Testimony Supports Bill Requiring States to Collect Beneficial Ownership Information at Entity Formation

As we have blogged, the proposed Corporate Transparency Act of 2019 (the “Act”) seeks to ensure that persons who form legal entities in the U.S. disclose the beneficial owners of those entities. Specifically, the Act would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to compel the Secretary of Treasury to set minimum standards for state incorporation practices. Thus, applicants forming a corporation or LLC would be required to report beneficial ownership information directly to FinCEN, and to continuously update such information.

If passed, the Act would build significantly upon FinCEN’s May 11, 2018 regulation regarding beneficial ownership (“the BO Rule,” about which we blog frequently and have provided practical tips for compliance here and here). Very generally, the BO Rule requires covered financial institutions to identify and verify the identities of the beneficial owners of legal entity customers at account opening. The issue of beneficial ownership is at the heart of current global anti-money laundering efforts to enhance the transparency of financial transactions.

On May 21, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, held a hearing entitled: “Combating Illicit Financing by Anonymous Shell Companies Through the Collection of Beneficial Ownership Information.” This hearing, which provided fuel for passage of the Act, featured the exact same trio of speakers who had appeared before the Committee during a November 2018 hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform,” which pertained to a broader set of potential changes to the BSA. The speakers were:

  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Bank Supervision Policy and Community Affairs at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) (written remarks here)
  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here); and
  • Steven D’Antuono, Acting Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI (written remarks here).

Unlike the broader November 2018 hearing, which featured some distinct tensions between certain positions of the OCC and those of FinCEN and the FBI, this hearing reflected close alignment amongst the speakers. Every speaker stressed the advantages to be reaped by law enforcement, regulators and the public if a national database of beneficial owners was required and created. Only the OCC acknowledged the need to consider the issue and sometimes competing concern of the regulatory burden imposed on financial institutions by the current BSA/AML regime, and even the OCC seemed to assume that a national database on beneficial ownership would represent only a boon to financial institutions, as opposed to yet more data – however helpful – to be absorbed and acted upon to the satisfaction of regulators. None of the speakers addressed some of the potential ambiguities and problems inherent in the current language of the Act, such as the fact that the Act lacks precision and fails to define the critical terms “exercises substantial control” or “substantial interest,” both of which drive the determination of who represents a beneficial owner.
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We are pleased to offer the latest episode in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Monitor Podcast series — a weekly podcast focusing on the consumer finance issues that matter most, from new product development and emerging technologies to regulatory compliance and enforcement and the ramifications of private litigation.  Our podcast discusses the conduct for which financial

Public Risks Posed by Unbanked and Cash-Heavy Industry Deemed Insufficient to Outweigh Federal Law Concerns

As we just blogged, the New York State Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) has published guidance to “clarify the regulatory landscape and encourage” New York, state-chartered banks and credit unions to “offer banking services” to “marijuana related businesses licensed by New York state[,]” thereby identifying New York as a state friendly to financial services for marijuana-related businesses. In stark contrast, Ed Leary, Commissioner of the Utah Department of Financial Institutions (“UDFI”), recently articulated the polar opposite position, thereby exemplifying the increasingly bewildering patchwork quilt of approaches to banking and anti-money laundering (“AML”) policy in regards to state-licensed marijuana businesses.

In a presentation on August 17, 2018 to members of the National Association of Industrial Banks and the Utah Association of Financial Services, Commissioner Leary advised that UDFI will not ask any financial institutions regulated by his department to provide banking or payment processing services to cannabis-related businesses. To the contrary, if any examination conducted by UDFI identifies evidence of cannabis-related banking activities, UDFI will cite the conduct as an apparent violation of federal law.
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New York State Encourages Banking for State-Licensed Medical Marijuana Businesses – Whereas a Maine Company Runs Into Trouble, Despite State Law Legalizing Medical Marijuana

To state the obvious, growing and dispensing marijuana is still illegal under federal law.  As a result, being involved in even a state-licensed marijuana business can be risky. Moreover, obtaining financial services for such a business is sometimes impossible, primarily due to the federal anti-money laundering (“AML”) obligations imposed upon financial institutions by the Bank Secrecy Act (as we have blogged).

This post discusses two recent developments related to state-licensed medical marijuana operations, which serve as contrasting bookends to the spectrum of potential risks and opportunities presented by such businesses.  On the risk-end of the spectrum, we discuss the recent difficulties encountered by a Maine business, and how dubious the seeming safe harbor of state legalization of marijuana can be in some cases. On the opportunity-end of the spectrum, we discuss recent guidance issued by the New York Department of Financial Services, which has declared its support and encouragement of state-chartered banks and credit unions to offer banking services to medical marijuana related businesses licensed by New York State.
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The Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) announced last week that seven states have agreed to a multi-state compact that, according to the CSBS, “standardizes key elements of the licensing process for money services businesses (MSB).”

The seven states consist of Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.  The CSBS expects other states to

Attorney General Sessions Announces Rescission of Obama Administration Policies on Marijuana Enforcement; Financial Institutions Lose Grounds to Permit Financial Transactions with Marijuana Businesses

In a single-page memorandum issued today, Attorney General Sessions tersely rescinded a string of DOJ enforcement policies announced during the Obama Administration — chief among them the “Cole Memo,” described below — which collectively had indicated that although marijuana was still illegal under federal drug laws and the DOJ would continue its enforcement of those laws, the DOJ also would defer to state governments that had developed regulatory regimes legalizing marijuana under defined circumstances.  Although Attorney General Sessions is well known for his personal distaste for marijuana-related activity, he previously had not been entirely clear as to exactly what position his DOJ would take in regards to the Cole Memo and related enforcement.

Although this policy change has many potential implications, its primary relevance to Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”), the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), and money laundering issues is that the Cole Memo had provided the support for the federal government to issue guidance that, under very defined circumstances, financial institutions could provide services to state-licensed marijuana businesses.
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Second of a Two-Part Blog: Anti-Money Laundering Programs Coming to the Legal Profession?

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the proposed Corporate Transparency Act of 2017 (the “Act”), and observed that, if passed, the Act would represent another chapter in the domestic and global campaign to increase transparency in financial transactions through information gathering by private parties and expanded requirements for Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) reporting. Today, we summarize the details of this complex legislation, focusing in particular on two significant ways in which the Act would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”):

  • Requiring regulations to establish minimum standards for State procedures regarding the formation of legal entities such as corporations and limited liability companies (“LLCs”) and the identification of the beneficial owners of such entities when they are formed.
  • Adding “formation agents” – i.e., those who assist in the creation of legal entities – to the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” which is subject to the BSA’s reporting and AML obligations. This new definition potentially applies to a broad swath of businesses and individuals previously not regulated directly by the BSA, including certain attorneys.


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First of a Two-Part Blog

In late June, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Peter King of New York introduced The Corporate Transparency Act of 2017 (the “Act”). In August, Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio introduced companion legislation in the Senate. A Fact Sheet issued by Senator Wyden is here. Representative King previously has introduced several versions of this proposed bipartisan legislation; the most recent earlier version, entitled the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, was introduced in February 2016.  Although it is far from clear that this latest version will be passed, the Act is worthy of attention and discussion because it represents a potentially significant expansion of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) to a whole new category of businesses.

The Act is relatively complex.  In part, it would amend the BSA in order to compel the Secretary of the Treasury to issue regulations that would require corporations and limited liability companies (“LLCs”) formed in States which lack a formation system requiring robust identification of beneficial ownership (as defined in the Act) to themselves file reports to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) that provide the same information about beneficial ownership that the entities would have to provide, if they were in a State with a sufficiently robust formation system.  More colloquially, entities formed in States which don’t require much information about beneficial ownership now would have to report that information directly to FinCEN – scrutiny which presumably is designed to both motivate States to enact more demanding formation systems, and demotivate persons from forming entities in States which require little information about beneficial ownership. However, there is another facet to the Act which to date has not seemed to garner much attention, but which potentially could have a significant impact. Under the Act, formation agents – i.e., those who assist in the creation of legal entities such as corporations or LLCs – would be swept up in the BSA’s definition of a “financial institution” and therefore subject to the BSA’s AML and reporting obligations.  This expanded definition potentially applies to a broad swath of businesses and individuals previously not regulated directly by the BSA, including certain attorneys.
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Part Two of a Three-Part Series

In the second part of this series, we explore the practical effects of the FinCEN and DOJ guidance documents on industries attempting to serve marijuana related business (“MRBs”). On June 27, 2017, the Tenth Circuit issued an interesting and divided opinion showing us how difficult it can be to square the prohibitions in the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) and money laundering statutes with state legislation legalizing certain MRB activity and the seemingly permissive nature of the FinCEN and DOJ guidance documents.
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Part One of a Three-Part Series

We begin this week with a three-part series on banking and the marijuana industry. States continue to pass medical and recreational use marijuana legislation despite that the fact that the substance remains classified as a Schedule I drug subject to the federal Controlled Substances Act.  Thus, the medical and recreational marijuana industries continue to struggle with access to banking and credit, and those who attempt to serve these industries find themselves subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and the criminal money laundering provisions.  As we will detail this week, the struggle for financial institutions attempting to service the marijuana industry comes not only from the BSA and AML provisions, but in other forms.  We start this week with an overview of the guidance documents issued by the federal government which identify the enforcement priorities and also potential windows for financial institutions to service the marijuana industry.  We will follow up with a discussion of a recent federal court decision illustrating the practical difficulties of squaring the prohibitions of the federal drug laws with permissive state laws and the federal guidance documents.  We will conclude with an exploration of how federal agencies beyond the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), can further muddy these waters by staking out their own regulatory and enforcement priorities.  –Priya Roy
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