Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

OCC Presages Regulators’ Joint Statement on Banks Using Technological Innovation to Comply with BSA/AML Obligations

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

In our first post in this series, we described how the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (the “Banking Committee”) met in open session late last week to conduct a hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform.” The Banking Committee heard the testimony of, and questioned, representatives from the FinCEN, the OCC, and the FBI. The partial backdrop of this hearing is that Congress is considering a draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), which proposes the most substantial overhaul to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) since the PATRIOT Act.   As we have noted, three individuals testified at this hearing:

  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here);
  • Steven D’Antuono, Section Chief of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section (written remarks here); and
  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Compliance and Community Affairs of the OCC (written remarks here).

In our first post, we discussed some of the tensions which emerged during the hearing between the OCC, which emphasized attempting to ease BSA regulatory burdens, particularly for small- to medium-sized community banks, and FinCEN and the FBI, which stressed the value of BSA filings to law enforcement. Today, we discuss the some of the less contentious – although still critical – issues addressed during the hearing, which covered much of the current AML landscape:

  • exploration by financial institutions of technological innovation, including artificial intelligence, in order to comply more efficiently with their BSA/AML obligations;
  • identification of the beneficial owners of legal entities; and
  • the role of real estate in money laundering schemes.


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Regulators Spar Over BSA Reporting Thresholds and Regulatory Review for FinCEN

First Post in a Two-Part Series

Late last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (the “Banking Committee”) met in open session to conduct a hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform.” The Banking Committee heard the testimony of, and questioned, representatives from FinCEN, the OCC, and the FBI. This was the fourth hearing held in 2018 by the Banking Committee on the state of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) framework and its effective implementation by regulators and law enforcement. The partial backdrop for this hearing is that Congress is considering a draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), which proposes the most substantial overhaul to the BSA since the PATRIOT Act, and which contains provisions regarding many of the same issues discussed during the hearing.

In this hearing, we heard from three individuals:

  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here);
  • Steven D’Antuono, Section Chief of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section (written remarks here); and
  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Compliance and Community Affairs of the OCC (written remarks here).

In this post, we will discuss the issues which appeared to generate the most sparks between the OCC—which emphasized attempting to ease BSA regulatory burdens, particularly for small- to medium-sized community banks—and FinCEN and the FBI, which stressed the value of BSA filings to law enforcement. In our next post, we will discuss some of the less contentious (although still critical) issues addressed at the hearing, which broadly canvassed many of the most pressing BSA/AML issues currently facing financial institutions and the government.  These issues are: (i) the exploration by financial institutions of technological innovation, including artificial intelligence, in order to comply more efficiently with their BSA/AML obligations; (ii) the identification of the beneficial owners of legal entities; and (iii) the role of real estate in money laundering schemes.

The tension during the hearing between FinCEN and OCC at times was palpable, and the divides in partisan thinking on the direction of certain aspects of AML reform were apparent. Although there seemed to be consensus on the importance of the beneficial ownership rules and other issues, senators and regulators alike disagreed about increasing the $5,000 and $10,000 respective reporting threshold for the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”).


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Are Proposed AML Regulations for Real Estate Closings and Settlements Soon to Follow?

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FINCEN”) announced on November 15 that it has renewed and revised its Geographic Targeting Orders (“GTOs”) that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, issued last month a Report, entitled The Internal Revenue Service’s Bank Secrecy Act Program Has Minimal Impact on Compliance, which sets forth a decidedly dim view of the utility and effectiveness of the current Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) compliance efforts by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”).  The primary conclusions of the detailed Report are that (i) referrals by the IRS to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) for potential Title 31 penalty cases suffer lengthy delays and have little impact on BSA compliance; (ii) the IRS BSA Program spent approximately $97 million to assess approximately $39 million in penalties for Fiscal Years (FYs) 2014 to 2016; and (iii) although referrals regarding BSA violations were made to IRS Criminal Investigation (“IRS CI”), most investigations were declined and very few ultimately were accepted by the Department of Justice for prosecution.

Arguably, the most striking claim by the Report is that “Title 31 compliance reviews [by the IRS] have minimal impact on Bank Secrecy Act compliance because negligent violation penalties are not assessed.”

A primary take-away from the Report is that an examination program lacking actual enforcement power is, unsurprisingly, not very effective.  The Report also highlights some potential problems which beset the IRS BSA Program, which include lack of staffing, lack of planning and coordination, and delay. Although the Report’s findings clearly suggest that what the IRS BSA Program really needs are resources and enhanced enforcement power, the repeated allusions in the Report to a certain purposelessness of the current BSA examination regime nonetheless might help fuel the current debate regarding possible AML/BSA reform, with an eye towards curbing regulatory burden.

The Report made five specific recommendations to the IRS for remedial steps. We will focus on four of those recommendations, and the findings upon which they rest:

  • Coordinate with FINCEN on the authority to assert Title 31 penalties, or reprioritize BSA Program resources to more productive work;
  • Leverage the BSA Program’s Title 31 authority and annual examination planning in the development of the IRS’s virtual currency strategy;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the newly implemented review procedures for FinCEN referrals; and
  • Improve the process for referrals to IRS CI.


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Charges Represent First Criminal Case Based Solely on Alleged Unauthorized SAR Disclosure

On October 17, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (“SDNY”) announced the arrest of a senior employee at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”). That employee, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, has been charged with unlawfully disclosing Suspicious Activity Reports

Five U.S. regulatory agencies—the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“FRB”), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”), and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”)—released on October 3, 2018 an Interagency Statement on Sharing Bank Secrecy Act Resources (the “Statement”). This guidance addresses instances in which certain banks and credit unions can enter into “collaborative arrangements” to share resources to manage their Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and anti-money laundering (“AML”) obligations more efficiently and more effectively.

The Statement contemplates banks sharing resources such as internal controls, independent testing, and AML/BSA training (it does not apply to collaborative arrangements formed for information sharing among financial institutions under Section 314(b) of the U.S. Patriot Act). Such resource sharing contemplates reducing costs and increasing efficiencies in the ways banks manage their BSA and AML obligations. The Statement clearly is addressed primarily to community banks, for which the costs of AML/BSA compliance can be significant, and which presumably engage in “less complex operations [and have] lower risk profiles for money laundering or terrorist financing.” The Statement potentially represents another step in an ongoing AML reform process, which increasingly acknowledges the costs of AML compliance to industry.
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The Federal Banking Agencies (“FBAs”) — collectively the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”); the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“Federal Reserve”); the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”); and the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) — just issued with the concurrence of FinCEN an Order granting an exemption from the

FinCEN Cites Low Risk of Money Laundering and High Regulatory Burden of Rule

On September 7, 2018, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued permanent exceptive relief (“Relief”) to the Beneficial Ownership rule (“BO Rule”) that further underscores the agency’s continued flexibility and risk-based approach to the BO Rule.

Very generally, the BO Rule — effective as of May 11, 2018, and about which we repeatedly have blogged (see here, here and here) — requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identities of the beneficial owners of legal entity customers at account opening. FinCEN previously stated in April 3, 2018 FAQs regarding the BO Rule that a “new account” is established – thereby triggering the BO Rule – “each time a loan is renewed or a certificate of deposit is rolled over.” As a result, even if covered financial institutions already have identified and verified beneficial ownership information for a customer at the initial account opening, the institutions still must identify and verify that beneficial ownership information again – and for the same customer – if the customer’s account has been renewed, modified, or extended.

However, the Relief now excepts application of the BO Rule when legal entity customers open “new accounts” through: (1) a rollover of a certificate of deposit (CD); (2) a renewal, modification, or extension of a loan, commercial line of credit, or credit card account that does not require underwriting review and approval; or (3) a renewal of a safe deposit box rental. The Relief does not apply to the initial opening of any of these accounts.

The Relief echoes the exceptive relief from the BO Rule granted by FinCEN on May 11, 2018 to premium finance lenders whose payments are remitted directly to the insurance provider or broker, even if the lending involves the potential for a cash refund. Once again, although the Relief is narrow, FinCEN’s explanation for why the excepted accounts present a low risk for money laundering is potentially instructive in other contexts.
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Director Blanco Emphasizes Investigatory Leads and Insights Into Illicit Activity Trends Culled from Nationwide BSA Data

As we just blogged, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco recently touted the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement and regulatory  activity involving digital currency.  Shortly thereafter, Director Blanco again stressed the value of SARs, this time during remarks before the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo, which caters to the AML concerns of the gaming industry.

It is difficult to shake the impression that Director Blanco is repeatedly and publically emphasizing the value of SARs, at least in part, in order to provide a counter-narrative to a growing reform movement — both in the United States and abroad — which: (i) questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current SAR reporting regime, and (ii) has resulted in proposed U.S. legislation which would raise the minimum monetary thresholds for filing SARs and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”), and require a review of how those filing requirements could be streamlined.
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Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency.
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