Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

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.


Continue Reading U.S. Treasury Report: IRS BSA Program “Has Minimal Impact on Compliance”

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.
Continue Reading The BSA Civil Penalty Regime: Reckless Conduct Can Produce “Willful” Penalties

Second Part of a Two-Part Series

As we blogged yesterday, British Columbia’s (“B.C.”) Attorney General David Eby recently released an independent and very detailed report examining money laundering in B.C.’s gaming industry and providing 48 recommendations to combat the problem. See Peter M. German, QC, Dirty Money: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos conducted for the Attorney General of British Columbia (Mar. 31, 2018) (“German Report”).  As we noted yesterday, when discussing the U.S. regulatory system, the German Report favorably cites the Nevada Gaming Commission and Nevada Gaming Control Board, whose Enforcement Division “acts as a first line of defence against organized crime and bulk cash buy-ins[,]” and further observes that the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, “[i]n partnership with Internal Revenue Service, acts as the enforcement arm for most money laundering issues.”

The U.S.’s more robust, streamlined AML regulatory regime, although hardly perfect, stands in stark contrast to the dysfunction alleged in the German Report that plagues B.C.’s current framework. In this post, we describe the U.S. AML regulatory regime for the gaming industry, and the recent enforcement actions which it has produced.  Although the pace of AML enforcement has been somewhat sporadic, it appears to be increasing over time in regards to the gaming industry.  Certainly, attention by regulators — as well as by the industry itself — to AML/BSA compliance has increased over the last several years.


Continue Reading The U.S. Casino and Gaming Industry: AML/BSA Regulation and Enforcement

FinCEN announced on May 3, 2018 that Artichoke Joe’s, a card club and casino located in San Bruno, California and founded in 1916, has entered into a revised civil money penalty assessment regarding alleged deficiencies under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  The most interesting aspect of this revised assessment is that it allows the casino to reduce its original $8 million penalty by $3 million if it successfully completes certain compliance undertakings.

No press release has been issued to date by FinCEN regarding this revised assessment, so its specific genesis is unclear.  Nonetheless, the revised assessment illustrates that financial institutions facing Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”)/BSA enforcement actions might be able to mitigate the financial consequences — not only when negotiating the initial penalty assessment, but even after it has been imposed — by undertaking steps towards enhanced compliance and monitoring.  It is also unclear whether the onerous nature of the original assessment, when compared to the available financial resources of the assessed institution, may have played a role in the revision.
Continue Reading FinCEN Extends $3 Million Carrot to Card Club and Casino: Reduce Assessed Civil Penalty by Completing Compliance Undertakings

I am honored to be part of a panel on March 1, 2018 at the Florida Tax Institute in Tampa, Florida regarding potential money laundering risks, reporting obligations and related ethical issues facing U.S. tax professionals with foreign clients bringing money and assets into the United States.  The panel, entitled Working with Inbound Investors &

IRS Will Obtain Identifying Information Regarding Clients Who Conducted Any Transaction Equal to $20,000 or More

Last week, a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of California granted in part and denied in part a motion by the IRS to enforce a “John Doe” summons served on Coinbase, Inc., which operates a virtual currency wallet and exchange business headquartered in San Francisco. As we have blogged, the court granted last year the IRS’s application to serve the summons on Coinbase, which then resisted and moved to quash. The recent ruling paves the way for potential criminal or civil tax investigations involving Coinbase customers, as well as potential money laundering investigations.  The ruling also indicates that the IRS might be able to seek more information from Coinbase about specific individuals as its investigation progresses.

Needless to say, the semi- or pseudo-anonymity offered by virtual currency – traits which historically have made virtual currency attractive to some of its users – are the same traits which have made the IRS and other law enforcement agencies and regulators intensely interested in the use of virtual currency. Although the use of virtual currency generally may cloak the user and create practical problems for investigators, the Coinbase action demonstrates that virtual currency is not truly anonymous in the face of a focused law enforcement inquiry.
Continue Reading Court Enforces — Partially — IRS “John Doe” Summons Served on Virtual Currency Exchanger

Forfeiture actions by Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS CI) based on alleged structuring activity have come under fire, yet again. Specifically, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued on March 30, 2017 a detailed report (Report) which evaluates IRS CI’s use of seizures for property owners suspected of structuring financial transactions. The Report sets forth detailed criticisms of past practices, as well as nine pointed recommendations for future forfeiture actions, which received a mixed response from IRS CI. This report was followed very shortly by the bipartisan re-introduction on April 3, 2017 of the “Restraining Excessive Seizure of Property through the Exploitation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Tools Act,” or RESPECT Act, which seeks to limit the ability of the IRS to conduct civil forfeitures based on structuring activity without underlying criminal activity.Suitcase full of money

We previously have discussed the growing resistance to IRS forfeiture actions based on the structuring of “legal source” funds, and the initial introduction of the RESPECT Act. In this two-part blog entry, we discuss in detail immediately below the new TIGTA Report and the mixed reaction to it by IRS CI.

However, it is not just IRS CI that is undergoing criticism. We will follow up tomorrow with a related post on the recent report by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ report provides some similar critiques of the entire landscape of federal forfeiture, and makes additional recommendations on asset seizure and forfeiture in general.

These two Inspector General reports set forth some common criticisms of forfeiture enforcement. They also can be interpreted as suggesting that law enforcement agents could minimize some of the criticisms of civil forfeiture by reducing the total amount of forfeiture cases undertaken, while simultaneously increasing the amount of time and effort spent on investigating the remaining cases which are pursued. This is because the reports suggest that additional investigation – which often seems to be scant – may produce in many cases facts supporting forfeiture that could satisfy even some critics of civil forfeiture.

Continue Reading Civil Forfeiture Enforcement Under Fire – Part I