Extraterritorial Application of US Law

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

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