Consent Order Stresses that Only Three AML Analysts Struggled to Review 100 “Alerts” Per Day, Each – and Notes in Passing that “Outside Examiners” Blessed the Bank’s AML Program for the Same Five Years that the Bank Allegedly Maintained a Willfully Deficient Program

On December 16, 2021, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) entered into a Consent Order with CommunityBank of Texas, N.A. (“CBOT”), in which CBOT admitted to major shortcomings with respect to the implementation and effectiveness of its anti-money laundering (“AML”) program. The monetary penalties imposed on CBOT are substantial: FinCEN assessed an $8 million penalty, although CBOT will receive credit for a separate $1 million penalty to be paid to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”).

The Consent Order, available here, offers valuable insight into FinCEN’s reasoning for its enforcement actions.  According to the Consent Order, CBOT has a regional footprint and operates several branches in Texas.  It serves small and medium-sized businesses and professionals.  And, in the “back of the house,” CBOT established a typical AML system designed to detect and escalate alerts for suspicious activity for investigation and potential filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). However, FinCEN alleged that over a period of at least four years, CBOT “willfully” failed to effectively implement its AML, program, leading to a failure to file SARs and otherwise detect specific suspicious activity.  As detailed below, many of the alleged shortcomings of CBOT’s AML program flowed from a lack of compliance resources and personnel between 2015 and 2019: too few analysts were assigned to review and investigate potentially suspicious transactions, and as a result, downstream investigations and due diligence suffered, including an alleged failure to file at least 17 specific SARs.

Because the detailed Consent Order offers a somewhat rare opportunity to glean FinCEN’s reasoning behind its enforcement actions generally, we explore the alleged failures in some detail below.  Then, we summarize key details of the Consent Order, offer key takeaways, and note several questions that the Consent Order still leaves unresolved.
Continue Reading FinCEN Assesses Civil Penalty Against CommunityBank of Texas for AML Program Weaknesses

On December 1, 2021, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) released updates to its Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) Examination Manual (the “Manual”), which provides guidance to examiners for evaluating a financial institution’s BSA/AML compliance program and its compliance with related regulatory requirements.  This update is the third of 2021: the FFIEC also released updates to the Manual on February 25, 2021 and June 21, 2021.

This most recent update to the Manual adds a new introductory section, Introduction – Customers.  The updated Manual also includes changes to sections pertaining to Charities and Nonprofit Organizations, Independent Automated Teller Machine Owners or Operators, and Politically Exposed Persons (“PEP”).  The breadth of this most recent Manual update is consistent with the previous 2021 updates.  In February, FFIEC released an introductory section and updates to three sections pertaining to Customer Identification Programs (“CIP”), Currency Transaction Reporting (“CTR”), and Transactions of Exempt Persons.  In June, the FFIEC released updates to four sections pertaining to International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments Reporting, Purchase and Sale of Monetary Instruments Recordkeeping, Reports of Foreign Financial, and Special Measures.

Consistent with prior FFIEC Interagency press releases associated with Manual updates, the FFIEC explained that “[t]he updates should not be interpreted as new requirements or as a new or increased focus on certain areas,” but rather “provide information and considerations related to certain customers that may indicate the need for bank policies, procedures, and processes to address potential money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit financial activity risks.”  Despite this disclaimer, the updates provide helpful insight into what examiners prioritize with regard to BSA/AML compliance.
Continue Reading The FFIEC’S Third 2021 Update to the BSA/AML Examination Manual

Meaningful Overlap or Superficial Similarities?

On October 3, the release of the Pandora Papers flooded the global media, as millions of documents detailed incidents of wealthy and powerful people allegedly using so-called offshore accounts and other structures to shield wealth from taxation and other asset reporting. Data gathered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the architect of the Pandora Papers release, suggests that governments collectively lose $427 billion each year to tax evasion and tax avoidance. These figures and the identification of high-profile politicians and oligarchs involved in the scandal (Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, to name a few) have grabbed headlines and spurred conversations about fairness in the international financial system – particularly as COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated economic disparities.

Much of the conduct revealed by the Pandora Papers appears to involve entirely legal structures used by the wealthy to – not surprisingly – maintain or enhance wealth.  Thus, the core debate implicated by the Pandora Papers is arguably one of social equity and related reputational risk for financial institutions (“FIs”), rather than “just” crime and anti-money laundering (“AML”). Media treatment of the Pandora Papers often blurs the distinction between AML and social concerns – and traditionally, there has been a distinction.

This focus on social concerns made us consider the current interest by the U.S. government, corporations and investors in ESG, and how ESG might begin to inform – perhaps only implicitly – aspects of AML compliance and examination.  ESG, which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance, are criteria that set the foundation for socially-conscious investing that attempts to identify related business risks.  At first blush, the two are separate fields.  But as we discuss, there are ESG-related issues that link concretely to discrete AML issues: for example, transaction monitoring by FIs of potential environmental crime by customers for the purposes of filing a Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR, under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Moreover, there is a bigger picture consideration regarding BSA/AML relating to ESG:  will regulators and examiners of FIs covered by the BSA now consider – consciously or unconsciously – whether FIs are providing financial services to customers that are not necessarily breaking the law or engaging in suspicious activity, but whose conduct is inconsistent with ESG principles?

If so, then ESG concerns may fuel the phenomenon of de-risking, which is when FIs limit, restrict or close the accounts of clients perceived as being a high risk for money laundering or terrorist financing.  Arguably, and as we discuss, there also would be a historical and controversial analog – Operation Chokepoint, which involved a push by the government (not investors) for FIs to de-risk certain types of customers.  Regardless, interest in ESG means that FIs have to be even more aware of potential reputational risk with certain clients.  Even if the money in the accounts is perfectly legal, the next data breach can mean unwanted publicity for servicing certain clients.

These concepts are slippery, involve emerging trends that have yet to play out fully, and the similarities between AML and ESG can be overstated.  Nonetheless, it is possible that these two fields, both of which are subject to increasing global interest, may converge in important respects.  A preliminary discussion seems merited, however caveated or subject to debate.
Continue Reading ESG, AML Compliance and the Convergence of Social Concerns

Breadth of List Undermines Usefulness to Industry

As required by the Anti-Money Laundering Act (“AML Act”), the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued on June 30, 2021 the first government-wide list of priorities for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (“AML/CFT”) (the “Priorities”).  The Priorities purport to identify and describe the most significant AML/CFT threats facing the United States.  The Priorities have been much-anticipated because, under the AML Act, regulators will review and examine financial institutions in part according to how their AML/CFT compliance programs incorporate and further the Priorities, “as appropriate.”

Unfortunately, and as we will discuss, there is a strong argument that FinCEN has prioritized almost everything, and therefore nothing.
Continue Reading FinCEN Identifies AML/CFT “Priorities” For Financial Institutions

On March 29, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) began to make good on its promise to make AML a key examination priority in 2021 by issuing a risk alert authored by the Division of Examinations (“EXAMS”) detailing the results of a review of broker-dealers’ compliance with anti-money laundering (“AML”) requirements (the “Alert”).

The Alert details the obligations of broker-dealers to comply with AML programs and SAR monitoring and reporting requirements pursuant to the “AML Program Rule,” 31 C.F.R. § 1023.210, and the “SAR Rule,” 31 C.F.R. § 1023.320, as well as similar obligations under Rule 17a-8 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), which incorporates the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reporting and record-keeping obligations applicable to broker-dealers.  The Alert further issues findings that indicate certain firms are experiencing shortcomings when it comes to establishing and implementing sufficient suspicious activity monitoring and reporting policies and procedures, which is leading to inadequate SAR reporting in several respects.

Perhaps not coincidentally, EXAMS issued the Alert shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in December 2020 in SEC vs. Alpine Securities Corp. that the SEC has the authority to bring an enforcement action against broker-dealers under Section 17(a) and Rule 17a-8 of the Exchange Act on the basis of alleged BSA failures, including failures to comply with the SAR Rule.  Whether the Alert is a true “heads up” or a forewarning of enforcement actions to come, firms are encouraged not to replicate the specific deficiencies identified in the Alert.
Continue Reading Broker-Dealers Fail SEC AML Examinations

On February 25, 2021, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) released updates to the Bank Secretary Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) Examination Manual (the “Manual”), which provides guidance to examiners for evaluating a financial institution’s BSA/AML compliance program and its compliance with related regulatory requirements.

First, the Manual adds a new introductory section, Assessing Compliance with [BSA] Regulatory Requirements.  Second, the Manual updates the sections pertaining to Customer Identification Program (“CIP”), Currency Transaction Reporting (“CTR”), and Transactions of Exempt Persons. The Manual explains that, consistent with prior updates, that the “updates should not be interpreted as new instructions or as a new or increased focus on certain areas,” but are intended to “offer further transparency into the examination process and support risk-focused examination work.”

The 2021 updates are not quite as substantial as the 2020 updates to the Manual, which pertained to scoping and planning of examinations; the review of a financial institution’s BSA/AML risk assessment; the assessment of an institution’s BSA/AML compliance program; and guidance for examiners on developing conclusions and finalizing the examination.  Nonetheless, the updates provide useful insight into what examiners regard as important for BSA/AML compliance.
Continue Reading The FFIEC Updates the BSA/AML Examination Manual

Revisions to BSA Will Inform Regulatory Examinations for Years to Come

Third Post in an Extended Series on Legislative Changes to BSA/AML Regulatory Regime

As we have blogged, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”), contains major changes to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), coupled with other changes relating to money laundering, anti-money laundering (“AML”), counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) and protecting the U.S. financial system against illicit foreign actors.  In this post, we focus on some fundamental changes set forth in the AMLA’s very first provision, entitled “Establishment of national exam and supervision priorities.”

This new provision sets forth broad language affecting basic principles underlying the BSA and AML/CTF compliance. Specifically, it revises and expands the stated purpose of the BSA; enumerates specific factors for regulators to consider when examining financial institutions’ AML program compliance; requires the Secretary of the Treasury to establish public priorities for AML/CTF policy; and expands the duties and powers (and responsibilities) of the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”).  We discuss each of these changes in turn.

As always, future regulations will determine how these abstract statements of principle will be applied in practice.  Ultimately, however, these AMLA amendments acknowledge the reality that AML/CTF compliance has become much more complex and nuanced since the early days of the BSA, and is a critical component of the soundness of the global financial system.
Continue Reading First Principles: AMLA Expands Stated Purpose of BSA and Exam Priorities

We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series — a weekly podcast focusing on the consumer finance issues that matter most, from new product development and emerging technologies to regulatory compliance and enforcement and the ramifications of private litigation.  Following up on a recent blog post,

Regulators Provide Greater Transparency into BSA/AML Enforcement Process

On August 13, 2020 the Federal Reserve System, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, National Credit Union Administration, and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the “Agency” or collectively the “Agencies”) issued a joint statement updating and clarifying their 2007 guidance regarding how they evaluate enforcement actions when financial institutions violate or fail to meet BSA/AML requirements. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) followed with its own statement on August 18, 2020, setting forth its approach when considering enforcement actions against financial institutions that violate the BSA.

Below are a few highlights from the two sets of guidance:

  • The joint statement repeatedly emphasizes that isolated or technical deficiencies in BSA/AML compliance programs will not generally result in cease and desist orders.
  • The joint statement provides specific categories and examples of BSA/AML program failures that typically would (or would not) result in a cease and desist order. Certain of these examples are discussed below.
  • Compared to the 2007 guidance, the joint statement provides more detailed descriptions and examples of the pillars of BSA/AML compliance programs, such as designated BSA/AML personnel, independent testing, internal controls, and training.
  • FinCEN explains in its statement that it will base enforcement actions on violations of law, not standards of conduct contained solely in guidance documents.
  • The FinCEN statement lays out the factors FinCEN considers when determining the disposition of a BSA violation. Unsurprisingly, these factors include the pervasiveness and seriousness of the conduct and the violator’s cooperation and history of wrongdoing.

All in all, the two statements, particularly the joint statement, succeed in providing greater transparency into the regulators’ decision-making processes with regards to pursuing enforcement actions for violations of the BSA and for AML program deficiencies.
Continue Reading Federal Banking Agencies Issue Joint Statement On Enforcement of BSA/AML Requirements; FinCEN Follows With Its Own

Examiners Should Focus on Risk, Not Technical Perfection

On April 15, 2020, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (“FFIEC”) released updates to the Bank Secretary Act/Anti-Money Laundering (“BSA/AML”) examination manual (the “Manual”). As the FFIEC Interagency press release described, the Manual provides “instructions to examiners when assessing the adequacy of a bank’s BSA/AML compliance program.” The “release of the updated sections provides further transparency into the BSA/AML examination process and does not establish new requirements.” The press release further stated the revisions were made to, among other objectives, emphasize examiners should be “tailoring BSA/AML examination to a bank’s risk profile,” to “ensure language clearly distinguishes between mandatory regulatory requirements and supervisory expectations” for examiners, and to “incorporate regulatory changes since the last update of the Manual in 2014.”

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) also issued a press release regarding the updates. Its statement recognized “financial institutions are faced with uncertainty during this unprecedented time,” therefore the FDIC cautioned the update, “which supports tailored examination work, has been in process for an extended period and should not be interpreted as new instructions or as an augmented focus.”

The updates focus on four steps in the examination process:

  • Scoping and Planning
  • BSA/AML Risk Assessment
  • Assessing the BSA Compliance Program
  • Developing Conclusions and Finalizing the Examination

The updates emphasize examiners should take a “risk-focused” approach to tailor the review of a regulated institution’s BSA/AML compliance program, meaning the examination should be tailored to the risk profile of that specific institution.  The Manual updates incorporate guidance on more recent developments such as Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) and Beneficial Ownership requirements and a recognition of innovations in collaborations among smaller institutions.  Importantly, the Manual reminds examiners that banks have flexibility in the design of their BSA/AML compliance programs, and that minor weaknesses, deficiencies, and technical violations alone do not indicate an inadequate program.
Continue Reading FFIEC BSA/AML Examination Manual Updates Reveal Exam Process and Expectations