Department of Justice (DOJ)

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

Government Suggests that Unusual Pleas are Just the Tip of an Iceberg

Chinese law generally prohibits its citizens from converting more than $50,000 in Chinese yuan into foreign currency in a year.  On Monday, two men living in Las Vegas pleaded guilty in federal district court in the Southern District of California to operating an unlicensed money transmitter business, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960.  Allegedly, they ran a scheme in which they helped clients circumvent this Chinese law — as well as the anti-money laundering programs of U.S. financial institutions — by converting electronic funds in China into hard currency in the United States, which the clients then used to gamble at casinos.

The case reflects the continuing ingenuity employed by individuals to use expanding technologies to circumvent currency controls and money laundering laws.  The case is also interesting because the defendants allegedly ran their scheme with the help of insiders at the casinos, who provided assistance in exchange for a cut of the cash.
Continue Reading Guilty Pleas Highlight Illicit Funneling of Chinese Cash to Casinos

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.
Continue Reading U.S. Treasury and DOJ Target “Evil Corp”

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.
Continue Reading International Efforts to Combat Guatemalan Money Laundering Schemes Nets High-Profile Arrest and Guilty Plea

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