Extraterritorial Application of US Law

Last week, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment against global cryptocurrency exchange KuCoin and two of its founders, Chun Gan and Ke Tang, for allegedly conspiring to operate an unlicensed money transmitting business and conspiring to violate the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by willfully failing to maintain an adequate anti-money laundering (“AML”) program.  KuCoin also was charged with operating an unlicensed money transmitting business and a substantive violation of the BSA. Further, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (the “CFTC”) filed a complaint on the same day in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging that KuCoin violated the Commodity Exchange Act (the “CEA”) and related regulations.

The indictment alleges that KuCoin failed to design and implement procedures to prevent it from being used for money laundering and terrorist financing, failed to maintain reasonable procedures for verifying the identity of customers, and failed to file any Suspicious Activity Reports.  When distilled, the indictment alleges that KuCoin had no real BSA/AML compliance program at all, because it pretended to not have any U.S. customers.  This allegation is familiar theme in similar U.S. enforcement actions, including those against Binance.

The CFTC civil complaint specifically alleges that KuCoin illegally dealt in off-exchange commodity futures transactions; solicited and accepted orders for commodity futures and swaps, and leveraged, margined, or financed retail commodity transactions without registering with the CFTC as a Futures Commission Merchant (“FCM”); failed to diligently supervise its FCM activities; operated a facility for the trading or processing of swaps without registering with the CFTC as a swap execution facility or designated contract market; and failed to implement an effective customer identification program.

Continue Reading  KuCoin and Founders Charged with Operating Illegally as Money Transmitter and Futures Commission Merchant

With Guest Speaker IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jonathan Schnatz

We are very fortunate to have Special Agent Jonathan Schnatz as our guest speaker in this podcast on international efforts to investigate tax evasion and money laundering, and how they relate to criminal investigations and civil audits of U.S. businesses and individuals.

Special Agent Schnatz

We previously have blogged on actions taken by the DOJ’s “Task Force KleptoCapture,” an interagency law enforcement task force with a mandate to target sanctioned Russian and pro-Russian oligarchs. While explicitly launched in May 2022 as a direct response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the task force’s mission is consistent with the U.S. government’s characterization of Russia as a kleptocratic regime (see our post here) and the Biden Administration’s promotion of anti-corruption as a “core United States national security interest” (see our posts here and here).

This week, DOJ announced (via both a press release and a filmed podium announcement by Attorney General Merrick Garland) a series of enforcement actions in five separate federal cases in districts up and down the East Coast, dealing with money laundering and evasion of sanctions, in several cases centered on quintessentially oligarchic luxury goods: high-end real estate and superyachts.  The enforcement actions also emphasize the continuing themes in these cases of the use of shell companies, proxies and lawyers to allegedly evade sanctions.

Continue Reading  The American Front in Russia’s War on Ukraine: DOJ’s “Task Force KleptoCapture” Continues Focus on Operations of Sanctioned Oligarchs

Farewell to 2023, and welcome 2024.  As we do every year, let’s look back.

We highlight 10 of our most-read blog posts from 2023, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined during the past year: criminal money laundering enforcement; compliance risks with third-party fintech relationships; the scope of authority of bank regulators; sanctions

A Huge Monetary Penalty for Sprawling Allegations – But Will Zhao Receive a Prison Sentence?

As the world now knows, Binance Holdings Limited, doing business as Binance.com (“Binance” or the “Company”), has entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  

Binance is registered in the Cayman Islands and regarded as the world’s largest virtual currency exchange. It agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program; knowingly failing to register as a money services business (“MSB”); and willfully causing violations of U.S. economic sanctions issued pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”). Despite the plea agreement, Binance will continue to operate.

Changpeng Zhao, also known as “CZ,” also pleaded guilty to violating the BSA by failing to implement and maintain an effective AML program. Zhao is Binance’s primary founder, majority owner, and – until now – CEO. As part of his plea agreement, Zhao has stepped down as the CEO, although he apparently will keep his shares in Binance.

As part of its plea agreement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2,510,650,588 and to pay a criminal fine of $1,805,475,575 for a total criminal penalty of $4,316,126,163. Binance also entered into related civil consent orders with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (“OFAC”). Zhao also entered into a consent order with the CFTC.

The allegations are vast and detailed, and much digital ink already has been spilled regarding this matter. Our discussion therefore will be relatively high-level. Distilled, the government alleges that Binance – under the direction of Zhao – tried to hide the fact that it operated in the U.S., purposefully avoided any meaningful AML compliance, and consequently laundered many millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency involving extremely serious criminal conduct, including terrorism, child pornography, and U.S. sanctions evasion.

As for Zhao, and as we will discuss, whether he will go to prison – and if so, for how long – is an open and very interesting question. His sentencing currently is scheduled for February 23, 2024.

Continue Reading  Binance Settles Criminal and Civil AML and Sanctions Enforcement Actions for Multiple Billions – While its Founder, Owner and Former CEO Zhao Pleads Guilty to Single AML Crime

On June 5, 2023, the SEC filed an extensive civil complaint against Binance Holdings Limited, its assorted affiliates and its beneficial owner and CEO, Changpeng Zhao, alleging multiple violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The Binance suit, as all of SEC’s enforcement efforts in the crypto space, arises from the hotly contested and frequently litigated predicate categorically asserted by the SEC that at least some cryptocurrencies are “securities” under, and therefore subject to, the federal securities laws.  The Binance case demonstrates how, from that premise, the SEC takes a utilitarian approach to the crypto industry, essentially overlaying the functions and participants in the traditional securities industry against their counterparts in crypto.

Although the Binance enforcement action obviously focuses on securities law, it is relevant to anti-money laundering concepts because the action focuses on Know-Your-Customer (“KYC”) requirements, as a predicate to discussing the securities laws.  The Binance enforcement action is similar to the enforcement action against Bitmex and other entities, which rested on the allegation that the entity attempted to pretend that it did not have U.S. customers — even though it in fact had such customers, as it allegedly well knew and despite efforts to obfuscate such U.S. contacts.  This post therefore will focus on the KYC and customer identification issues presented by the Binance complaint.

Continue Reading  SEC’s Suit Against Binance Demonstrates Scope of Its Crypto Enforcement Efforts

But Court Gives Turkish Bank Another Chance to Avoid Charges Under Common-Law Sovereign Immunity

On April 19, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a highly-anticipated decision in the case of Turkiye Halk Bankasi A.S., aka Halkbank v. United States.  The court ruled that Turkish state-owned Halkbank remained subject to criminal prosecution in U.S. courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) for fraud, money laundering and sanctions-related charges related to the bank’s alleged participation in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions involving Iran.  Specifically, in a seven to two decision, the Court held that the FSIA does not provide foreign states and their instrumentalities with immunity from U.S. criminal proceedings.  However, the Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to determine whether Halkbank still can claim sovereign immunity under common law principles.  The Court’s opinion clearly extends beyond just financial institutions owned by foreign governments, and instead implicates any number of foreign state-owned entities.

Continue Reading  Supreme Court Rules Halkbank is Not Immune from Prosecution Under FSIA

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced on March 15, 2023 that in a coordinated effort between U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, Europol, and German police, the darknet cryptocurrency mixing service ChipMixer has been shut down.  The operation involved the U.S. government’s court-authorized seizure of two domains that directed users to the ChipMixer service and one Github account.  In addition, German authorities seized $46 million in cryptocurrency, as well as ChipMixer’s back-end servers used to run the site. 

Further, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a criminal complaint against ChipMixer’s suspected founder, Vietnamese national, Minh Quoc Nguyen (“Nguyen”), alleging that Nguyen openly flouted financial regulations and instructed users how to use ChipMixer to evade reporting requirements while obscuring his true name under a series of stolen and fictitious identities. The complaint also alleges that ChipMixer, described as a popular platform for laundering illicit funds gained from unlawful activities like drug trafficking, ransomware attacks (according to Europol, ransomware actors Zeppelin, SunCrypt, Mamba, Dharma, Lockbit have used ChipMixer), and payment card fraud, was used to launder more than $3 billion in cryptocurrency since 2017.  Nguyen has been charged with money laundering, operating an unlicensed money transmitting business, and identity theft in connection with the operation of ChipMixer. 

Continue Reading  Darkweb Cryptocurrency Mixer ChipMixer Shut Down for Allegedly Laundering $3 Billion Worth of Crypto

Factual Statement Is a Tale of Whistleblowing, High-Risk Customers, and Misleading U.S. Banks

Earlier this month, Danske Bank was sentenced in the Southern District of New York to three years of probation and forfeiture of $2.059 billion.  The sentencing capped a tumultuous and global scandal that became public several years ago, as the enormous scope of the bank’s anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance problems emerge:  several hundred billion in suspicious transactions allegedly were processed over time at the bank’s former Estonian branch.  As a result of the sentencing, Danske Bank was ordered to make an actual payment of $1,209,062,646; the bank received credit for the rest of the forfeiture amount on the basis of a $178.6 million payment to the Securities and Exchange Commission and a $672.3 million payment to Denmark authorities.

Danske Bank was charged not with violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), but rather with bank fraud.  According to the press release issued in December 2022  by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) at the time of the bank’s plea, the bank had “defrauded U.S. banks regarding Danske Bank Estonia’s customers and [AML] controls to facilitate access to the U.S. financial system for Danske Bank Estonia’s high-risk customers, who resided outside of Estonia – including in Russia.”  The DOJ’s choice to charge bank fraud presumably was predicated upon issues relating to U.S. jurisdiction and the actual applicability of the BSA to Danske Bank and activities in Estonia – but the heart of the criminal case is that Danske Bank allegedly hid its own AML failures from three U.S. banks, thereby thwarting the U.S. banks’ own AML programs and compliance with the BSA.

The plea agreement contains a lengthy statement of facts full of eye-catching allegations.  As we describe, it sets forth a tale of intentional and sometimes brazen misconduct by Estonian branch employees, coupled with lax oversight and implicit approval, or at least tolerance, of such conduct by some people in upper management.  Further, it involves another example of a financial institution, in the eyes of law enforcement and regulators, over-valuing profit and under-valuing compliance systems.  The case also highlights, again, the potential risks associated with correspondent bank accounts held by non-U.S. banks, the importance of having fully integrated and coordinated monitoring systems, and the potential role of whistleblowers.

Finally, this saga is not necessarily over entirely.  Danske Bank is subject to three years of probation.  The plea agreement requires numerous compliance commitments by the bank, including signed certificates of compliance and self-reporting of potential AML failures.  Danske Bank’s troubles also have involved lawsuits brought by investors claiming to have been defrauded, although the bank has had success in fending off these actions (see here, here and here).

Continue Reading  SDNY Sentences Danske Bank in Massive AML Scandal

On June 6, Attorney General Merrick Garland (“AG”) issued a report titled “How to Strengthen International Law Enforcement Cooperation For Detecting, Investigating And Prosecuting Criminal Activity Related To Digital Assets” (the “Report). Led by the Department of Justice, the Report represents a collaborative effort with feedback from the Department of State, Department of Treasury, Department of Homeland Security, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Commodities Future Trading Commission (“CFTC”). The Report also comes as U.S. senators Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. recently introduced a sweeping bipartisan bill to bring clarity to cryptocurrency regulation by defining most digital assets as commodities (to be regulated primarily by the CFTC) and enacting rules governing stablecoins.

The Report was required by President Biden’s March 9, 2022 Executive Order, Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets, on which we previously blogged.  The Executive Order addressed concerns about the growing role of digital assets in money laundering crimes and sanctions evasion, and called for a report to be published by the AG for the purpose of strengthening international law enforcement cooperation.  The resultant Report stresses the pragmatic problems facing cross-border investigations – particularly the reluctance or sheer inability of foreign jurisdictions to tackle such investigations independently – and makes three basic recommendations, all of which relate to improved funding, communication and standards.

Continue Reading  DOJ Report Calls For International Cooperation to Fight Digital Asset Crime