On October 6, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced the creation of a National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (“NCET”). The DOJ press release is set forth in part below, without further commentary, other than to observe that the NCET’s stated goals are to address issues on which we repeatedly have blogged: crypto exchangers and their AML
Money Services Business
FinCEN and CFTC Reach Groundbreaking $100 Million AML Settlement with BitMEX
Government Alleges Systemic and Deliberate AML Failures
Filings Describe Tools for CVC Exchanges to Use for Customer Due Diligence and Transaction Monitoring
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) announced on August 10 (here and here) settlements with the operators of the BitMEX cryptocurrency trading platform for alleged anti-money laundering (“AML”) violations under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and for allegedly failing to register with the CFTC. More specifically, FinCEN’s assessment of a civil monetary penalty and the CFTC’s consent order both involved the five companies operating the BitMEX platform: HDR Global Trading Limited, 100x Holding Limited, ABS Global Trading Limited, Shine Effort Inc Limited, and HDR Global Services (Bermuda) Limited (collectively, “BitMEX”).
BitMEX will pay regulators up to a combined $100 million civil monetary penalty; perform a “lookback” regarding the potential need to file additional Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”); and hire an independent consultant to conduct two reviews of BitMEX’s operations, policies, procedures, and controls, in order to confirm that BitMEX is not operating in the U.S., and that no U.S. customers are able to trade with the BitMEX platform.
According to the government filings, BitMEX is one of the oldest cryptocurrency derivative exchanges, with 1.3 million user accounts and a collection of annual fees in excess of $1 billion. Combined, the government filings allege that for a period of six years between November 2014 and October 1, 2020, BitMEX offered trading of cryptocurrency derivatives to retail and institutional customers in the U.S. and worldwide through BitMEX’s website. Customers in the U.S. placed orders to buy or sell contracts directly through the website and BitMEX was aware that U.S. customers could access the BitMEX platform via virtual private network (“VPN”).
The civil penalty will be split between FinCEN and the CFTC. However, the settlement involves an interesting “carrot” offered by the regulators: $20 million of the penalty is suspended pending the successful completion of the SAR lookback and the two independent consultant reviews.
According to the government’s allegations, BitMEX deliberately ignored for years the most basic AML requirements, resulting in multitudinous violations and inviting – and even encouraging – its customers to launder illicit funds. As we will describe, the government has alleged that BitMEX operated on the announced pretext that it was not subject to the BSA or U.S. commodities laws because it had no U.S. customers or operations, when senior management knew otherwise.
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Cyber-Enabled Financial Crime and Money Laundering
A Guest Blog by Professor Moyara Ruehsen
Today we are very pleased to welcome guest blogger Moyara Ruehsen, PhD, CAMS, CFCS, who is an Associate Professor and Director of the Financial Crime Management Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. For more than 20 years, Professor Ruehsen has taught financial crime-related courses on a variety of topics including money laundering, trade-based financial crime, corruption, proliferation financing, terrorist financing and cyber-enabled financial crime. She has published articles and book chapters on a variety of topics related to threat finance and is a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist and a Certified Financial Crime Specialist. Professor Ruehsen also consults for the U.S. government, multilateral organizations and the private sector. She served for several years on the Editorial Advisory Board of Money Laundering Alert, and the Middle East Task Force of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists, or ACAMS.
For an extremely entertaining and illuminating discussion by Professor Ruehsen of how popular TV and movies get money laundering right (and wrong), see here.
This blog post takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Professor Ruehsen responds to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the critical topic of cyber-enabled financial crime. We hope you enjoy this discussion, which addresses how cyber-enabled financial crime threatens financial institutions and their customers. –Peter Hardy…
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Wirecard: A Scandal
“Germany’s Enron” Continues to Stagger Forward
It’s time to talk about Wirecard AG. In many respects, it’s yet another accounting fraud scandal – albeit a massive one. But now, inevitably, it also has become a money laundering scandal, courtesy of German law enforcement authorities – and also now U.S. authorities – which are looking into the alleged misuse of shell companies to facilitate the pursuit of pornography, gambling and marijuana distribution. And it’s a story that clearly will be with us for some time, like the Danske Bank disaster. We surely will be blogging on this scandal going forward.
The fallout from the massive, years-long accounting scandal involving Wirecard, the German-based fintech giant, recently has blossomed to implicate alleged money laundering failures by the company and even systemic failures on the part of German regulatory authorities. Wirecard, a payment processor publicly valued more than some of the world’s largest banks, has been in a free-fall since a bombshell report by the Financial Times (“FT”) on February 7, 2019 revealed Wirecard’s widespread accounting fraud after being tipped off by a whistleblower.
As with the Dankse Bank scandal, a whistleblower allegedly was instrumental in causing the financial house of cards to collapse. This is also a story of investigative journalism and its consequences. Please check out this YouTube video by a FT reporter describing the efforts by himself and his colleagues to investigate Wirecard, and what he believed occurred as a result.
This June, Wirecard filed for insolvency and disclosed that it owed creditors almost $4 billion and that 1.9 billion euros – two-thirds of the company’s 2019 revenue – was missing from its accounts. In an effort to calm investors, Wirecard announced earlier this month that James Freis – previously the director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) – would serve as the new CEO just after German authorities arrested Wirecard’s longstanding CEO, Markus Braun, for his alleged role in the scandal. Wirecard initially hired Fries as a Compliance Officer but, in a shocking turn of events, appointed him as interim CEO the very next day.
Despite these efforts, Wirecard’s legal troubles continue to grow and new reports emerged last week implicating the company in various money laundering schemes entirely unrelated to the accounting fraud. In an even stranger twist: with the details of both scandals emerging, the spotlight has turned to the alleged inaction of Germany’s regulatory authorities – putting aside the issue of Wirecard’s own auditors – and how they can and should prevent future scandals.
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PLI Anti-Money Laundering Conference to Address Key Issues in BSA/AML
We are really pleased to be moderating the Practising Law Institute’s 2020 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 12, 2020, starting at 9 a.m. Perhaps needless to say, this year’s conference will be entirely virtual. But the conference still should be as informative, interesting and timely as always. Our conference co-chair, Nicole S. Healy of Ropers…
Tenth Circuit Rejects Shareholders’ Fraud Claims Against Western Union Based on Alleged AML Failings
Plaintiffs Failed to Sufficiently Allege Knowledge or Recklessness by Company Concerning AML Compliance Problems, Despite Admissions Made by Company When Responding to Major Government Enforcement Actions
On February 25, 2020, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of shareholders’ securities-fraud class action against the Western Union Company (“Western Union”) and several of its current and former executive officers based on the company’s alleged anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance failings.
The suit was filed in February 2017 following the announcement of a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) between Western Union and the U.S. Department of Justice. The DPA was based upon Western Union’s alleged willful failure to maintain an effective AML program and aiding and abetting of wire fraud between 2004 and 2012. The DPA, about which we have previously blogged, charged Western Union with filing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) regarding activity by its customers but failing to file SARs regarding the actions of its own agents who were likely complicit. The DPA and related civil enforcement actions from the Federal Trade Commission and FinCEN required Western Union to pay a combined penalty of $586 million.
As we also have blogged, shareholder derivative suits based on alleged AML failures are proliferating, for both U.S.-based and foreign-based financial institutions – as well as their executives. Primary examples include Danske Bank and some of its former executives, as well as Westpac, Australia’s second-largest retail bank, which currently face such lawsuits in the U.S. Such lawsuits now represent predictable collateral consequences flowing from AML-related scandals. Here, Western Union obtained dismissal because the plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts regarding the key issue of mental state – that is, facts that would support a strong inference of actual knowledge or reckless disregard that the public statements regarding Western Union’s actual state of AML compliance were false. The detailed Tenth Circuit opinion illuminates the practical contours of the scienter standard regarding AML compliance, or alleged lack thereof. Ultimately, plaintiffs’ arguments based upon a “fraud by hindsight” theory will fail.
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Treasury Department’s 2020 National Illicit Finance Strategy: Aspirations for BSA/AML Modernization and the Combatting of Key Threats
First in a Two-Post Series
The U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) has issued its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2020 Strategy”). This document sets forth the key priorities of the U.S. government regarding enforcement of the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”), and the furthering of the government’s Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) goals in general. It is lengthy document addressing numerous issues – albeit in a relatively high-level fashion in regards to any specific issue.
In this post, we will summarize the findings and recommendations of the 2020 Strategy, and will highlight some topics this blog has followed closely – including calls for: increased transparency into beneficial ownership; strengthening international regulation and coordination, and modernization of the AML/BSA regime. Our next post will focus on the 2020 Strategy as it relates to combating money laundering relating to real estate transactions and “gatekeeper” professions, such as lawyers, real estate professionals and other financial professionals, including broker-dealers.
The 2020 Strategy also focuses on several other important issues which we will not discuss in this limited blog series, but on which we certainly have blogged before, including the role of money laundering in international trade, casinos, money services businesses and digital assets.
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DOJ Charges Turkish State-Owned Halkbank With Money Laundering, Fraud, and Iran-Related Sanctions Offenses
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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Joint Statement on Digital Assets Highlights AML Regulatory Overlap
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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FinCEN Deputy Director Stresses Technological Innovation, Virtual Currency Enforcement and the U.S. Culture of Compliance
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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