Extraterritorial Application of US Law

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

I am very pleased to be part of two upcoming panels focused on key current risks relating to money laundering and anti-money laundering (“AML”), joined by wonderful and distinguished speakers.  I hope that you can join – the discussions should be lively, informative and useful to legal and compliance professionals.

ACAMS: Money Laundering and Real

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a recent 27-page decision, held that Halkbank, the state-owned Turkish lender, cannot claim sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) in a money laundering and sanctions-related prosecution.  Upholding a decision by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman, the court ruled that even if the FSIA could shield the bank in a criminal case, the charges against Halkbank fall under the “commercial activity” exception to FSIA immunity.  This interpretation of the commercial activity exception significantly limits the immunity bestowed under the FSIA in criminal cases and furthers American deterrence against foreign financial institutions that allegedly facilitate evasion of U.S. sanctions or launder funds through the U.S. financial system.  Halkbank now faces potential trial for an alleged $20 billion money laundering scheme, bank fraud, and conspiracy charges.
Continue Reading  Second Circuit Says Turkish Halkbank Must Face Criminal Charges In Money Laundering and Iran Sanctions Case

Agenda Highlights Intersection of National Security, Corruption and Anti-Money Laundering

On June 3, 2021, President Biden unveiled a National Security Study Memorandum entitled Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a Core United States National Security Interest (the “Memo”).  It reveals—as the title might suggest—that the Biden administration views “countering corruption as a core United States national security interest.”  Corruption “corrodes public trust” in foreign nations, and—because of its cross-border nature—threatens “United States national security . . . and democracy itself.”  This threat to democracy is created by, for example, “[a]nonymous shell companies, opaque financial systems, and professional service providers [that] enable the movement and laundering of illicit wealth, including in the United States.”  Under the rubric of curbing illicit finance and promoting transparency, the Memo amplifies the importance of the Corporate Transparency Act (the “CTA”).

To combat these risks, the Biden administration will use a whole-of-government approach.  The Memo calls for an interagency review to tap the expertise of a wide array of agencies and executive departments, including the Departments of the Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, State, Commerce, and Energy.  Within 200 days, an interagency review must be completed and a report and recommendations (the “Report”) must be submitted to the President.  The Report will serve as the basis for the Biden administration’s strategy in its fight against corruption, both at home and abroad.

The Report has significant implications for many stakeholders: domestic and foreign financial institutions, U.S. corporations transacting business abroad, and foreign businesses and individuals operating or seeking to operate in the U.S. – as well as their professional advisors.

The Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition (the “FACT Coalition”) has already heaped praise on the Memo, stating it represents “real progress in combating this global scourge” of corruption.  And the Memo represents just one part of a broader federal focus on corruption.  The Memo comes about a month and a half after President Biden’s Executive Order targeting Russia’s use of “transnational corruption to influence foreign governments.”  It also comes just a day after the announcement of a bipartisan Congressional caucus, the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy (the “Caucus”).  The Caucus will focus exclusively on foreign corruption, what Sen. Ben Cardin calls a “national security priority of the highest order.”  The Caucus will provide a means of educating members of Congress and coordinating efforts across committees.  Additionally, the Memo’s release preceded by just a few days Vice President Harris’ visit to Latin America.  According to a senior administration official, a major focus of Vice President Harris’ trip will be conversations on anti-corruption measures.
Continue Reading  President Biden Unveils Broad Vision to Crack Down on Foreign and Domestic Corruption

Indictment Alleges International Scheme Involving Bribes Touching NY Correspondent Bank Accounts

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that U.K. law enforcement officials arrested, at its request, an Austrian national, Peter Weinzierl, for his alleged participation in a wide-ranging money laundering scheme involving Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht S.A. Odebrecht previously pleaded guilty in December

Art & Antiquities; Beneficial Owners; Foreign Corruption — and More

We are really pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2021 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 11, 2021, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference again will be entirely virtual — but it will be as informative, interesting and timely as

On February 24, the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Criminal Division Fraud Section released its 2020 Year In Review (“the Report”) touting its white-collar enforcement successes.  Among them: four cases in which the DOJ wielded the United States’ money laundering statutes to pursue alleged overseas bribery recipients who are beyond the reach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).  This is a pattern we have covered previously (here, hereherehere, here, here and here).   While the FCPA imposes liability on American citizens and entities that bribe foreign officials, it does not impose liability on the foreign officials receiving the bribe.  Enter 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957.  As illustrated in the Report’s cases, 2020 marked a continuation of the DOJ’s willingness to use the money laundering statutes to pursue corrupt foreign activity that uses U.S. financial institutions, however tangentially.
Continue Reading  DOJ Fraud Section 2020 Year in Review: Money Laundering Statute Remains an Overseas Enforcement Tool

Court Rejects Halkbank’s Claim That the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act Shields the Bank From Prosecution

A motion to dismiss an indictment accusing Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank of money laundering, bank fraud and Iran-related sanctions offenses was denied by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman of the Southern District of New York in a recent 16-page decision.  The Court ruled that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) does not bestow immunity in U.S. criminal proceedings on financial institutions owned in whole or in part by foreign governments. Even if it did, the FSIA’s commercial activity exemptions would apply and support Halkbank’s prosecution. This development is the latest in the ongoing, complex battle between Halkbank the U.S. Department of Justice – a prosecution involving potential political battles as well.

As we have blogged, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York charged Halkbank on October 15, 2019 with a six count indictment for bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), stemming from the bank’s alleged involvement in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.  The Court later rejected an attempt by Halkbank to enter a “special appearance” contesting jurisdiction, making it clear that international financial institutions must appear for arraignment in criminal actions.  The decision served as a warning to foreign defendants brought into U.S. federal court: issues of jurisdiction in criminal cases must be litigated only after arraignment.

Judge Berman’s most recent ruling found that Halkbank is not immune from criminal prosecution in the United States under FSIA, and that the allegations in the indictment were plead sufficiently to avoid dismissal.  This ruling of course has a potentially broader application to any foreign majority state-owned entities which allegedly scheme to violate U.S. criminal law: given sufficient nexus between the scheme and the United States, FSIA will not shield the foreign entities, because the Act only applies to civil matters that do not fall under its “commercial activities” exceptions.
Continue Reading  Turkey’s Majority State-Owned Halkbank Is Not Immune from U.S. Prosecution in Iran Sanctions and Money Laundering Case