Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

The Office of Foreign Asset Control (“OFAC”) announced on June 20 that Swedbank Latvia AS (“Swedbank Latvia”), a subsidiary of Swedbank AB (“Swedbank AB”) headquartered in Riga, Latvia, agreed to pay $3,430,900 to settle its potential civil liability for 386 “apparent” violations of OFAC sanctions involving Crimea.  Specifically, Swedbank Latvia allegedly allowed a client to initiate payments from Crimea through an e-banking platform that ultimately were processed by a U.S. correspondent bank. The settlement amount reflects OFAC’s determination that Swedbank Latvia’s conduct was “non-egregious” – but not voluntarily self-disclosed.

Although unrelated to this OFAC action, Swedbank Latvia was the topic of a 2019 internal investigation report commissioned by Swedbank AB revealing that from before 2007 through 2016, Swedbank Latvia (and Swedbank Estonia) actively pursued certain high-risk customers as a business strategy.  This conduct, related to the Danske Bank scandal and its now-notorious Estonian Branch, resulted in Swedish and Estonian authorities ordering Swedbank AB in 2020 to pay a record 4 billion Swedish Krona (then, approximately $38 million) in anti-money laundering related penalties.

This OFAC enforcement action involves alleged conduct which occurred even before Russia’s 2022 unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the ensuing host of expanded U.S. sanctions, and the recent drive by U.S. regulators and prosecutors to combat the attempted evasion of Russia sanctions and export controls.  The enforcement action reflects how OFAC can learn of potential sanctions violations through other financial institutions.  It also emphasizes, once again, some of the risks inherent in providing correspondent bank services to foreign banks, and the need for good communication between U.S. and foreign banks.  It further reflects the need for a financial institution (or any company) to integrate customer data into a sanctions compliance program, keep up to date on evolving sanctions, and pursue potential red flags of non-compliance – including in the face of customer representations of compliance.

Continue Reading  Swedbank Latvia Settles with OFAC for Apparent Crimea Sanctions Violations

We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Finance Monitor podcast series, A Look at the Treasury Department’s April 2023 Report on Decentralized Finance or “DeFi.” 

In this episode, we follow up and expand upon our blog post regarding the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s April 6, 2023 report examining vulnerabilities

On May 19, 2023 the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) released a joint supplemental alert (the “Supplemental Alert”) concerning Russian export control evasion attempts.  The supplemental alert adds to and refines the June 28, 2022 alert about which we previously blogged.

According to the Supplemental Alert, the sanctions imposed by the Global Export Control Coalition (“GECC”) in response to the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine has been successful in “significantly degrad[ing]” Russia’s “military-industrial complex and defense supply chains” and making it difficult to replace the estimated “10,000 pieces of equipment” that Russia has lost on the battlefield.  The Supplemental Alert cautions that Russia has tasked its “intelligence services with finding ways to circumvent sanctions and export controls to replace needed equipment.”

In response, the BIS has imposed additional export control restrictions on February 24, 2023 on items such as components for aircraft and tanks, semiconductors, and “low-technology consumer goods.”  BIS has extended these export control restrictions beyond Russia’s borders, to Iran and China.  BIS believes that Iran and China have “served as supply nodes to the Russian war machine.”  The Department of Justice and the Commerce Department also announced in February the creation of the Disruptive Technology Strike Force, which brings together experts from across government and across the nation to, among other things, “protect critical technological assets from being acquired or used by nation-state adversaries.”  This strike force is in addition to the now well-known Task Force KleptoCapture that was formed last year.

Continue Reading  FinCEN and BIS Issue Supplemental Joint Alert on Russian Export Control Evasion Attempts

First of Two Blog Posts in a Series Pertaining to Attorneys Convicted of Money Laundering

In February, we blogged on the indictment of Vladimir Voronchenko (“Voronchenko”) in the Southern District of New York (“SDNY”), who was charged in connection with a scheme to make payments to maintain multiple properties in New York and Florida owned by his friend and associate, sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (“Vekselberg”).  The February indictment also contained allegations that Voronchenko had retained a then unnamed U.S.-based attorney to help carry out those alleged money laundering activities.

On April 25, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY announced that Robert Wise (“Wise”), a New York attorney, had pled guilty to a single count of conspiring to commit money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371.  The substantive offense that was the object of the conspiracy was 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(A), which criminalizes the act of transferring monetary instruments or funds into or outside of the United States with the intent to promote the carrying on of specified unlawful activity.  Interestingly, the superseding information charges Wise with violating the general criminal conspiracy statute, Section 371 (which carries a statutory maximum sentence of “only” five years), rather than violating the specific money laundering conspiracy provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) (which carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years).  It is unclear whether Wise is cooperating with investigators.

In our next post, we will discuss the Fourth Circuit’s affirmation of attorney Kenneth Ravenell’s conviction at trial for money laundering conspiracy, in violation of Section 1956(h).

Continue Reading  New York Attorney Pleads Guilty to Conspiring to Commit Money Laundering in Connection with Indicted Russian Oligarch

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, Regulatory Developments — and More

I am very pleased to co-chair again the Practicing Law Institute’s 2023 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 16, 2023, starting at 9 a.m. in New York City (the event also will be virtual). 

I am also really fortunate to be working with co-chair Elizabeth (Liz) Boison

Last week, FinCEN “communicated,” so to speak, to private industry, law enforcement, regulators, and legislators in three very different ways:  through a FY 2022 Year In Review infographic; a first-of-its kind enforcement action against a trust company; and in statements before the U.S. House of Representatives.  This post summarizes each of these developments, which are unified by the motif of FinCEN asserting that it has an increasing role in protecting the U.S. financial system against money laundering, terrorist financing and other illicit activity; providing critical data and analytical support to law enforcement agencies pursuing these goals; and simultaneously policing and trying to collaborate with private industry regarding these goals.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Round Up:  FY 2022 in Review; First AML Enforcement Against a Trust Company; and Comments to Congress

On April 13, the State of Wyoming took the extraordinary step of filing a request for permission to intervene in the ongoing dispute between Custodia Bank, Inc. (“Custodia”) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“the Fed”) and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.  This dispute involves a complaint (now amended) filed by Custodia – a state-chartered special purpose depository institution (“SPDI”) based in Cheyenne, Wyoming – against the Fed and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, alleging that the defendants improperly denied Custodia’s application for a “master account” with the Fed. Generalizing greatly, having a master account allows financial institutions to operate in the normal course as a custodial bank in the U.S.  Having a Fed master account is therefore critical to any institution looking to operate in the U.S. financial system.

In a nutshell, Wyoming’s request to intervene critiques the defendants because of their “view of perceived inadequacies in Wyoming’s laws and regulations for SPDIs, [which are] partially responsible” for the denial of Custodia’s master account application.  More specifically, Wyoming accuses the defendants of seeking to treat Wyoming SPDIs in an inequitable manner, thereby “treating state-chartered non-federally regulated banks as second-class banks ineligible to compete with federally-regulated ones.”

This blog post focuses on an important issue referenced seemingly in passing in Wyoming’s request for permission to intervene, which is clearly motivating in part the filing by Wyoming:  on March 24, 2023, the Fed made public its January 27, 2023  Order Denying Application for Membership (the “Order”) by Custodia, which had requested the Fed’s approval under Section 9 of the Federal Reserve Act to become a member of the Federal Reserve System.  According to Wyoming, the Fed’s decision to deny Custodia’s application has the effect of preventing Custodia and other Wyoming SPDIs from ever being able to attain the status of federal regulation.  We focus here on the Order because of its much broader anti-money laundering (“AML”) and sanctions implications for any banks which are contemplating targeted services for the digital asset industry.  The 86-page Order is very detailed, and often also discusses safety and soundness concerns, as well as other issues.

As we discuss, the Order suggests that any bank will have a hard time convincing the Fed that crypto-heavy banking services can comply with the requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and U.S. sanctions law.  Likewise, the Fed has expressed its skepticism in the Order that blockchain analytics services, even when applied skillfully and with the best of intentions, actually can satisfy the BSA and U.S. sanctions law due to limitations inherent in crypto transactions relating to knowing with confidence who is actually conducting the transactions.  This same issue was also noted by the recent report by the U.S. Treasury regarding perceived AML and sanctions vulnerabilities in decentralized finance providers.

Continue Reading  State of Wyoming Wades Into Custodia Bank Dispute with Federal Reserve — In Wake of Fed’s Rejection of Bank Due to Crypto-Related AML and OFAC Concerns

On April 6, 2023, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released a report examining vulnerabilities in decentralized finance (“DeFi”), including potential gaps in the United States’ anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) regulatory, supervisory, and enforcement regimes for DeFi.  The report concludes by making a series of recommendations, including the closing of “gaps” in the application of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to the extent that certain DeFi services currently fall outside the scope of the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” covered by the BSA.  The report cautions that it does not alter any existing legal obligations, issue any new regulatory interpretations, or establish any new supervisory expectations.

Continue Reading  U.S. Treasury Releases Report and Recommendations Regarding Vulnerabilities in Decentralized Finance

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

Last month we blogged on an indictment in the Southern District of New York (“SDNY”) charging Vladimir Voronchenko (“Voronchenko”) with scheming to make payments to maintain multiple properties in New York and Florida owned by sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (“Vekselberg”), whom we had previously blogged about here.

Last Friday, the SDNY U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a follow-on civil forfeiture complaint (the “Forfeiture Complaint”) against the six properties at issue – one address in Southampton, NY; two units at 515 Park Avenue in Manhattan; and two addresses in Miami Beach (the “Subject Properties”). The Forfeiture Complaint seeks forfeiture of the Subject Properties on three bases: (a) as real property derived from proceeds traceable to violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), various Executive Orders (13660-662 and 13685), and 31 C.F.R.§ 589.201 (which implemented those Executive Orders as part of a package of regulations promulgated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Treasury Department (“OFAC”)); and (b) as real property involved in international money laundering to promote violations of the IEEPA, and (c) as assets of an entity involved in international money laundering to promote violations of the IEEPA.

Continue Reading  DOJ Seeks to “KleptoCapture” Sanctioned Russian Oligarch’s NYC and Miami Properties Via Forfeiture