Case Sheds Light on Latest Methods to Evade Detection: “Peeling” Chains

On March 2, the U.S. government sanctioned and indicted two Chinese nationals for helping North Korea launder nearly $100 million in stolen cryptocurrency. The indictment, filed in the District of Columbia, charges the defendants with conspiring to commit money laundering transactions designed to both “promote” and “conceal” the underlying crimes of wire fraud (the theft of the cryptocurrency via hacking) and operating as an unlicensed money transmitter — the latter of which is also charged in the indictment as an additional count.

According to the related and detailed civil forfeiture complaint, these funds were only a portion of those stolen in 2018 by state-sponsored hackers for North Korea from a South Korean exchange. These actions, notable in several respects, provide a glimpse at the latest methods of laundering cryptocurrency.

Anyone attempting to launder illicit cryptocurrency faces at least two big challenges. First, due to rigid know-your-customer rules, one cannot simply deposit large amounts of funds at an exchange without raising red flags. Second, because all cryptocurrency transactions are recorded on a blockchain, they can be traced.

To clear these hurdles, the complaint alleges that North Korean hackers used “peeling chains.” In a peeling chain, a single address begins with a relatively large amount of cryptocurrency. A smaller amount is then “peeled” off this larger amount, creating a transaction in which a small amount is transferred to one address, and the remainder is transferred to a one-time change address. This process is repeated – potentially hundreds or thousands of times – until the larger amount is pared down, at which point the amount remaining in the address might be aggregated with other such addresses to again yield a large amount in a single address, and the peeling process goes on.
Continue Reading Two Chinese Nationals Charged with Money Laundering Over $100 Million in Cryptocurrency for North Korea

Last week, a grand jury in the Southern District of Florida indicted two former Venezuelan officials, charging them with seven counts of money laundering and one count of money-laundering conspiracy. The charges relate to bribes and kickbacks provided to the officials who headed the country’s energy department and state-owned electricity company, Corporacion Electrica Nacional, S.A. (“Corpoelec”). The former officials allegedly received cash payments and received wire transfers, including from a bank in the Southern District of Florida.

As we have blogged about here, here, here, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has been pursuing Venezuelan nationals through high-dollar, high profile money laundering and foreign bribery charges. We also have previously discussed how the DOJ has been utlizing the money laundering statutes as a way to accomplish what the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) cannot accomplish directly – the bringing of charges against a foreign official.
Continue Reading Two Former Venezuelan Officials and Energy Executives Indicted as DOJ Continues to Use Money Laundering Charges to Combat Foreign Corruption

Convictions to “Promote” Crime and “Conceal” Illegal Proceeds Vacated Due to Insufficient Evidence of Intent

A recent decision out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia adjudicating a seemingly straight-forward alleged fraud and money laundering scheme reminds us that money laundering charges still require the government to establish elements which can be difficult to prove, including, importantly, specific intent.

United States v. Millender involved an investment fraud scheme charged against a husband and wife and their associate. Terry and Brenda Millender were, respectively, the founder and pastor, and the “First Lady” of the Victorious Life Church (“VLC”) in Alexandria, Virginia. The evidence at trial established that Mr. Millender conceived of and founded Micro-Enterprise Management Group (“MEMG”), purportedly for the purpose of helping the poor in developing countries by making small, short-term loans to entrepreneurs who wished to start or expand existing businesses. Mrs. Millender was the co-founder, registered agent, and signatory of MEMG. To fund the enterprise, MEMG solicited “loans” from VLC congregants and other private lenders. MEMG promised its investors high rates of return through profits on the entrepreneur loans and assured them that the loans were securely backed by MEMG assets. Moreover, written materials soliciting investment represented that MEMG had a successful history of making micro-loans in Africa and had established relationships with on-going projects. Later, Mr. Milliner founded a second entity, Kingdom Commodities Unlimited (“KCU”), purportedly for the purpose of brokering Nigerian oil deals, and promising investors substantial returns on what they claimed were short term loans. The defendants solicited over $600,000 from investors from 2008 until 2015.

The Millender opinion reflects the complexity of the different prongs of the money laundering statutes, and their somewhat overlapping and competing requirements. The opinion is particularly noteworthy because of its procedural posture: despite jury verdicts finding guilt, the district court nonetheless found at least as to some counts that there was insufficient evidence as a matter of law of knowledge and specific intent.
Continue Reading Money Laundering and Specific Intent Can Be Difficult to Prove

The federal courts continued in 2016 to produce a stream of cases pertaining to money laundering. We focus on three below because they involve analysis of basic issues that frequently arise in money laundering litigation.

Justitia, a monument in Frankfurt, Germany

The first case tests the money laundering statute’s reach in prosecution of an alleged international fraud perpetrated primarily outside of the United States—an increasingly common fact pattern as cross-border cases proliferate and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutes more conduct occurring largely overseas. The other two cases involve defense victories that focus on critical issues of mental state: the question of specific intent under the BSA, and the question, under the money laundering statutes, of knowledge by a third party that a transaction involved proceeds of another person’s crime. The issue of third-party knowledge is often crucial in prosecutions of professionals.
Continue Reading 2016 Year End Review: Money Laundering Opinions of Note