On October 23, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) entitled Proposal of Special Measure Regarding Convertible Virtual Currency Mixing, as a Class of Transactions of Primary Money Laundering Concern.  Section 311 of the Patriot Act, codified at 31 U.S.C. § 5318A (“Section 311”), grants the Secretary of the Treasury authority – which has been delegated to FinCEN – to require domestic financial institutions and agencies to take certain “special measures” if FinCEN finds that reasonable grounds exist for concluding that one or more classes of transactions within or involving a jurisdiction outside of the United States is of “primary money laundering concern.” 

In this NPRM, FinCEN proposes to designate under Section 311 all convertible virtual currency (“CVC”) mixing transactions, as defined by the NPRM.  This designation would require imposing reporting and recordkeeping requirements upon covered financial institutions (“FIs”) regarding transactions occurring by, through, or to a FI when the FI “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves CVC mixing.

The NPRM is complicated and raises complex questions.  We only summarize here, and note selected issues.  Comments are due on January 22, 2024.  FinCEN can expect many comments.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Proposes to Require Recordkeeping and Reporting for CVC Mixing Transactions

Complex Civil and Criminal Cases Converge

On August 17, 2023, Judge Robert Pitman of the federal district court for the Western District of Texas issued an Order granting summary judgment for the U.S. Treasury Department (“Treasury”) in a lawsuit brought by six individuals, and denying the cross-motion for summary judgment filed by the individuals. The lawsuit alleged that Treasury overstepped its authority by imposing sanctions on the coin mixing service Tornado Cash.  Deciding for the government, Judge Pitman determined that Tornado Cash is a “person” that may be designated by OFAC sanctions.  Specifically, the regulatory definition of “person” includes an “association,” and Tornado Cash is an “association” within its ordinary meaning.

Shortly thereafter, on August 23, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) unsealed an indictment returned in the Southern District of New York against the alleged developers of Tornado Cash, Roman Storm (“Storm”), a naturalized citizen residing in the U.S., and Roman Semenov (“Semenov”), a Russian citizen.  The indictment charges them with conspiring to commit money laundering, operate an unlicensed money transmitting business, and commit sanctions violations involving the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA.  When the indictment was unsealed, Storm was arrested and then released pending trial.  Treasury simultaneously sanctioned Semenov, who remains outside of the U.S., adding him to OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN”) List.

These are very complicated cases raising complicated issues.  They are separate but obviously related.  As we will discuss, the factual and legal issues tend to blend together, and how a party characterizes an issue says a lot about their desired outcome:  has the government taken incoherent action against a technology, or has it pursued a group of people attempting to hide behind tech?

Continue Reading  All Roads Lead to Roman: Alleged Tornado Cash Co-Founders Roman Storm Arrested and Roman Semenov Sanctioned, Days After Treasury Defeats Lawsuit Challenging OFAC

Legislation Targets Unhosted Wallets, Validators and Digital Asset ATMs

On July 28th, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), reintroduced the Digital Asset Anti-Money Laundering Act (the “Act”), legislation aimed at closing gaps in the existing anti-money laundering and countering of the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) framework as it applies to digital assets. Senators Warren and Marshall previously had introduced the same piece of legislation in December 2022, but at that time it lacked widespread support and stalled in the Senate.

Now, potentially in response to crypto-friendly legislation that recently passed in the House, the Act gained momentum with a larger group of bipartisan legislators and may have a more promising future.  The Act also was reintroduced immediately on the heels of a successful amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) pertaining to AML compliance examinations for financial institutions under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and the future regulation of anonymity-enhancing technologies, such as mixers or tumblers.  According to Senator Warren’s press release the Act currently enjoys the support of the Bank Policy Institute, the National District Attorneys Association, Major County Sheriffs of America, and the National Consumers League, among other groups.

As we discuss immediately below, the Act would make major changes to the current BSA/AML regulatory regime as it applies to digital assets.

Continue Reading  Bipartisan Group of Senators Re-Introduce the Digital Asset Money Laundering Act

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced on March 15, 2023 that in a coordinated effort between U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, Europol, and German police, the darknet cryptocurrency mixing service ChipMixer has been shut down.  The operation involved the U.S. government’s court-authorized seizure of two domains that directed users to the ChipMixer service and one Github account.  In addition, German authorities seized $46 million in cryptocurrency, as well as ChipMixer’s back-end servers used to run the site. 

Further, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a criminal complaint against ChipMixer’s suspected founder, Vietnamese national, Minh Quoc Nguyen (“Nguyen”), alleging that Nguyen openly flouted financial regulations and instructed users how to use ChipMixer to evade reporting requirements while obscuring his true name under a series of stolen and fictitious identities. The complaint also alleges that ChipMixer, described as a popular platform for laundering illicit funds gained from unlawful activities like drug trafficking, ransomware attacks (according to Europol, ransomware actors Zeppelin, SunCrypt, Mamba, Dharma, Lockbit have used ChipMixer), and payment card fraud, was used to launder more than $3 billion in cryptocurrency since 2017.  Nguyen has been charged with money laundering, operating an unlicensed money transmitting business, and identity theft in connection with the operation of ChipMixer. 

Continue Reading  Darkweb Cryptocurrency Mixer ChipMixer Shut Down for Allegedly Laundering $3 Billion Worth of Crypto

Complaint Illustrates Existential Fight Over OFAC’s Ability to Sanction Open-Source Code – and OFAC Responds (?) By Issuing FAQs on Tornado Cash Use

Last month, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) sanctioned Tornado Cash, a virtual currency “mixer” operating on the Ethereum blockchain which allegedly has been used to launder the virtual currency equivalent of more than $7 billion since its creation in 2019, by adding it to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (the “SDN List”). The initial response from certain elements of the crypto community was, not surprisingly, negative: for example, an 8/15 Coin Center whitepaper and an 8/23 letter from Congressman Tom Emmer to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen argued that OFAC lacked the legal authority.

In the intervening month, things have heated up considerably. Last week, six plaintiffs filed a complaint against OFAC and the Treasury Department, as well as Secretary Yellen and OFAC Director Andrea Gacki in their respective official capacities, in the Western District of Texas (Waco Division), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief – specifically, that the court declare OFAC’s addition of Tornado Cash to the SDN List as unlawful, and permanently enjoin the enforcement of the designation and any sanctions stemming therefrom.  Plaintiffs allege that venue is proper due to Plaintiff Joseph Van Loon’s residence in Cedar Park, TX, within the Western District.  Plaintiffs’ decision to opt for the Waco Division, rather than the Austin Division, may be intentional, because the Waco Division has only one judge, who until recently has been the go-to choice for patent litigation plaintiffs.

The complaint has and will continue to draw considerable attention.  It lays out the framework for a fascinating question:  under existing law, can OFAC act directly against a piece of technology such as open-source code?  Or, must OFAC pursue enforcement, through a more difficult, piece meal and time-consuming process, only against specific individuals and specific legal entities? Presumably, both sides will invoke broad policy-related and equity-related arguments regarding “privacy,” “transparency,” and the need to fight crime.  However, the key issue may come down to a more traditional and rather dry legal issue of parsing the meaning of statutory language.

Continue Reading  Civil Complaint Challenges OFAC’s Tornado Cash Sanctions

On August 8, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) sanctioned “notorious” virtual currency “mixer” Tornado Cash, which allegedly has been used to launder more than $7 billion worth of virtual currency since its creation in 2019.  Tornado Cash is a virtual currency mixer that operates on the Ethereum blockchain.  Tornado Cash receives a variety of transactions and mixes them together before transmitting them to their individual recipients.  The stated purpose of such mixing is to increase privacy, but mixers are often used by illicit actors to launder funds because the process enhances anonymity and makes it very hard to track the flow of funds.  According to the Treasury Department press release, “[d]espite public assurances otherwise, Tornado Cash has repeatedly failed to impose effective controls designed to stop it from laundering funds for malicious cyber actors on a regular basis and without basic measures to address its risk.”  This statement seems to imply that Tornado Cash is run by actual people – an implication that is at the heart of the controversy over these sanctions, as we will discuss.

The sanctions against Tornado Cash have elicited enormous controversy in the crypto world because, some argue, (1) Tornado Cash is not an entity run by actual people, but is merely code; and (2) although OFAC has the legal authority to sanction people and entities, it lacks such authority to sanction code or a technology – or at the very least, such sanctions create many practical problems for innocent actors, including in ways which no one has foreseen fully.  As we discuss,  even a member of the U.S. House of Representatives has waded into the controversy this week, questioning the ability of OFAC to issue the sanctions and demanding answers.  The controversy also reflects that, once again, whether one chooses to focus on the word “privacy” or on the word “anonymity” typically reflects an a priori value judgment predicting one’s conclusion as to whether something in the crypto world is good or bad. 

Indisputably, the Tornado Cash sanctions are, to date, unique and unprecedented.  Although they may turn out to be an outlier experiment by OFAC, public pronouncements by the U.S. Treasury Department strongly suggest that, to the contrary, they represent part of the future of crypto regulation, in which the enormous power of the U.S. government to issue broad sanctions obliterates legal and practical hurdles which could stymie other agencies, such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).  This may be because, ultimately, the government actually agrees that no person is in control of a powerful technology that has easy application for malicious uses, and that is precisely the problem.

Continue Reading  OFAC Sanctions Virtual Currency “Mixer” Tornado Cash and Faces Crypto Backlash

In Related Case, Federal Court Holds that Bitcoin-to-Bitcoin “Tumbler” Can Represent “Money Transmission”

On April 27, IRS CI and FBI Special Agents arrested Roman Sterlingov, a dual citizen of Russia and Sweden, for his alleged role as the founder and operator of Bitcoin Fog, a cryptocurrency “tumbler” or “mixer” aimed at concealing the source of funds. The criminal complaint and accompanying Statement of Facts, filed in the District of Columbia, alleges that over the course of 10 years, Bitcoin Fog moved more than 1.2 million bitcoin, valued (at the time of the transactions) at about $335 million. According to the government’s press release, “[t]he bulk of this cryptocurrency came from darknet marketplaces and was tied to illegal narcotics, computer fraud and abuse activities, and identity theft.”

Sterlingov allegedly founded the site while promoting it under the pseudonym Akemashite Omedetou, a Japanese phrase that means “Happy New Year.” In a post on an online Bitcoin forum, Omedetou advertised that Bitcoin Fog “[mixes] up your bitcoins in our own pool with other users,” and “can eliminate any chance of finding your payments and making it impossible to prove any connection between a deposit and a withdraw inside our service.”

Ironically, Sterlingov was identified by investigators using the very same sort of tracing that Bitcoin Fog was meant to forestall. The Statement of Facts outlines in extensive detail how Sterlingov allegedly paid for Bitcoin Fog’s domain using a now-defunct digital currency; it goes on to show a series of transactions recorded to the blockchain that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that currency with bitcoin. Based on tracing those financial transactions, investigators were able to identify Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, together with a Google account that hosts a document that describes how to obscure bitcoin payments – that document mirrors closely the methods Sterlingov allegedly employed to purchase the Bitcoin Fog domain.

In addition to thanking various domestic law enforcement agencies, the government’s press release highlights the international nature of the investigation by also thanking Europol and Swedish and Romanian law enforcement agencies. The criminal complaint against Sterlingov is therefore another example of IRC-CI pursuing its simultaneous goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials in order to do so.

Notably, this is the second case brought by the Department of Justice, Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, targeting virtual currency mixer operations. In United States v. Harmon, a case also being prosecuted in the District of Columbia, the defendant has similarly been charged for his alleged role in operating Helix, a bitcoin mixer that sent more than $300 million in bitcoin to designated recipients.
Continue Reading  DOJ Again Charges Crypto “Mixer” Under the BSA and District of Columbia’s Money Transmitters Act