On November 5, 2020, the Council of the European Union approved a new action plan to strengthen anti-money laundering and combatting terrorism financing across the EU. The Action Plan, “an Action Plan for a comprehensive Union policy on preventing money laundering and terrorist financing,” appears to be motivated by the perceived failures in preventing the Danske Bank scandal (which we’ve blogged about here, and more generally, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In light of “[m]ajor divergences” and “serious weaknesses” in enforcement, it appears the Council believes the EU’s “anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism” framework (“AML/CFT framework”) “needs to be significantly improved.” As we have blogged, the EU historically has issued numerous reports identifying systemic vulnerabilities to money laundering and suggesting process-based recommendations for how to address such threats. These recommendations typically have not addressed a basic issue: the actual prosecution of bad actors.

This new Action Plan contains some teeth. If its legislative proposals are enacted and implemented, it would allow the EU to close cross-border loopholes, update its rulebook, and strengthen the implementation and enforcement of the AML/CFT framework through EU-level supervision. Even if the more ambitious proposals do not pass legislative scrutiny, the Action Plan shows the EU is keenly focused on combatting the threat of cross-border money laundering and that it has many tools available at its disposal, some of which it is already using. Unified and coordinated implementation of the AML/CFT framework coupled with increased information sharing between members and between public and private partners should aid detection and enforcement efforts across the EU.
Continue Reading Council of the European Union Unveils Ambitious New AML Action Plan

AML Standards May Exist in Theory, But Often are Not Enforced in Practice

Today we are very pleased to welcome, once again, guest bloggers Gretta Fenner and Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”). The Basel Institute recently issued its Basel AML Index for 2020. Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska guest blogged for Money Laundering Watch last year on this data-rich and fascinating annual Index, which is one of several online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime. The Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption, and is an Associated Institute of the University of Basel. The Basel Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Gretta Fenner is the Managing Director of the Basel Institute, where she also holds the position of Director of the Institute’s International Centre for Asset Recovery. She is a political scientist by training and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Otto-Suhr-Institute at the Free University Berlin, Germany, and the Paris Institute for Political Science (Sciences Po), France. She also holds an MBA from the Curtin University Graduate School of Business, Australia.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska respond to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2020. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses AML standards vs. their actual implementation, human trafficking, AML vulnerabilities in the U.S., the effects of covid-19, and more. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading The Basel AML Index 2020: Across the Globe, Weak Oversight and Dormant Enforcement Systems. A Guest Blog.

Is Art an “Ideal Playing Ground” for Money Laundering?

Last week, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for the U.S. Senate released a detailed, 147-page report titled “The Art Industry and U.S. Policies That Undermine Sanctions” (“the Report”). Although the Report ostensibly addresses the evasion of U.S. sanctions law, much of the Report actually focuses on the connection between high-end art and potential money laundering schemes and anti-money laundering (“AML”) risks. Among other proposals, the Report recommends that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) be amended to include art dealers as “financial institutions” subject to AML obligations under the BSA.

The Report focuses on an elaborate case study documenting how certain Russian oligarchs allegedly used transactions involving high-end art and shell companies to evade U.S. sanctions, imposed on them on March 20, 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. We will not focus on the detailed allegations in the Report regarding the particular facts of this alleged scheme, or the alleged involvement of certain major art auction houses. Rather, we will focus on the more general sections in the Report relating to systemic concerns about the potential role of high-end art in money laundering schemes, and the more general findings of fact and recommendations generated by these concerns.

The Report was not issued in a vacuum; rather, it clearly was written in part to spur legislative action. Proposed legislation on BSA/AML reform is pending before the U.S. Congress and Senate, including a proposal – currently nestled within a lengthy proposed amendment to a defense spending bill – to (i) add to the list of “financial institutions” covered by the BSA “a person trading or acting as an intermediary in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation of the sale of antiquities;” and (ii) require a study by the Secretary of the Treasury “on the facilitation of money laundering and terror finance through the trade of works of art or antiquities,” including an evaluation of whether certain art industry markets (“by size, entity type, domestic or international geographic locations, or otherwise”) should be regulated under the BSA. And, this general issue has been percolating for some time. Last year, we blogged in detail about the potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes, and the voluntary AML programs which art dealers might adopt to combat such schemes.
Continue Reading Using Art to Evade Sanctions and Launder Money: The Senate Report

Danske Bank: “If we’re going down, you’re coming with us.”

First Post in a Two-Post Series

On March 19, 2020, Swedbank received the first of what will likely be multiple sanctions regarding alleged deficiencies in its Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) processes and mishandling of information exchanges with public investigations. At the conclusion of parallel investigations by Swedish and Estonian authorities, Swedbank AB must now pay a record 4 billion Swedish Krona ($38 million) and its subsidiary, Swedbank AS, has been ordered to improve its AML risk control systems to comply with the applicable requirements. These penalties are all prelude to the ongoing investigations by the Latvian Police Department, European Central Bank, Swedish Economic Crime Authority, several United States authorities and, presumably, the inevitable private securities litigation to come.

In this post, we will discuss the various public AML-related investigations and enforcement actions plaguing Swedbank.  In our next post, we will discuss the details and implications of the report of internal investigation regarding these problems performed by an outside law firm at the request of Swedbank, which has made the report publicly available.  The bigger picture: the saga of Swedbank is just part of the larger and seemingly non-stop AML debacle centered around Danske Bank and its now-notorious Estonian Branch.
Continue Reading AML Problems Plague Swedbank

A Modest Proposal

The European Union (“EU”) recently has grappled with a series of massive money laundering scandals and strategized about how to more effectively combat international money laundering and corruption. Generally, the EU has continued to issue a series of reports identifying systemic vulnerabilities to money laundering and suggest process-based recommendations for how to address future threats. These recommendations typically mirror the same range of process-based improvements set forth in earlier reports: from enhancing cross-border information sharing to increasing resources for adequate implementation and enforcement of anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter financing of terrorism (“CFT”) policies implemented by EU member states and financial institutions. Noticeably absent from these recommendations is one of the most powerful deterrents available – and a distinctly American approach – prosecuting the bad actors.

Although many of the recent EU money laundering scandals rest on conduct occurring years ago, the recurring waves of scandals strongly suggest that the EU – like the U.S. – has a serious problem with money laundering that is not going away any time soon. They likewise indicate that the EU’s financial system will continue to be abused by bad actors who appear to be unfazed by any potential consequences. The EU therefore should consider emulating – at least in part – the American approach of more aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals, including the corrupt politicians, kleptocrats, drug dealers, fraudsters, and other criminals from around the globe who are laundering sometimes massive amounts of funds through European financial institutions.

Very recently, in a different but related context, the Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), Jay Clayton, delivered a speech during which he bemoaned his perception that his foreign counterparts failed to rigorously enforce their own anti-corruption laws. Specifically, Chairman Clayton asserted the following:

Corruption is corrosive. We see examples where corruption leads to poverty, exploitation and conflict. Yet, we must face the fact that, in many areas of the world, our work may not be having the desired effect. Why? In significant part, because many other countries, including those that have long had similar offshore anti-corruption laws on their books, do not enforce those laws.

Granted, the above comments pertained specifically to enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), and arguably the comments were in furtherance of a pro-American message regarding international competition between countries. The comments nonetheless exemplifies a certain American perception: the U.S. aggressively prosecutes individuals, whereas Europe does not. Obviously, this issue entails a lot of cultural baggage on both sides.

Although there are viable criticisms of the U.S. approach (both in theory and in practice), and although the EU’s strong focus on process and institutions’ AML and CFT systems is critical, any government’s enforcement “tool bag” must include targeted prosecutions of the people responsible for the laundering violations. Otherwise, few bad actors around the world will think twice about continuing to turn to EU institutions for their laundering needs. This blog post explores this idea.
Continue Reading The EU’s Efforts to Combat Money Laundering, the Financing of Terrorism and Corruption Seem to Overlook a Very American Approach: Prosecute People

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest bloggers Gretta Fenner and Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”). The Basel Institute recently issued its Basel AML Index for 2019. As they explain below, this data-rich and fascinating Index, on which we blogged last year, is one of several online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime.  The Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption, and is an Associated Institute of the University of Basel. The Basel Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Gretta Fenner is the Managing Director of the Basel Institute, where she also holds the position of Director of the Institute’s International Centre for Asset Recovery. She is a political scientist by training and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Otto-Suhr-Institute at the Free University Berlin, Germany, and the Paris Institute for Political Science (Sciences Po), France. She also holds an MBA from the Curtin University Graduate School of Business, Australia.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Ms. Fenner and Dr. Boguslavska respond to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2019. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses AML compliance vs. actual effectiveness, kleptocracy, transparency, de-risking, and more. –Peter Hardy
Continue Reading What the Basel AML Index Reveals About Global Money Laundering Risks

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.
Continue Reading Senate Committee Hears from OCC, FinCEN and FBI on Risks Posed by Anonymous Corporate Structures

On April 15, the UK Treasury released proposed steps, entitled a “consultation,” to adopt the EU’s Fifth Money Laundering Directive (“5AMLD”) into national law, while also seeking comments and evidence from stakeholders to inform the final government decisions on adoption of 5AMLD. In certain respects, the exchequer suggests that it might expand the scope of 5AMLD, in part by targeting a perceived gap in stemming the flow of illicit funds in the real property sector. To achieve that goal, it sets forth the possibility of imposing new duties on landlords to carry out extensive due diligence on their tenants, subject to further feedback.

Continue Reading UK’s Anti-Money Laundering Laws May Extend to Private Landlords

The Danske Bank money laundering scandal continues to reveal its many permutations and confirm its status as the largest money laundering case in history. We summarize here certain events since November 2018, since we last have blogged about the case (see here, here, and here). Proving that no one is immune from the potential taint, notable events include an investigation announced by the Estonian financial regulator; an investigation into that same Estonian regulator itself; the commencement of the inevitable investor lawsuit; and scrutiny of what some have described as the “cleanest” bank in the world, Swedbank, one of the most important banks in Northern Europe.
Continue Reading Massive Danske Bank Money Laundering Scandal Continues to Unfold

As we have blogged (here and here), the United States – despite its self-perception as a global financial cop and “good guy” – is often regarded by the world as a haven for money laundering and tax evasion. The U.S. just took another black eye in the arena of global perception: the European Commission (“EC”) has placed the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa on a list of 23 high-risk jurisdictions which it says are “posing significant threats” to the European Union’s financial system as a result of deficiencies in their Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Countering the Financing of Terror (“CFT”) systems. Specifically, the EC perceives these jurisdictions as being attractive to money laundering and tax crimes. The listed United States’ territories and Commonwealths are not alone; they dubiously share space on the EC’s blacklist with Saudia Arabia and Panama.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. reaction was swift and angry: the U.S. Department of Treasury released a statement declaring that the list was flawed; the list was created without any meaningful input from the United States; and that the list contradicted the more careful analysis conducted by the Financial Action Task Force. Further, the Treasury Department stated that U.S. financial institutions should ignore this blacklisting, and did not need to apply any greater scrutiny to implicated transactions.
Continue Reading Europe Increasingly Views United States as Faltering in Fight Against Money Laundering