Money Services Business

The Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul, Turkey

Indictment Alleges that Bank and its Officers Used Front Companies to Evade Prohibitions on Iran’s Access to the U.S. Financial System

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has charged Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank (formally known as Türkiye Halk Bankasi A.S.) with money laundering, bank fraud and sanctions offenses under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, arising from the Bank’s alleged involvement in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. As alleged in the six-count indictment, senior officials at Halkbank designed and executed the Bank’s systemic and illicit movement of Iranian oil revenue moving through the Bank to give Iran access to the funds. This case is an extension of prosecutions initiated in late 2017 against nine individual defendants in the scheme, including bank employees and the former Turkish Minister of the Economy.
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Leaders of FinCEN, CFTC and SEC Attempt an Intricate Dance of Competing Oversight of Virtual Currency

On October 11, the leaders of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a “Joint Statement on Acitivites Involving Digital Assets” in order to “remind persons engaged in activities involving digital assets of their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).”  The regulation of cryptocurrency has been a constant topic of this blog.
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Last Wednesday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the annual conference of the Money Transmitter Regulators Association and delivered prepared remarks. The topics of his address covered three issues of continuing interest: (i) innovation and reform with respect to implementation of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA); (ii) FinCEN supervision of non-banking financial institutions; and (iii) maintaining a strong culture of compliance.
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On August 21, 2019, FinCEN issued an advisory (the “Advisory”) alerting financial institutions to various financial schemes and mechanisms employed by fentanyl and synthetic opioid traffickers to facilitate the illegal fentanyl trade and launder its proceeds.

As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), “fentanyl is a synthetic (man-made) opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent that morphine.” In 2017, more than 28,000 deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioid occurred in the United States. As noted in the Advisory, fentanyl traffics in the United States from two principal sources: from China by U.S. individuals for personal consumption or domestic distribution or from Mexico by transnational criminal organizations (“TCOs”) and other criminal networks. In turn, these trades are funded through a number of mechanisms, including: purchases from a foreign source made using money servICES businesses (“MSBs”), bank transfers or online payment processors; purchases from a foreign source made using convertible virtual currency (“CVC”); purchases from a domestic source made using MSBs, online payment processors, CVC or person-to-person cash sales.

Recognizing fentanyl traffickers’ modus operandi is critical to detecting and preventing these illicit transactions. Thus, the Advisory provides detailed illustrations of each of the above-identified forms of transaction in order to assist financial institutions to detect and prevent facilitating fentanyl trafficking.
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Second Post in a Two-Part Series

Some Answers — Producing Even More Questions

On May 9, 2019, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) published a comprehensive “interpretive guidance” (the “Guidance”) to “remind” businesses and individuals operating in a subset of the cryptocurrency markets involving “convertible virtual currencies” (“CVCs”) of the potential applicability of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to their operations. At the outset, FinCEN explains that “[t]his guidance does not establish any new regulatory expectations or requirements.” Instead, “it consolidates current FinCEN regulations, and related administrative rulings and guidance issued since 2011” and provides illustrations of those regulations, rulings and guidance to common business models involving CVCs.

The principal purposes of the Guidance are threefold: (1) to set forth relevant FinCEN rules and requirements in a single source; (2) to demonstrate how the BSA may and does apply to innovations in the CVC markets occurring since 2011; and (3) to illustrate how these rules and requirements will be applied to future innovations in the CVC markets.

In our first post in this series, posted on the day that FinCEN issued the Guidance, we addressed recent major developments across a spectrum of regulatory, civil, and criminal enforcement cases involving cryptocurrencies, AML and money laundering – courtesy of the combined efforts of FinCEN, the New York Department of Financial Services, and the U.S. Department of Justice.  These enforcement cases underscored the need for more clear rules regarding how the BSA and other statutes can apply to cryptocurrencies.  The Guidance attempts to do just that, with partial success. It presents as a treatise on FinCEN regulation of CVCs, organized to:

  • provide definitions of key relevant concepts;
  • outline and explain current FinCEN regulations, ruling and guidance;
  • summarize the development and content of FinCEN’s money transmission regulations to CVCs and CVC businesses;
  • provide illustrations of “FinCEN’s existing regulatory approach to current and emerging business models using patterns of activities involving CVC”; and
  • localize resources to further explain applicable FinCEN rules and regulations.

The Guidance, although not exactly offering anything new, still contains a lot to unpack. It provides some significant clarity to application of FinCEN’s rules and regulations to CVC businesses and a thorough resource to address many questions involving FinCEN regulation of CVC. But, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, in its comprehensiveness, it reveals how almost limitless possibilities exist for individuals and entities to transact in CVC and how difficult questions of whether those activities will be regulated by FinCEN can be to answer.
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First Post in a Two-Part Series

Recent actions in the crypto realm demonstrate that authorities and regulators have not slackened their commitment to applying and enforcing Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations in the crypto industry.  These actions serve as reminders that not only is the government keeping a close eye on cryptocurrency, but its oversight and enforcement can and will come from many angles. What’s more, the government’s recent various proactive and reactive compliance efforts relating to cryptocurrency illustrate the policy principles behind its compliance initiatives from the theoretical to the stark, real world consequences they are intended to avoid.

In this post, we address recent major developments across a spectrum of regulatory, civil, and criminal enforcement cases involving cryptocurrencies, AML and money laundering – courtesy of the combined efforts of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”), and the U.S. Department of Justice.

In our next post, we will discuss a 30-page Guidance just issued today by FinCEN, entitled “Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Certain Business Models Involving Convertible Virtual Currencies” – which was accompanied by a 12-page FinCEN Advisory entitled “Advisory on Illicit Activity Involving Convertible Virtual Currency.”
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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.


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Address Emphasizes Role of SARs in Fighting Illegal Activity, Including Drug Dealing Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Kenneth Blanco, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), discussed last week several issues involving virtual currency during an address before the “2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference” at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Although some of his comments retread familiar ground, Blanco did offer some new insights, including the fact that FinCEN now receives over 1,500 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) a month relating to virtual currency.
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Earlier this month, the District Court for the Central District of California imposed a prison sentence of one year and a day, with three years of supervised release, on defendant Theresa Lynn Tetley, who had pleaded guilty to: (i) the unlicensed operation of a digital currency exchange due to failure register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960(a) and (b)(1)(B), and (ii) a money laundering charge, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(3)(B), arising out of an undercover “sting” operation run by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation involving the attempt to conceal proceeds supposedly obtained by selling drugs.  Tetley also was ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and forfeit 40 Bitcoin, $292,264 in cash, and 25 gold bars that were the alleged proceeds of her illegal activity.

The Court imposed a sentence significantly lower than the sentence of 30 months requested by the government, a recommendation which already was lower than the advisory sentencing range recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) of 46 to 57 months in prison, as calculated by the U.S. Probation Office.

Tetley, a 50 year old woman living in Southern California, is a former stockbroker and real estate investor. She operated her digital currency exchange under the alias “Bitcoin Maven” for over three years, running an unregistered Bitcoin for cash exchange service.  According to the government, her service “fueled a black-market financial system” that “purposely and deliberately existed outside the regulated bank industry” and which catered to an alleged major darknet vendor of illegal narcotics.  According to the defense, however, the defendant “departed from a lifetime of integrity and good deeds and showed terrible judgment by failing to comply with federal registration requirements and buying bitcoins from individuals who represented themselves as engaged in criminal activity.”

In this post, we will drill into this sentencing and the parties’ respective positions, which provide a window into the prosecution and sentencing of alleged crimes involving both digital currency and undercover money laundering operations — and into the process for the sentencing of federal crimes in general, and how other factors which are entirely unrelated to the facts of the specific offense can be important.  Further, the Tetley case is interesting in part because it represents a sort of “hybrid” case — seen from time to time in money laundering cases involving professionals — which straddles both the typically very different realms of “pure” financial crime cases and illegal narcotics cases.  The government sentencing memorandum is here; the defense sentencing memorandum is here.
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Last week, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order banning “all transactions” and “dealings” by any individual or entity in the United States that involve “any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token” issued by Venezuela.  This Executive Order was instituted just under a month after President Nicholas Maduro launched the pre-sale of “petro,” a cryptocurrency backed by the Venezuelan government’s crude oil reserves.  Since its inception, the petro has been met with deep skepticism by both the market and the Venezuelan legislature, but President Maduro—through petro’s official website—claims it has raised over $735 million in its pre-sale.  The opposition in the Venezuelan legislature has denounced petro as an illegal issuance of debt.

We previously have blogged about alleged money-laundering violations by Venezuelan oilmen and OFAC’s designation of the Vice President of Venezuela as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker.  This is only the most recent in a long line of sanctions targeting the Venezuelan government and its state-controlled oil industry.

On the back of this new Executive Order, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) has issued new FAQs relating to virtual currency, both to regulate the petro and assert its power in the virtual currency space.  As one might suspect, OFAC has decided to treat virtual currency in the same way it treats fiat currency and other property: if the individual is on Specially Designated Nationals (“SDN”) list, transactions are barred no matter what form of currency is used.  If a United States citizen or entity is involved, or is otherwise subject to United States jurisdiction, they “are responsible for ensuring that they do not engage in unauthorized transactions prohibited by OFAC sanctions.”  The OFAC FAQs specifically request “technology companies; administrators, exchangers, and users of digital currencies; and other payment processors” to develop compliance plans.  Obviously, these compliance plans would have to take into account blockchain and virtual currency technology that is constantly evolving.
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