prosecutions initiated in late 2017 against nine individual defendants in the scheme, including bank employees and the former Turkish Minister of the Economy.
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Opinion Allows DOJ Broad Access to Foreign Banks’ Correspondent Account Records Relating to Alleged Front Company Operating for North Korea

On August 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia kept in place $50,000-per-day fines on three Chinese banks—whose identities are redacted—for refusing to comply with subpoenas issued by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) for records of a Hong Kong company (“Company”) that allegedly facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions for a North Korean state-owed entity (“NKE”), in violation of U.S. sanctions.

We will focus on the court’s ruling that a subpoena issued under a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act allows access to records held by foreign banks that use U.S. correspondent accounts, including records of transactions that do not themselves pass through a U.S. correspondent account, if those transactions were part of a larger scheme to access dollar funding through a U.S. correspondent account.

Background

According to the U.S. government, North Korea’s weapons programs pose “a grave and growing threat” to the security of the U.S. and—indeed—the world. In order to finance those programs, North Korea “uses state-owned entities and banks” to conduct financial transactions “in support” to finance its efforts. To impede those efforts, the U.S. maintains a robust sanctions regime against North Korea and the various entities it controls. Certain of those sanctions—enacted in 2013— are intended to cut off North Korea’s access to the U.S. financial system. But North Korea is said to evade those restrictions through, among other means, its use of front company transactions originating in foreign-based banks, which are in turn processed through correspondent bank accounts in the U.S.
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Last week, a grand jury in the Southern District of Florida indicted two former Venezuelan officials, charging them with seven counts of money laundering and one count of money-laundering conspiracy. The charges relate to bribes and kickbacks provided to the officials who headed the country’s energy department and state-owned electricity company, Corporacion Electrica Nacional, S.A. (“Corpoelec”). The former officials allegedly received cash payments and received wire transfers, including from a bank in the Southern District of Florida.

As we have blogged about here, here, here, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has been pursuing Venezuelan nationals through high-dollar, high profile money laundering and foreign bribery charges. We also have previously discussed how the DOJ has been utlizing the money laundering statutes as a way to accomplish what the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) cannot accomplish directly – the bringing of charges against a foreign official.
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Testimony Supports Bill Requiring States to Collect Beneficial Ownership Information at Entity Formation

As we have blogged, the proposed Corporate Transparency Act of 2019 (the “Act”) seeks to ensure that persons who form legal entities in the U.S. disclose the beneficial owners of those entities. Specifically, the Act would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to compel the Secretary of Treasury to set minimum standards for state incorporation practices. Thus, applicants forming a corporation or LLC would be required to report beneficial ownership information directly to FinCEN, and to continuously update such information.

If passed, the Act would build significantly upon FinCEN’s May 11, 2018 regulation regarding beneficial ownership (“the BO Rule,” about which we blog frequently and have provided practical tips for compliance here and here). Very generally, the BO Rule requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identities of the beneficial owners of legal entity customers at account opening. The issue of beneficial ownership is at the heart of current global anti-money laundering efforts to enhance the transparency of financial transactions.

On May 21, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, held a hearing entitled: “Combating Illicit Financing by Anonymous Shell Companies Through the Collection of Beneficial Ownership Information.” This hearing, which provided fuel for passage of the Act, featured the exact same trio of speakers who had appeared before the Committee during a November 2018 hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform,” which pertained to a broader set of potential changes to the BSA. The speakers were:

  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Bank Supervision Policy and Community Affairs at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) (written remarks here)
  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here); and
  • Steven D’Antuono, Acting Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI (written remarks here).

Unlike the broader November 2018 hearing, which featured some distinct tensions between certain positions of the OCC and those of FinCEN and the FBI, this hearing reflected close alignment amongst the speakers. Every speaker stressed the advantages to be reaped by law enforcement, regulators and the public if a national database of beneficial owners was required and created. Only the OCC acknowledged the need to consider the issue and sometimes competing concern of the regulatory burden imposed on financial institutions by the current BSA/AML regime, and even the OCC seemed to assume that a national database on beneficial ownership would represent only a boon to financial institutions, as opposed to yet more data – however helpful – to be absorbed and acted upon to the satisfaction of regulators. None of the speakers addressed some of the potential ambiguities and problems inherent in the current language of the Act, such as the fact that the Act lacks precision and fails to define the critical terms “exercises substantial control” or “substantial interest,” both of which drive the determination of who represents a beneficial owner.
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First Post in a Two-Part Series

Recent actions in the crypto realm demonstrate that authorities and regulators have not slackened their commitment to applying and enforcing Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations in the crypto industry.  These actions serve as reminders that not only is the government keeping a close eye on cryptocurrency, but its oversight and enforcement can and will come from many angles. What’s more, the government’s recent various proactive and reactive compliance efforts relating to cryptocurrency illustrate the policy principles behind its compliance initiatives from the theoretical to the stark, real world consequences they are intended to avoid.

In this post, we address recent major developments across a spectrum of regulatory, civil, and criminal enforcement cases involving cryptocurrencies, AML and money laundering – courtesy of the combined efforts of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”), and the U.S. Department of Justice.

In our next post, we will discuss a 30-page Guidance just issued today by FinCEN, entitled “Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Certain Business Models Involving Convertible Virtual Currencies” – which was accompanied by a 12-page FinCEN Advisory entitled “Advisory on Illicit Activity Involving Convertible Virtual Currency.”
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On April 17, 2019, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida (the “Government”) announced its non-prosecution agreement (available here) entered into with a Miami-based gold refinery, Republic Metals Corp. (“RMC”), related to the refinery’s failure to maintain a robust anti-money laundering (“AML”) program. RMC is the second American refinery whose AML program has been identified as deficient by the Government as part of its ongoing probe into gold imports from South American countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador (dubbed “Operation Arch Stanton”). The Government’s decision to decline prosecution against RMC stands in stark contrast to its prosecution last year of another refinery, Texas-based Elemetal LLC (“Elemetal”), arising from the same probe.
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