A Modest Proposal

The European Union (“EU”) recently has grappled with a series of massive money laundering scandals and strategized about how to more effectively combat international money laundering and corruption. Generally, the EU has continued to issue a series of reports identifying systemic vulnerabilities to money laundering and suggest process-based recommendations for how to address future threats. These recommendations typically mirror the same range of process-based improvements set forth in earlier reports: from enhancing cross-border information sharing to increasing resources for adequate implementation and enforcement of anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter financing of terrorism (“CFT”) policies implemented by EU member states and financial institutions. Noticeably absent from these recommendations is one of the most powerful deterrents available – and a distinctly American approach – prosecuting the bad actors.

Although many of the recent EU money laundering scandals rest on conduct occurring years ago, the recurring waves of scandals strongly suggest that the EU – like the U.S. – has a serious problem with money laundering that is not going away any time soon. They likewise indicate that the EU’s financial system will continue to be abused by bad actors who appear to be unfazed by any potential consequences. The EU therefore should consider emulating – at least in part – the American approach of more aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals, including the corrupt politicians, kleptocrats, drug dealers, fraudsters, and other criminals from around the globe who are laundering sometimes massive amounts of funds through European financial institutions.

Very recently, in a different but related context, the Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), Jay Clayton, delivered a speech during which he bemoaned his perception that his foreign counterparts failed to rigorously enforce their own anti-corruption laws. Specifically, Chairman Clayton asserted the following:

Corruption is corrosive. We see examples where corruption leads to poverty, exploitation and conflict. Yet, we must face the fact that, in many areas of the world, our work may not be having the desired effect. Why? In significant part, because many other countries, including those that have long had similar offshore anti-corruption laws on their books, do not enforce those laws.

Granted, the above comments pertained specifically to enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), and arguably the comments were in furtherance of a pro-American message regarding international competition between countries. The comments nonetheless exemplifies a certain American perception: the U.S. aggressively prosecutes individuals, whereas Europe does not. Obviously, this issue entails a lot of cultural baggage on both sides.

Although there are viable criticisms of the U.S. approach (both in theory and in practice), and although the EU’s strong focus on process and institutions’ AML and CFT systems is critical, any government’s enforcement “tool bag” must include targeted prosecutions of the people responsible for the laundering violations. Otherwise, few bad actors around the world will think twice about continuing to turn to EU institutions for their laundering needs. This blog post explores this idea.
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The Office of the Comptroller of Currency (“OCC”) issued an extraordinary announcement regarding the decision of a former bank general counsel – Daniel Weiss, formerly employed by Rabobank, N.A. – to enter into a Consent Order in which Mr. Weiss agreed to be barred from the banking industry and pay a $50,000 fine. The Consent

Authorities Begin to Focus on Individual Responsibility

This week, Danish prosecutors charged Thomas Borgen, the former chief executive officer of Danske Bank, for his involvement in the money laundering scandal arising out of Danske Bank’s Estonian branch, involving an astonishing 200 billion euros ($224 billion) in alleged suspicious transactions. Borgen, whose home prosecutors reportedly raided

More Allegations of Nordic Malfeasance Surface as Private Party Lawsuits Beset Danske Bank and SwedBank Gets Sucked into Unfolding Scandal

“Something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.” – Olav Haazen

In what is perhaps the least surprising development in the sprawling, continuously unfolding Danske Bank (“Danske”) money laundering scandal, investor groups have filed private securities fraud actions against the Denmark-based bank and its top executives: first in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York then, most recently, in Copenhagen City Court in Denmark. These suits coincide with an announcement from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) that it, too, was opening its own probe of potential securities and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) violations at Danske that could result in significant financial penalties on top of what could be the enormous private judgments. More significantly, the Danske shareholder suits and SEC investigation illustrate a second front of enormous exposure from a securities fraud standpoint for banks involved in their own money laundering scandals and a rock-solid guaranteed template for future investors similarly damaged by such scandals.

As we have blogged here, here and here, the Danske scandal – the largest alleged money laundering scandal in history – has yielded criminal and administrative investigations in Estonia, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom and by the United States Department of Justice. Those investigations have focused primarily on Danske’s compliance with applicable AML regulations, as well as the implementation and effectiveness of those regulations. The SEC and civil plaintiffs now have opened a new line of inquiry focusing less on the institutional and regulatory failures that yielded the scandal and responsibility for them and more on the damage those failures have caused Danske investors.

Meanwhile, banking stalwart Swedbank is reacting, with mixed success at best, to allegations that suspicious transactions involving billions of Euros passed from Danske’s Estonian branch through Swedbank’s own Baltic branches — allegations which have produced a controversial internal investigation report, a law enforcement raid, the loss of the bank’s CEO, and plunging stock value.

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Estonian “Non-Resident Portfolio” Produces Colossal Money Laundering Scandal

This week Danske Bank released a report detailing the results of its much anticipated internal investigation into allegations of money laundering perpetrated in its Estonian branch. The results of the investigation dwarfed even the boldest predictions. The report found between 2007 and 2015 the Estonian branch processed a staggering 200 billion Euros, or $234 billion, in suspicious transactions by thousands of non-resident costumers. The report finds the AML procedures at the Estonian branch were “manifestly insufficient and inadequate,” resulting in numerous breaches of legal obligations by the Estonian branch. The report details a numerous red flags that allegedly should have alerted the parent Danske Bank Group (“Group”) to the issues.

However, the report also concludes that the Group’s Board of Directors, Chairman, Audit Committee, or Chief Executive Officer did not violate any legal obligations in failing to detect or stop the suspicious transactions. Despite this finding, the CEO, Thomas Borgan, resigned the same day the report was released. Borgan stated, “Even though I was personally cleared from a legal point of view, I hold the ultimate responsibility. There is no doubt that we as an organization have failed in this situation and did not live up to expectations.” The consequences of this colossal money laundering scandal are unlikely to stop with Brogan’s resignation.

This blog post will summarize the scope of the report, findings of suspicious activity, the causes and red flags of potential money laundering violations, and outline the known and anticipated consequences of this scandal for Danske Bank.
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Conduct Performed Without Knowledge Still Can Lead to the Most Serious Penalties

Under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), the most onerous civil penalties will be applied for “willful” violations. That mental state standard might sound hard for the government to prove.  For example, in criminal and civil tax fraud cases under the Internal Revenue Code, “willfulness” is defined to mean a voluntary and intentional violation of a known legal duty – a very demanding showing. But as we will discuss, two very new court opinions discussing a required BSA filing – a Form TD F 90-22.1, or Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, otherwise know as a FBAR – remind us that, under the BSA, a “willful” violation does not require proof of actual knowledge. A “willful” BSA violation only needs to be reckless, and the government can prove it through the doctrine of “willful blindness” or “conscious avoidance.”

The fact that courts in civil FBAR cases have been holding that “willfulness” can mean “just recklessness” is not a new development, and it is well known to those practicing in the tax fraud and tax controversy space. This blog post will not attempt to delve into the long-running offshore account enforcement campaign that has been waged by the IRS and the DOJ; the related case decisions; or the related voluntary disclosure programs for offshore accounts (for those interested in this fascinating but complicated topic, the Federal Tax Crimes blog is one of many excellent resources). Rather, the point of this post is that the case law now being made in the FBAR and offshore account context will have direct application to more traditional Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”)/BSA enforcement actions, because the civil penalty statute being interpreted in the FBAR cases is the same provision which applies to claimed failures to maintain an adequate AML program and other violations of the BSA.  Thus, the target audience of this post is not people involved in undisclosed offshore bank account cases, but rather people involved in day-to-day AML compliance for financial institutions, who may not realize that some missteps may be branded as “willful” and entail very serious monetary penalties, even if they were done without actual knowledge.  This may be news to some, and it underscores in particular the risks presented by one the topics that this blog frequently has discussed: the potential AML liability of individuals.
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On May 16, 2018, the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced it had settled charges against a registered broker-dealer, its clearing firm, and its chief compliance and anti-money laundering (“AML”) officer brought over the firm’s failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) related to customers’ liquidation of billions of penny stocks over an eight month period.  In a companion action, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) imposed a monetary penalty against the clearing firm for various AML compliance failures.

Chardan Capital Markets, LLC (“Chardan”) was a registered broker-dealer primarily engaged in underwriting private investment in public equity (“PIPEs”), private placements and initial public offerings (“IPOs”). In 2013, Chardan allegedly began actively engaging in the liquidation of thinly-traded penny stocks of microcap issuers.  Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Financial Services, LLC (“ICBCFS”) is a registered broker-dealer that, in late 2012, began clearing equity securities and, from October 2013 through June 2014, cleared Chardan’s customers’ penny-stock transactions.

We previously have blogged about the SEC and FINRA stepping up their AML-related enforcement, as well as the issue of AML-related individual liability for compliance officers and executives (see here, here, here, here and here).  Aside from reaffirming the dubious nature of penny stock trading, this case once again reflects the need to actually act on identified red flags and file related SARs.
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Two Have Settled, but One AML CO Will Contest the Case

A recent anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement action reminds us of the increasing risk of individual liability for alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), a key issue about which we have blogged.

Specifically, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) announced last week that Aegis Capital Corporation (“Aegis”), a New York-based brokerage firm, admitted that it failed to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) on numerous transactions. Although most of the attention regarding this enforcement action has focused on Aegis, the more interesting development here is the role of individuals — particularly a contested action filed against a former AML compliance officer who has declined to settle and who apparently is proceeding to trial on these allegations before a SEC Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  This should be a litigation to watch.
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The Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) wrapped up 2017 by issuing a series of high-profile designations generally prohibiting U.S. persons from conducting financial or other transactions with the identified individuals and entities, and freezing any assets which these individuals and entities may have under U.S. jurisdiction. Specifically, OFAC, acting in conjunction with a new Executive Order issued by the President pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (“Magnitsky Act”), sanctioned on December 21 a list of alleged international bad actors, including Dan Gertler, a billionaire and international businessman from Israel who has been involved in, among other notorious ventures, alleged corruption in the mining of diamonds and copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The next day, OFAC then sanctioned individuals and entities allegedly associated with Thieves-in-Law, an alleged and unapologetically-named Eurasian criminal entity; according to the U.S. government, Thieves-in-Law originated in Stalinist prison camps and has grown over time into a “vast criminal organization” stretching across the globe and into the United States.
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