Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)

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

On April 5, 2021, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (“ANPRM”) to solicit public comment on questions pertaining to the implementation of the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”), passed as part of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”).  The CTA requires certain legal entities to report their beneficial owners at the time of their creation to a database accessible by U.S. and foreign law enforcement and regulators, and to U.S. financial institutions seeking to comply with their own Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) compliance obligations.

According to the ANPRM, the ability to operate through legal entities without requiring the identification of beneficial owners is a key risk for the U.S. financial system.  The CTA seeks to mitigate the risk by reducing an individual’s ability to use corporate structures to conceal illicit activity such as money laundering, financing of terrorism, proliferation financing, serious tax fraud and human and drug trafficking.  The CTA seeks to set a clear federal standard for incorporation practices, protect vital U.S. national security interests, protect interstate and foreign commerce, better enable various law enforcement agencies to counter illicit activities and bring the U.S. into compliance with international standards.  With the goals of the CTA in mind, the ANPRM seeks public input on procedures and standards for reporting companies to submit information to FinCEN about their beneficial owners, and input on the implementation and maintenance of a database safeguarding disclosed information subject to appropriate protocols.

Written comments on the ANPRM are due soon – by May 5, 2021.  The CTA is a critical development in AML regulation, and FinCEN can expect a considerable response to this important ANPRM, both from the businesses that are covered and the financial institutions that would have access to the beneficial ownership database.  Although the ANPRM is detailed and poses many questions, the ultimate, real-world implementation of the CTA will involve even more questions.
Continue Reading FinCEN Seeks Comments on Corporate Transparency Act Implementation

Much has occurred in the last two months regarding the relationship between financial institutions and Marijuana-Related Businesses, or MRBs.  In this post, we discuss three major developments, all of which share a complex connection.  First, the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) recently pursued its first enforcement action against a credit union for Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) compliance failures when servicing MRBs.  Second, two cannabis industry executives were convicted of bank fraud for allegedly tricking banks and other financial institutions into unwittingly extending financial services to their MRB.  Third, and despite this enforcement drumbeat regarding MRBs, Congress has introduced again, with bi-partisan support, the SAFE Banking Act, which seeks to normalize the banking of cannabis by prohibiting federal bank regulators from taking certain actions against financial institutions servicing MRBs.
Continue Reading Banking and Cannabis Enforcement Round Up:  NCUA Imposes First Penalty Relating to Cannabis Banking Services; Cannabis Industry Execs Convicted of Defrauding Banks into Providing Financial Services; Congress Re-Introduces the SAFE Banking Act

In its most recent Marijuana Banking Update, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) stated that the decline in the number of banks and credit unions actively banking marijuana-related businesses (MRBs) in the United States “appears to have leveled off.”  As of December 31, 2020, there were 684 banks and credit unions banking MRBs.  That

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued on February 24, 2021 “an [A]dvisory to alert financial institutions to fraud and other financial crimes related to Economic Impact Payments (EIPs), authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021.” The Advisory describes EIP

With the third round of lending through the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) in full swing, the Small Business Administration (“SBA”) – administrator of the PPP – has developed new guidance in consultation with the United States Department of the Treasury (“Treasury”).  The February 1, 2021 FAQs specifically address how lenders can meet some of their Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) obligations when issuing PPP loans.

As we previously blogged, the PPP, with its combination of size, scope and the limited time-frame for lenders to process and disburse loans pursuant to it, has created numerous compliance challenges for PPP lenders and presented significant enforcement risks, including future false claims act liability, compliance enforcement, state attorneys’ general investigations and private litigation.  At the root of those challenges and concerns is the question of how lenders can meet their anti-money laundering (“AML”) obligations under the BSA while administering a program designed to get money to as many recipients as possible as quickly as possible.
Continue Reading FinCEN Issues PPP Lender Guidance

Case Highlights Confidentiality of BSA Reporting and Continued Focus on Real Estate as Money Laundering Tool

The Northern District of California granted summary judgment to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) in a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) case pertaining to an attempt by a group of investigative journalists to obtain information reported to FinCEN on the beneficial owners of high-end real estate.  This case clearly indicates that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) will continue to prevent efforts by journalists to seek, via FOIA, sensitive and protected information reported to FinCEN.  Of course, and as the world has witnessed, journalists still can turn to leaks and data hacks to obtain and distribute such information.  This case also reminds us that the use of real estate as a potential vehicle for money laundering remains a hot topic not only for regulators and enforcement personnel, but also for journalists and watchdog groups.

In The Center for Investigative Reporting, et al. v. United States Department of the Treasury, the Court held that FinCEN was not required to produce documents indicating the “real human owners” of residential real estate purchased with cash that had been requested by The Center for Investigative Reporting (“CIR”).  The Court’s ruling – affirming the confidentiality protections that are critical to the effectiveness of financial institution reporting under BSA – comes at pivotal moment, as journalistic agencies such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) and BuzzFeed News reported less than six months ago on leaked documents referred to as the “FinCEN Files,” describing alleged transactions valued at over $2 trillion U.S. dollars and reported by financial institutions to FinCEN through Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”). Under the BSA, it is illegal to reveal the decision to file or not file a SAR to the subject of the SAR.  The ICIJ also played a key role in the release of the notorious Panama Papers, which detailed an alleged web of international money laundering and tax evasion obtained through a massive data leak.
Continue Reading Investigative Journalists Lose FOIA Bid to Obtain GTO Info Reported to FinCEN

SARs Do Not Need to Be Filed At the First Sign of Potential Problems

Honoring “Keep Open” Letters from Law Enforcement Should Not Lead to Criticism

On January 19, 2021, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), along with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and the National Credit Union Administration jointly published Answers to Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Suspicious Activity Reporting and Other Anti-Money Laundering Considerations.  The agencies provided answers to certain frequently asked questions (FAQs) in an effort to (1) clarify for financial institutions the regulatory requirements related to Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that they must comply with; and (2) help financial institutions focus their resources on Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) reporting activities that provide the most value to law enforcement.

The banking agencies developed these FAQs in response to recommendations made by the Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group, which are detailed in FinCEN’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Anti-Money Laundering Program Effectiveness published in September 2020.  Notably, the FAQs do not change existing legal obligations or create new regulatory requirements.  Instead, they address several questions that have emerged among anti-money laundering compliance personnel.  Generally, they are helpful and make clear that a decision to file a SAR in a particular case is driven by specific circumstances and good judgment, rather than a rigid “check the box” mentality.
Continue Reading FinCEN and Other Federal Banking Agencies Provide Much-Needed Guidance on Suspicious Activity Reports

Covered Companies Must Report Beneficial Ownership to National Database Upon Incorporation

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

Change is upon us.  The U.S. House and Senate have passed – over a Presidential veto – the National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”), a massive annual defense spending bill.  As we have blogged, this bill, now law, contains historic 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. This sweeping legislation will affect financial institutions, their clients, and law enforcement and regulators for many years.  This will be the first post of many on these important legislative changes, which should produce related regulatory pronouncements throughout 2021.

Today, we will focus on the enactment that has received the most attention:  the NDAA’s adoption of the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”) and its requirements for covered legal entities to report their beneficial owners at the time of their creation to a database accessible by U.S. and foreign law enforcement and regulators, and to U.S. financial institutions seeking to comply with their own AML compliance obligations.  The issue of beneficial ownership and the misuse of shell corporations has been at the heart of global AML regulation and enforcement for many years.  This legislation will be held out as a partial but important response to the continuing critiques by the international community of the United States as a haven for money laundering and tax evasion, often due to the perception that U.S. and state laws on beneficial ownership reporting are lax.

Beyond “just” the CTA, the breadth of the BSA/AML legislation is substantial. We have discussed BSA/AML reform for years, and many of the reforms (acknowledging that the word “reform” often involves a value judgment, and whether a particular change represents “reform” is typically in the eye of the beholder) that have been repeatedly bandied about by Congress, industry, think tanks and law enforcement are incorporated into this legislation, or at least referenced as topics for further study and follow-up.  We therefore will be blogging repeatedly on the many and various components of this legislation, which implicates a broad array of key issues: BSA/AML examination priorities; attempting to modernize the BSA regulatory regime, including by improving feedback by the government on the usefulness of SAR reporting; potential “no action” letters by FinCEN; requiring process-related studies tied to the effectiveness and costs of certain BSA requirements, including current SAR and CTR reporting; increased penalties under the BSA for repeat offenders; greater information sharing among industry and the government; enhancing the ability of the government to investigate the use of correspondent bank accounts; cyber security issues; focusing on trade-based money laundering; adding a whistleblower provision to the BSA; and including dealers in antiquities to the definition of “financial institutions” covered by the BSA.
Continue Reading U.S. Passes Historic BSA/AML Legislative Change

Providing yet more proof that anything positive can be twisted into something negative, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) released a Notice yesterday “to alert financial institutions about the potential for fraud, ransomware attacks, or similar types of criminal activity related to COVID-19 vaccines and their distribution.”  This Notice comes on the heels of several

On December 18, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued a proposal to impose on banks and money service businesses (“affected institutions”) a new set of rules for digital currency transactions involving “unhosted” digital asset wallets (i.e., wallets that are not provided by a financial institution or other service and reside instead on a user’s personal device or offline).  The proposed rule states that, for the purposes of these new requirements only, the definition of “monetary instruments” at 31 U.S.C. § 5312(a)(3) would be expanded to include convertible virtual currency and digital assets with legal tender status.  If adopted, the rule will create significant obligations for recordkeeping, reporting, and identity verification requirements.
Continue Reading FinCEN Proposes New Rule for “Unhosted” Virtual Currency Wallets