Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

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

The Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) Plenary was held on February 22-24, bringing together delegates from around the world to meet in Paris and discuss a variety of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas. In a historic move, FATF decided to suspend the Russian Federation from membership in the intergovernmental organization, based upon its actions in Ukraine over the past year. We will discuss that decision, as well as the other major outcomes of the Plenary, which involve beneficial ownership, virtual assets, ransomware, the art and antiquities market, and changes to FATF’s so-called “grey list.”

Continue Reading  FATF Plenary Suspends Membership of Russian Federation and Reiterates Other Strategic Initiatives

Alleged Evasion Through a Law Firm Account and High-End Real Estate

On February 7, 2023, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced the unsealing of an indictment charging Vladimir Voronchenko (“Voronchenko”) with participating in a scheme to make payments in excess of $4 million dollars to maintain four properties located in the United States that were owned by Viktor Vekselberg (“Vekselberg”), a sanctioned Russian oligarch (whose own issues we have blogged on here). Additionally, the indictment also charges Voronchenko, a citizen of the Russian Federation and legal permanent resident of the United States, with contempt of court in connection with his flight from the United States following receipt of a grand jury subpoena on May 13, 2022, which required his personal appearance and testimony. He has not returned to the United States since.

As we discuss, the indictment implicates several issues on which we blog frequently, including evasion of Russia sanctions relating to the Ukraine; the potential exposure of lawyers to money laundering risks; and the potential exposure of real estate professionals to money laundering risks.

Continue Reading  Russian Citizen Indicted for Making Payments on Behalf of Sanctioned Russian Oligarch

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York recently unsealed an indictment of Charles McGonigal (“McGonigal”), a former high-ranking FBI official, who has been accused of helping Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska (“Deripaska”) avoid U.S. sanctions. Last Thursday, Chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees wrote letters to U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, and FBI Director, Christopher Wray demanding information.

We discuss here the letters, which are extremely pointed.  But first, it’s worth examining the allegations in the indictment, which paint a dramatic tale of abuse of office, concealment through shell companies, and a former high-level law enforcement officer allegedly engaging in the same of behavior that, until very recently, he was sworn to detect, investigate and prevent.

Continue Reading  Senate and House Judiciary Committees Demand Answers Regarding Indictment of Former High-Ranking FBI Official for Sanctions Conspiracy