Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

Amicus Briefs Urge that Only FinCEN, Not the SEC, Should Enforce the BSA in Regards to Broker-Dealers

In the next stage of the Alpine Securities saga (as we blogged about here, here and here), a petition for a writ of certiorari is pending before the Supreme Court, asking the Court to decide whether the Southern District of New York and the Second Circuit correctly decided that the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) may bring suit directly to enforce compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).  Distilled, the Second Circuit and the District Court ruled that by promulgating Rule 17a-8, which states in part that “[e]very registered broker or dealer who is subject to the requirements of the [BSA] shall comply with the reporting, recordkeeping and record retention requirements of [BSA regulations promulgated by FinCEN],” the SEC is properly exercising its own independent authority under Rule 17a-8 and Section 17(a) of the Exchange Act when it regulates broker-dealers for the record-keeping and reporting requirements of the BSA.

Alpine Securities’ petition (the “Petition”) has received support in the form of amicus briefs from former officials of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the Cato Institute (“CATO”), both of which argue the SEC does not have the power to enforce violations of the BSA.  As we will discuss, the amicus briefs argue that only FinCEN may enforce the BSA, and that a contrary system would undermine FinCEN and create unacceptably conflicting interpretations, standards, and penalties for BSA/anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance.
Continue Reading Circular Delegation: Amicus Support By Former FinCEN Officials and the Cato Institute in the Alpine Securities Saga

Action Highlights that Even Sophisticated Companies Serious about Compliance are not Immune from AML Enforcement – and the Importance of Cooperation When Cutting a Deal

On May 12, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued an Order instituting a cease-and-desist proceeding under Sections 15(b) and 21C of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”), and imposed a $1.5 million monetary penalty against broker-dealer, GWFS Equities, Inc. (“GWFS”) for its alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) due to its claimed failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) when it was required to do so, and because certain filed SARs were inadequate.  The suspicious activity at issue involved primarily so-called “account takeovers” by cyber criminals, which is of course a growing and pernicious threat.

What is particularly notable about the case is that the SEC targeted GWFS for enforcement for allegedly filing 297 deficient SARs between September 2015 through October 2018 (the “Relevant Period”), despite GWFS having a seemingly otherwise robust  anti-money laundering (“AML”) program, a designated and capable BSA/AML Officer, a SAR review committee, written supervisory procedures that stressed the importance of providing “clear, complete, and concise descriptions of” suspicious activity, including the five essential elements of the suspicious activity—who, what, when, where and why (the “five essential elements”)—and GWFS providing formal and informal training to combat and report suspicious activity.  Stated otherwise, this AML enforcement action involves an actor clearly serious in general about compliance, rather than a compliance “outlier” representing an easy enforcement target. Crucially, cetain filed SARs allegedly omitted the “five essential elements” required in a SAR, even though GWFS allegedly knew the information and also knew that it was obligated to include the information in its SARs.  Instead, GWFS utilized a generic format for its SARs that did not contain much useful information.

The lesson here is clear: in regards to the allegedly inadequate filed SARs, the SEC is sending a message that a perceived cookie-cutter, cut-and-paste approach to fulfilling one’s obligations under the BSA will not be enough to stave off scrutiny and potential costly liability from government regulators.  With incidences of identity theft and other cybercrimes showing no signs of abating, and the government’s interest in ensuring that financial institutions are playing their role to guard against and to combat cybercrime, additional regulatory actions for deficient compliance are likely to follow.  It is not enough to just have a compliance program in place.  Broker-dealers should ensure that their compliance staff is well-trained and reports suspicious activity through the issuance of SARs that, at a minimum, contain the five essential elements.
Continue Reading SEC Extracts AML Settlement From Broker-Dealer Based on Alleged Failure to Comply with “Five Essential Elements” of SAR Filings Regarding Cyber Crime

On March 29, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) began to make good on its promise to make AML a key examination priority in 2021 by issuing a risk alert authored by the Division of Examinations (“EXAMS”) detailing the results of a review of broker-dealers’ compliance with anti-money laundering (“AML”) requirements (the “Alert”).

The Alert details the obligations of broker-dealers to comply with AML programs and SAR monitoring and reporting requirements pursuant to the “AML Program Rule,” 31 C.F.R. § 1023.210, and the “SAR Rule,” 31 C.F.R. § 1023.320, as well as similar obligations under Rule 17a-8 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), which incorporates the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reporting and record-keeping obligations applicable to broker-dealers.  The Alert further issues findings that indicate certain firms are experiencing shortcomings when it comes to establishing and implementing sufficient suspicious activity monitoring and reporting policies and procedures, which is leading to inadequate SAR reporting in several respects.

Perhaps not coincidentally, EXAMS issued the Alert shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in December 2020 in SEC vs. Alpine Securities Corp. that the SEC has the authority to bring an enforcement action against broker-dealers under Section 17(a) and Rule 17a-8 of the Exchange Act on the basis of alleged BSA failures, including failures to comply with the SAR Rule.  Whether the Alert is a true “heads up” or a forewarning of enforcement actions to come, firms are encouraged not to replicate the specific deficiencies identified in the Alert.
Continue Reading Broker-Dealers Fail SEC AML Examinations

Bottom Line: Biden Administration May Revive FinCEN’s Proposed Rule For Investment Advisers

Unlike broker-dealers, investment advisers are not currently required to maintain anti-money laundering (“AML”)/counter-terrorist financing (“CTF”) compliance programs under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), or file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”).  In 2015, during President Obama’s second term, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) proposed exactly such a rule for certain investment advisers.  Although FinCEN then never moved forward, the stars may be aligning for the implementation of a similar rule in the new Biden Administration.

Industry watchdog groups will push for this.  For example, after Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, the independent Financial Accountability & Corporate Transparency Coalition wrote a memorandum, asking him to “[f]inalize the proposed Obama-era rule requiring investment advisers to establish AML programs.”  Action on this front also would be generally consistent with the 2020 Examination Priorities issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), which stated that the OCIE will prioritize examining broker-dealers “for compliance with their AML obligations in order to assess, among other things, whether firms have established appropriate customer identification programs and whether they are satisfying their SAR filing obligations, conducting due diligence on customers, complying with beneficial ownership requirements, and conducting robust and timely independent tests of their AML programs.”  Moreover, the FBI’s concern over money laundering through private equity and hedge funds may increase the likelihood of the administration reviving some version of the 2015 proposed rule.  A leaked FBI Intelligence Bulletin from May 2020 stated that “threat actors[, or money launderers,] likely use the private placement of funds, including investments offered by hedge funds and private equity firms, to launder money, circumventing traditional” AML protections in place at other financial institutions already subject to such regulations.  According to its Intelligence Bulletin, the FBI made this assessment in “high confidence.”
Continue Reading Investment Advisers May Be Subject to AML Regulations Under Revival of Proposed Rule

FBI Highlights Feared AML Deficiencies in Combating Private Equity Money Laundering

Courtesy of a leaked internal Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) document, it’s now no secret that the FBI suspects that many investment vehicles, such as private equity firms and hedge funds, are widely utilized for money laundering. The FBI apparently compiled a January 2019 report titled “Financial Crime Threat Actors Very Likely Laundering Illicit Proceeds Through Fraudulent Hedge Funds and Private Equity Firms to Obfuscate Illicit Proceeds.” Now, a recently leaked May 1, 2020 internal FBI report similarly titled “Threat Actors Likely Use Private Investment Funds to Launder Money, Circumventing Regulatory Tripwires” (the “Report”) purports to supplement the January 2019 report “by providing recent reporting of hedge funds and private equity firms used to launder illicit proceeds, and expands the threat context beyond financial threat actors to include foreign adversaries.”

The Report does more than simply identify the financial threat posed by this type of money laundering; it uses some real-world examples to explain the process by which criminals are perceived to be infiltrating the global financial system using hedge funds and private equity firms, and how the current anti-money laundering (“AML”) regulatory regime is ill-equipped to stop them. It’s safe to say the FBI certainly did not intend for this play-by-play money laundering “how to” guide to go public. Investment advisors and firms should consider whether this leaked Report might add at least some momentum to the otherwise moribund (and controversial) effort by FinCEN in 2015 to propose regulations that would have made investment advisors subject to the requirement to create and maintain full AML programs under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).
Continue Reading Leaked FBI Report Reveals Private Equity Under Enhanced Money Laundering Scrutiny

Last Thursday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the 20th annual Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Financial Crimes Conference hosted by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) in New York City. His prepared remarks covered three main topics at the intersection of the securities industry and FinCEN’s enforcement goals: (i) AML compliance trends and current challenges; (ii) the value of Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) filing data; and (iii) the current regulatory landscape.

El-Hindi not surprisingly stressed transparency and information sharing, the value of BSA reporting data, and the need for legislation regarding the collection of beneficial ownership at the corporate formation stage. El-Hindi also suggested – perhaps without the complete agreement of his audience – that regulators tend to under-regulate, rather than over-regulate. He stated: “But in an area such as ours where we have developed a strong partnership with industry and where we believe that you are just as vested in our mission to thwart bad actors as we are, it is important for us to use our authorities fully.”

His remarks are particularly relevant given the 2020 Examination Priorities recently issued by the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), which states that the OCIE will prioritize examining broker-dealers and investment companies “for compliance with their AML obligations in order to assess, among other things, whether firms have established appropriate customer identification programs and whether they are satisfying their SAR filing obligations, conducting due diligence on customers, complying with beneficial ownership requirements, and conducting robust and timely independent tests of their AML programs.”
Continue Reading FinCEN Stresses Transparency, BSA Filing Data, and Perils of “Under- Regulating” to Securities Industry

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.
Continue Reading Joint Statement on Digital Assets Highlights AML Regulatory Overlap

More Allegations of Nordic Malfeasance Surface as Private Party Lawsuits Beset Danske Bank and SwedBank Gets Sucked into Unfolding Scandal

“Something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.” – Olav Haazen

In what is perhaps the least surprising development in the sprawling, continuously unfolding Danske Bank (“Danske”) money laundering scandal, investor groups have filed private securities fraud actions against the Denmark-based bank and its top executives: first in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York then, most recently, in Copenhagen City Court in Denmark. These suits coincide with an announcement from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) that it, too, was opening its own probe of potential securities and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) violations at Danske that could result in significant financial penalties on top of what could be the enormous private judgments. More significantly, the Danske shareholder suits and SEC investigation illustrate a second front of enormous exposure from a securities fraud standpoint for banks involved in their own money laundering scandals and a rock-solid guaranteed template for future investors similarly damaged by such scandals.

As we have blogged here, here and here, the Danske scandal – the largest alleged money laundering scandal in history – has yielded criminal and administrative investigations in Estonia, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom and by the United States Department of Justice. Those investigations have focused primarily on Danske’s compliance with applicable AML regulations, as well as the implementation and effectiveness of those regulations. The SEC and civil plaintiffs now have opened a new line of inquiry focusing less on the institutional and regulatory failures that yielded the scandal and responsibility for them and more on the damage those failures have caused Danske investors.

Meanwhile, banking stalwart Swedbank is reacting, with mixed success at best, to allegations that suspicious transactions involving billions of Euros passed from Danske’s Estonian branch through Swedbank’s own Baltic branches — allegations which have produced a controversial internal investigation report, a law enforcement raid, the loss of the bank’s CEO, and plunging stock value.

Continue Reading And Here Come the Lawyers: Securities Fraud Suits Commence Private Litigation Phase of Danske Bank Scandal

Government Alleges that Broker Dealer Ignored Major Red Flags Raised by Pay Day Lending Scheme

For the first time, a broker-dealer, Central States Capital Markets, LLC (Central States), has been prosecuted for violating the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). Central States stipulated to the accuracy of a deferred prosecution agreement‘s (DPA) Statement of Facts, which detailed significant failures to comply with its customer identification procedures (CIP), failures to investigate and file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), and failures to monitor red flag transactions.

The government’s prosecution of Central States is not surprising given its recent heightened interest in ensuring that financial gatekeepers like broker-dealers are complying with the AML/BSA laws. Indeed, the allegations show that Central States failed to take basic steps to comply with their AML/BSA obligations despite having procedures and processes in place.
Continue Reading SDNY Unveils First Criminal Prosecution of Broker-Dealer for Violating BSA

Second Post in a Two-Part Series

Opinion Stresses Importance of Narrative Sections and Supporting Documentation for SARs

In our first post in this series, we discussed the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) enforcement action against Alpine Securities, Inc. (“Alpine”), a clearing broker that provides services for microcap securities traded in the over-the-counter market, and in particular Alpine’s continued challenge to the SEC’s authority to enforce alleged violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). Judge Denise Cote of the Southern District of New York has repeatedly rejected that argument and, on December 11, granted partial summary judgement in the SEC’s favor, finding in part that the SEC indeed has the authority not only to exam for, but also to enforce, alleged BSA violations.

In this post, we turn to the court’s very detailed findings in support of its grant of summary judgment in favor of the SEC as to most of the case, finding that Alpine committed thousands of violations relating to Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs. Specifically, the court found as a matter of summary judgment that Alpine was liable, among other things, for thousands of violations of Rule 17a-8 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), which obligates a broker-dealer to comply with certain regulations promulgated under the BSA, including 31 C.F.R. § 1023.320 (“Section 1023.320”), which dictates how a broker-dealer must file SARs.

Although the decision clearly carries significant implications for the SEC’s case against Alpine, it also may serve as a potential bellwether for other broker-dealers who transact microcap securities. The district court’s opinion sets forth extremely detailed findings regarding a variety of SAR-related failures, including alleged failures to (i) provide adequate narrative descriptions in SARs actually filed; (ii) file required SARs; (iii) file SARs on time; and (iv) maintain adequate supporting documentation regarding decisions whether to file a SAR. The opinion also underscores the dangers in AML/BSA compliance of relying on templates and mechanistic or “cookie cutter” processes. It is not enough to simply file SARs defensively – rather, once a decision to file a SAR has been made, each SAR must be supported and contain adequate detail.
Continue Reading Court Decision Reinforces SAR Obligations of Penny Stock Clearing Brokers