Suspicious Activity Report (SAR)

Note to Government Personnel: Don’t Disclose SARs

This week, major developments unfolded in the cases against two former federal government employees for their respective roles in disclosing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”).

Historically, prosecutions pertaining to improper SAR disclosures have been supremely rare, so the fact that two court hearings involving this issue occurred in a single week is particularly notable. Both involve defendants allegedly acting on their own perceived sense of duty – perceptions which ran afoul of the law.

First, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former senior advisor at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiring to unlawfully disclose SARs related to Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, Maria Butina, Prevezon Alexander, and the Russian Embassy to a reporter. Second, John C. Fry, a former employee of the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), was sentenced to five years of supervised probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine after similarly pleading guilty to his role in disclosing SARs to embattled attorney Michael Avenatti that related to likewise-embattled attorney Michael Cohen. Both prosecutions underscore the seriousness with which federal authorities view such disclosures. Likewise, they reflect that potentially subjective good intentions – of course – still don’t excuse violations of the carefully-crafted prohibitions in the BSA against the disclosure of SARs.


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AMA Details Components of a Strong AML/BSA Program for the Gaming Industry

Earlier this month, the American Gaming Association (“AGA”) released an updated Best Practices for Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) Compliance (“Best Practices Guidance”) reflecting a heightened focus on risk assessment as well as Know Your Customer/Customer Due Diligence measures for the gaming industry.  This update amends the industry’s first set of comprehensive best practices for AML compliance, issued in 2014.  At the time, the best practices were well-received by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”).  These updated Best Practices have drawn from recent FinCEN guidance and enforcement actions, the Treasury Department’s National Money Laundering Risk Assessment, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (“OFAC”) updated compliance guidelines and provide detailed guidance regarding how the industry can continue to be “a leader in compliance.”


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Hudson Valley, New York: Rows of hemp plants in a cultivated field.

On December 3, 2019, four federal agencies – the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”), the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) – along with the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, released a statement (the “Statement”) “to provide clarity regarding the legal status of commercial growth and production of hemp and relevant requirements for banks under the Bank Secrecy Act and its implementing regulations.” The Statement represents the next step in the normalization of hemp growth and cultivation following its legalization under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the “2018 Farm Bill”) and was, predictably, applauded by those in the banking community, including the American Banking Association.
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On October 1st, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) published the Fiscal Year 2020 Bank Supervision Operating Plan (“FY 2020 Plan”).

The FY 2020 Plan sets forth the OCC’s supervision priorities and objectives for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2019 and ending September 30, 2020. The supervision priorities set forth align with the the OCC’s Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2019-2023.

The FY 2020 Plan facilitates the development of supervisory strategies for individual national banks, federal savings associations, federal branches, federal agencies, and technology services providers. OCC staff members use the plan to guide their supervisory priorities, planning, and resource allocations.
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Remarks Focus on Account Takeovers, BEC Schemes, Beneficial Ownership, Technological Innovation and SARs

FinCEN Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered prepared remarks on September 24 at the 2019 Federal Identity (FedID) Forum and Exposition in Tampa, Florida.

Director Blanco summarized the topics of his remarks by stating the following:

  1. First, I would like to tell you

The United States continues to be plagued by mass shootings, which appear to be increasing in both frequency and lethality.  Certain businesses have reacted by adjusting their business models, such as the recent decision by mega-retailer WalMart to stop selling some — but not all — types of ammunition.  Likewise, some financial institutions

On August 21, 2019, FinCEN issued an advisory (the “Advisory”) alerting financial institutions to various financial schemes and mechanisms employed by fentanyl and synthetic opioid traffickers to facilitate the illegal fentanyl trade and launder its proceeds.

As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), “fentanyl is a synthetic (man-made) opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent that morphine.” In 2017, more than 28,000 deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioid occurred in the United States. As noted in the Advisory, fentanyl traffics in the United States from two principal sources: from China by U.S. individuals for personal consumption or domestic distribution or from Mexico by transnational criminal organizations (“TCOs”) and other criminal networks. In turn, these trades are funded through a number of mechanisms, including: purchases from a foreign source made using money servICES businesses (“MSBs”), bank transfers or online payment processors; purchases from a foreign source made using convertible virtual currency (“CVC”); purchases from a domestic source made using MSBs, online payment processors, CVC or person-to-person cash sales.

Recognizing fentanyl traffickers’ modus operandi is critical to detecting and preventing these illicit transactions. Thus, the Advisory provides detailed illustrations of each of the above-identified forms of transaction in order to assist financial institutions to detect and prevent facilitating fentanyl trafficking.
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We regularly blog about the conflict between state and federal law related to cannabis and the uncertainty regarding how federal criminal and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) law will, or will not, be enforced against financial institutions providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses (“MRBs”). Because of this continuing uncertainty, many MRBs must operate on a cash-only basis. This creates significant safety and security concerns for both the MRBs and the communities in which they operate, causes regulatory and tax compliance challenges, and handicaps business growth.

This post provides an update on very recent efforts to provide a level of federal protection to financial institutions which provide banking services to MRBs. First, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing regarding challenges faced by financial institutions and businesses in the cannabis sector. Second, the National Credit Union Administration (“NCUA”) issued guidance regarding servicing hemp producers and the cannabis industry. This NCUA guidance came quickly on the heels of a statement by the chairman of the NCUA that his agency won’t sanction federally-chartered credit unions for working with state-legal MRBs.
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FinCEN Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered prepared remarks on August 13 at the 12th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference.  We previously have blogged repeatedly on the anti-money laundering (“AML”) and Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) challenges facing the gaming industry.  This post will discuss Director Blanco’s comments at a high level only, consistent with the generality of his prepared speech.
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Second Post in a Two-Post Series on the ILLICIT CASH Act

A discussion draft of legislation recently introduced in the Senate, the Improving Laundering Laws and Increasing Comprehensive Information Tracking of Criminal Activity in Shell Holdings (ILLICIT CASH) Act (the “Act”), seeks to modernize federal anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) laws. The Act’s bipartisan drafters assert that the “US AML-CFT laws have not kept pace with the growing exploitation of the global financial system to facilitate criminal activities.” The proposed legislation – which is 102 pages long – would update and expand the tools available to regulators and law enforcement and overhaul domestic AML-CFT policies.

In part one of this series, we blogged about the Act’s proposed new reporting requirements for beneficial ownership information. This post focuses on the Act’s many other proposals for improving the resources available to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and facilitating increased communication between law enforcement, regulators and financial institutions, including provisions regarding “no action” letters by FinCEN and “keep open” letters sent by law enforcement to financial institutions.
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