Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)

On June 12, 2019, Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), provided remarks at the NYU Law Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement that underscored the agency’s evolving approach to emerging threats in money laundering and terrorist financing.

His remarks specifically focused on:

  • FinCEN’s approach to addressing a number of emerging money-laundering threats, including the crisis in Venezuela and the rise in business email compromise (“BEC”) fraud schemes;
  • The agency’s collaboration with Congress to address the need to collect beneficial ownership information at a company’s formation; and
  • FinCEN’s ongoing efforts to strengthen and modernize the anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter terrorism financing (“CFT”) system.


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Director Blanco Stresses Importance of BSA Filings to Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions

As we have blogged, Kenneth Blanco, the Director of Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), has publically and repeatedly stressed the value of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and other Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) filings in the context of discussing anti-money laundering (“AML”) enforcement — arguably, partly in order to provide a counter-narrative to a reform movement which questions the investigatory utility to governments and the mounting costs to the financial industry of the current BSA reporting regime.

Last week, and consistent with this approach and a general desire to “message” the importance of the BSA, Director Blanco hosted FinCEN’s fifth annual awards ceremony to recognize the efforts of Federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies in using the BSA to pursue and prosecute financial crimes.

In his remarks, Blanco credited the BSA for mandating or encouraging information-sharing and reporting, which “provides leads, helps expand cases, identifies networks of criminal and other bad actors, and often helps to alert the regulatory and law enforcement communities to trends in illicit activity, making our communities safer.” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal P. Mandelker also made remarks, observing that the success stories underlying the awards “make clear that BSA data is critical in the fight against financial crime.”


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As we previously blogged, the District of Massachusetts held in AER Advisors Inc. v. Fidelity Brokerage Services, LLC, that the safe harbor provision of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) provides unqualified protection to financial institutions and their employees from civil liability for filing a Suspicious Activity Report, or SAR. An update: the First Circuit recently upheld this ruling in an opinion which, consistent with the holdings of most other federal courts, clearly found that the safe harbor protections for SAR filings are absolute.
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Bill Would Create BSA Whistleblower Program

First Post in a Three-Post Series

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee released three proposed bills to codify many of the reform ideas that have arisen in an ongoing conversation among financial agencies, law enforcement, financial institutions, and commentators regarding the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”) and Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) laws. These reform topics include information sharing, resource sharing, and technological innovation — all of which have been repeat topics for this blog.

One proposed bill — entitled as the “To make reforms to the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” — seeks to reform the BSA and AML laws (the “BSA/AML Reform Bill”) and is divided into three main sections: Strengthening the Treasury; Improving AML/CFT Oversight; and Modernizing the AML System. Through the three sections, common themes emerge, including an emphasis on: BSA/AML regulation as a matter of national security; the need for cooperation among both the public/private sectors as well as the international community; and the need to encourage innovation as the technological conduits for financial crimes continue to evolve.  The BSA/AML Reform Bill is extremely detailed, with many various provisions, and we merely will summarize its major points here.

In the coming weeks, we will blog on the other two proposed bills, The Corporate Transparency Act of 2019, which seeks to ensure that persons who form legal entities in the U.S. disclose the beneficial owners of those entities, and the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Act, which seeks to create an asset recovery rewards program to help identify and recover stolen assets linked to foreign government corruption.
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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.
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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.
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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

Regulators Spar Over BSA Reporting Thresholds and Regulatory Review for FinCEN

First Post in a Two-Part Series

Late last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (the “Banking Committee”) met in open session to conduct a hearing on “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Regulator and Law Enforcement Perspectives on Reform.” The Banking Committee heard the testimony of, and questioned, representatives from FinCEN, the OCC, and the FBI. This was the fourth hearing held in 2018 by the Banking Committee on the state of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) framework and its effective implementation by regulators and law enforcement. The partial backdrop for this hearing is that Congress is considering a draft bill, the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act (“CTIFA”), which proposes the most substantial overhaul to the BSA since the PATRIOT Act, and which contains provisions regarding many of the same issues discussed during the hearing.

In this hearing, we heard from three individuals:

  • Kenneth A. Blanco, Director of FinCEN (written remarks here);
  • Steven D’Antuono, Section Chief of the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section (written remarks here); and
  • Grovetta Gardineer, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Compliance and Community Affairs of the OCC (written remarks here).

In this post, we will discuss the issues which appeared to generate the most sparks between the OCC—which emphasized attempting to ease BSA regulatory burdens, particularly for small- to medium-sized community banks—and FinCEN and the FBI, which stressed the value of BSA filings to law enforcement. In our next post, we will discuss some of the less contentious (although still critical) issues addressed at the hearing, which broadly canvassed many of the most pressing BSA/AML issues currently facing financial institutions and the government.  These issues are: (i) the exploration by financial institutions of technological innovation, including artificial intelligence, in order to comply more efficiently with their BSA/AML obligations; (ii) the identification of the beneficial owners of legal entities; and (iii) the role of real estate in money laundering schemes.

The tension during the hearing between FinCEN and OCC at times was palpable, and the divides in partisan thinking on the direction of certain aspects of AML reform were apparent. Although there seemed to be consensus on the importance of the beneficial ownership rules and other issues, senators and regulators alike disagreed about increasing the $5,000 and $10,000 respective reporting threshold for the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and Currency Transaction Reports (“CTRs”).


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Ballard Spahr is very pleased to host on December 17, 2018 at noon in our Philadelphia office a CLE program for the gaming industry and associated counsel to participate in a panel discussion with speakers from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on the latest industry trends in BSA/AML compliance and examination.

Please join us in

A recent court opinion emphasizes the sensitive issues involved in terminating potentially difficult employees — or, from the employee’s or perhaps the government’s perspective, in terminating whistleblowers who were retaliated against for being willing to point out compliance failures. Although this competing dynamic applies across all industries, a recent opinion from the U.S. Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Kell v. Iberville Bank, addressed such a situation in the Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”)/Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) context, in which a bank’s former compliance officer sued her former employer for allegedly terminating her in retaliation for raising uncomfortable issues about claimed insider abuse and the alleged failure to file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”).
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