International Tax Evasion

Proposed Legislation Creates Rewards Program for Whistleblowers of Foreign Government Corruption

Third Post in a Three-Post Series

Newly proposed legislation, if passed, will authorize a whistleblower program for individuals providing law enforcement with information leading to the seizure, forfeiture, and/or repatriation of foreign stolen assets that come within the possession or control of any United States person.

In early March, the House Financial Services Committee released three proposed bills to codify many of the suggested reforms discussed during ongoing conversation among financial agencies, law enforcement, financial institutions, and commentators regarding the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”) and Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) laws. The first two proposed bills are discussed here and here.

In this post, we summarize the last of the three proposed bills, The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Act (the “Bill”). The Bill allows the Department of Treasury to provide whistleblowers not only with monetary incentives but also protective measures, including asylum for the whistleblower and his or her immediate family. As we will discuss, the Bill proposes a unique whistleblower program focused on foreign corruption, and which differs in important ways from other, established government whistleblower programs.
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On April 2nd, the New Directions in Anti-Kleptocracy Forum, organized by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, will identify emerging issue areas relating to kleptocracy. I am excited to be serving as a co-panelist on the forum’s Art Market as a Node of Kleptocracy panel, which will discuss beneficial ownership and the luxury

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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But Bank Customer’s Foreign Tax Evasion Scheme Still May Merit a SAR FilingThe Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) recently advised that a financial institution is not required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) based solely upon a customer’s inquiry into or participation in a foreign tax regularization program.  FinCEN issued this statement on February 21, 2018 in response to Florida International Banker’s Association’s request for guidance (“FIBA Request”) in 2016, which initiated the request because a number of its members expressed an interest in tax regularization programs and sought clarification on the AML implications of such programs.

This issue, perhaps seemingly esoteric, involves a basic question of increasing practical importance, particularly in light of the Panama Papers related international scandals, and global criticism of the U.S. as a potential haven for foreign tax cheats and money launderers: does the possibility of foreign tax evasion by a bank client necessarily trigger the need to file a SAR? Foreign tax evasion can represent potential violations of U.S. law, such as the federal mail or wire fraud statutes, which in turn may support a prosecution theory that related financial transactions involving foreign tax evasion and the U.S. financial system represent potential U.S. money laundering violations (for a detailed article on this issue, please see here).
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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 &

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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After over a year of negotiations, the European Parliament and its executive arm, the European Council, recently agreed to an amendment to the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive to include measures targeting exchange platforms for virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, as well as prepaid cards.  These new regulations will require an increase in transparency by the trusts and trading companies to reveal the holders of virtual currency to thwart potential money laundering, tax evasion, and anonymous funding of terrorism. Primary among these regulations is a requirement to provide beneficial ownership information to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest” to access data on the beneficial owners of trusts.

This focus on beneficial ownership in regards to virtual currency is entirely consistent with the general AML regulatory efforts in the United States and around the globe over the last few years, which have emphasized heavily the need to identify the beneficial owners of financial accounts, real estate and other assets in order to attain a more transparent financial system.

The regulation adopted by the European Parliament and European Council also comes as Bitcoin’s prices surged over 1,700 percent since the start of 2017.  This outstanding growth has increased main stream interest in the virtual currency while also sounding alarm bells as some fear that Bitcoin is a bubble bound to burst.  A key part of the amendment is that access to beneficial ownership information should be provided to authorities and “any persons that can demonstrate a legitimate interest.” 
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