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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On July 26, FinCEN, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California (“NDCA USAO”), assessed a $110,003,314 civil money penalty against BTC-e a/k/a Canton Business Corporation (“BTC-e”) for willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and a $12 million penalty against Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national who is one of the alleged operators of BTC-e, for his role in the violations.  FinCEN’s press release indicates that this is the first enforcement action it has taken against a foreign-located money services business (“MSB”) doing business in the United States.  As we previously have blogged, FinCEN released interpretive guidance in March 2013 stating that an administrator or exchanger of virtual currency is an MSB under the BSA unless a limitation or exemption applies.

In a parallel criminal investigation, Vinnik was arrested and detained in Greece and charged in a 21-count superseding indictment brought by the NDCA USAO and DOJ’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. The superseding indictment alleges that Vinnik and BTC-e operated an unlicensed MSB doing business in the U.S., in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960, and committed money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957, by facilitating virtual currency transactions involving various crimes, including computer hacking, identity theft, tax refund fraud schemes, public corruption, and drug trafficking. The superseding indictment also provides some clues to the fate of the collapsed virtual currency exchange Mt. Gox, once reportedly the largest such exchange in the world.
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Financial institutions face an increasing risk that alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) requirements will lead to follow-on allegations of securities law violations. We have blogged about investor class action suits against financial institutions based on alleged violations of BSA/AML rules.  We also have blogged about recent enforcement