Department of Justice (DOJ)

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. 

Questions of which, if any, regulatory regimes apply to the variety of participants in the cryptocurrency market continue to dog the industry.  On February 28, 2022, whether a cryptocurrency futures trading platform constitutes a “futures commission merchant” (“FCM”) under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”) subject to Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) regulations took center stage in a U.S. District Court decision denying a motion to dismiss an indictment alleging violations of the BSA against the founders and chief executives of BitMEX.

As we will discuss, the District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a motion to dismiss the indictment, in which the defendants argued that they lacked notice under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment that they could face criminal charges based on two technical questions, the answers to which were “unknowable” at the relevant time: (1) whether Bitcoin is a “commodity;” and (2) was BitMEX an FCM brokering cryptocurrency futures.
Continue Reading  Cryptocurrencies as Commodities Plays Out in BitMEX Criminal Prosecution Under the BSA

Federal law enforcement and regulators continue to focus on technology-driven financial crime — specifically, cyber-enabled fraud and the laundering of illicit funds through cryptocurrency.  Last week, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that Eun Young Choi will serve as the first Director of the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (“NCET”).  As we have blogged, the DOJ created in 2021 the NCET in order to address issues on which we repeatedly have blogged:  crypto exchangers and their AML obligations; the process of tracing digital asset transactions; ransomware; so-called “professional” money launderers; and the use of crypto to launder serious crimes such as drug trafficking and human trafficking.  This attempt at a coordinated government approach to crypto enforcement followed the announcement earlier in 2021 by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) of appointing its first-ever Chief Digital Currency Advisor.

Meanwhile, FinCEN has stressed the need for, and utility of, specific information to be submitted by the victims of cyber-enabled financial crime schemes, or the financial institutions of those victims, to FinCEN’s Rapid Response Program, or RRP.  The RRP seeks to share financial intelligence and recover the proceeds of crime.
Continue Reading  DOJ, FBI and FinCEN Continue to Focus on Crypto and Cyber Financial Crime

On February 8, 2022, the Department of Justice announced the seizure of a record $3.6 billion in stolen BTC it alleges was tied to the 2016 hack of Bitfinex, a virtual currency exchange.  A husband-wife duo, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan of New York, New York were arrested the same day and charged via a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the United States.  Lichtenstein and Morgan are being held on $5 million and $3 million in bail, respectively, and will be on house arrest pending trial.

The Statement of Facts by the government in support of the criminal complaint filed against the defendants reveals a vast and complicated web of transactions that allegedly permitted Lichtenstein and Morgan to transfer approximately 25,000 of the 119,754 BTC stolen by hackers—valued at “only” $71 million at the time of the theft but now worth about $4.5 billion—to various virtual currency exchangers.  According to the Statement of Facts, the stolen BTC was shuttled to an unhosted wallet (i.e., a cryptocurrency wallet not controlled by a third-party but by the user) with over 2,000 BTC addresses, then to various accounts at the “darknet market AlphaBay,” later to a number of accounts at four different virtual currency exchangers, then to more unhosted BTC wallets, and finally to accounts at six more virtual currency exchangers where it was converted into fiat currency, gift cards, and precious metals.  The defendants further allegedly liquidated BTC through a BTC ATM and purchasing non-fungible tokens.

As if the sheer volume and layers of accounts was not enough, the duo allegedly:

  • Moved the funds in a “series of small amounts, totaling thousands of transactions”;
  • Used software to “automate transactions” which allowed for “many transactions to take place in a short period of time”;
  • “Layered” transactions by depositing and withdrawing the BTC through many accounts to obfuscate the trail, including through extensive layering activity that employed the “peel” chain technique; and
  • “Chain hopped” by converting BTC to anonymity-enhanced virtual currency to cut and disguise the blockchain trail.


Continue Reading  A Record $3.6 Billion Seizure and the Twisting Paths of Money Laundering in the Digital World

We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Business Better podcast series, The Business of Cryptocurrency.  In this episode, we discuss the basics of money transmitter and Bank Secrecy Act registration and compliance program requirements. The episode also covers more complex regulatory issues confronting cryptocurrency exchanges, financial institutions, and other businesses

Strategy Reflects Coordinated Focus on Transparency and “Gatekeeper” Responsibilities

Last week, the Biden Administration unveiled a sweeping “whole-of-government approach” to combating corruption.  Identifying corruption as a “cancer within the body of societies—a disease that eats at the public trust and the ability of governments to deliver for their citizens”—the United States Strategy on Countering Corruption (the “Plan”) articulates a global vision for rooting out this national security threat.  The first-of-its-kind approach focuses on responding to corruption’s transnational dimensions, with a specific emphasis on reducing “the ability of corrupt actors to use the U.S. and international financial systems to hide assets and launder proceeds of corrupt acts.”  Although the Plan is grounded in “five-mutually reinforcing pillars,” pillars two and three merit a closer look from this blog’s readers.  They serve as an important recap of the various steps the Administration has taken to combat illicit finance and its strategy for increased enforcement using both the new and existing tools at its disposal.  Further, the Plan implicates many pressing Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) issues on which we repeatedly blog, as we will discuss.
Continue Reading  White House Releases Sweeping U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption