On July 3, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) as part of a broader initiative to “strengthen, modernize, and improve” financial institutions’ anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) programs. In addition, the NPRM seeks to promote effectiveness, efficiency, innovation, and flexibility with respect to AML/CFT programs; support the establishment, implementation, and maintenance of risk-based AML/CFT programs; and strengthen the cooperation between financial institutions (“FIs”) and the government.

This NPRM implements Section 6101 of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “AML Act”).  It also follows up on FinCEN’s September 2020 advanced notice of proposed rulemaking soliciting public comment on what it described then as “a wide range of questions pertaining to potential regulatory amendments under the Bank Secrecy Act (‘BSA’) . . . . to re-examine the BSA regulatory framework and the broader AML regime[,]” to which FinCEN received 111 comments.

As we will discuss, the NPRM focuses on the need for all FIs to implement a risk assessment as part of an effective, risk-based, and reasonably designed AML/CFT program.  The NPRM also focuses on how consideration of FinCEN’s AML/CFT Priorities must be a part of any risk assessment.  However, in regards to addressing certain important issues, such providing comfort to FIs to pursue technological innovation, reducing the “de-risking” of certain FI customers and meaningful government feedback on BSA reporting, the NPRM provides nothing concrete.

FinCEN has published a five-page FAQ sheet which summarizes the NPRM.  We have created a 35-page PDF, here, which sets forth the proposed regulations themselves for all covered FIs.

The NPRM has a 60-day comment period, closing on September 3, 2024.  Particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s recent overruling of Chevron deference, giving the courts the power to interpret statutes without deferring to the agency’s interpretation, this rulemaking, once finalized, presumably will be the target of litigation challenging FinCEN’s interpretation of the AML Act. 

Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Proposed Rulemaking Aimed at Strengthening and Modernizing AML Programs Across Multiple Industries

Today we are very pleased to welcome guest blogger Lili Infante, who is the CEO of CAT Labs – a tech company building digital asset recovery and quantum-resistant cryptography tools to fight crypto crime.  Lili previously spent a decade as a DEA Special Agent with the U.S. Department of Justice and pioneered an early federal task force focusing exclusively on crypto and dark web crimes. Lili has led numerous major crypto-related investigations to include the takedown of Hydra – the largest crypto-powered dark web criminal organization and money laundering platform in the world.

We reached out to Lili because her work is fascinating and increasingly important.  Law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Treasury Department and other regulators are focused on vulnerabilities and potential gaps in the United States’ anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) regulatory, supervisory, and enforcement regimes in regards to the use and misuse of virtual assets and decentralized finance.  Virtual assets can be the vehicle of choice for terrorist financing, fraud schemes, and state-sponsored cyber crime.  Meanwhile, agencies such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) struggle to find proposed regulatory solutions.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q&A session, in which Lili responds to questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about investigating crypto-related illicit activity and recovering digital assets. We hope you enjoy this discussion on this important topic. – Peter Hardy

Continue Reading  Fighting Crypto Crime:  A Guest Blog.

Today we are very pleased to welcome, once again, guest blogger Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”), who will discuss the Basel Institute’s release of the 12th annual Public Edition of the Basel AML Index (the “Index”). The data-rich annual Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing. It is one of several excellent online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime.  We are excited to continue this annual dialogue between the Basel Institute and Money Laundering Watch.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption, and is an Associated Institute of the University of Basel. The Basel Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Dr. Boguslavska responds to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the 12th Basel AML Index. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses terrorist financing, de-risking, non-profits, forfeiture, emerging technologies, and more.  – Peter Hardy

Continue Reading  The Basel AML Index: Forfeiture, Non-Profits, Crypto, and More. A Guest Blog.

Farewell to 2023, and welcome 2024.  As we do every year, let’s look back.

We highlight 10 of our most-read blog posts from 2023, which address many of the key issues we’ve examined during the past year: criminal money laundering enforcement; compliance risks with third-party fintech relationships; the scope of authority of bank regulators; sanctions

The October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas have re-focused U.S. government efforts to identify and counter funding streams for Hamas and terrorist activity in general – including, in particular, through the use of cryptocurrency.  This heightened focus is exemplified by a recent report (“Report”) published by the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”), which examines the role of cryptocurrency donations in Hamas fundraising campaigns, which long predate the October 7 attacks.  The Report references recent, related efforts by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), which we also discuss.

Continue Reading  Hamas, Terrorist Financing, and Cryptocurrency

A Huge Monetary Penalty for Sprawling Allegations – But Will Zhao Receive a Prison Sentence?

As the world now knows, Binance Holdings Limited, doing business as Binance.com (“Binance” or the “Company”), has entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  

Binance is registered in the Cayman Islands and regarded as the world’s largest virtual currency exchange. It agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to willfully violating the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) by failing to implement and maintain an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program; knowingly failing to register as a money services business (“MSB”); and willfully causing violations of U.S. economic sanctions issued pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”). Despite the plea agreement, Binance will continue to operate.

Changpeng Zhao, also known as “CZ,” also pleaded guilty to violating the BSA by failing to implement and maintain an effective AML program. Zhao is Binance’s primary founder, majority owner, and – until now – CEO. As part of his plea agreement, Zhao has stepped down as the CEO, although he apparently will keep his shares in Binance.

As part of its plea agreement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2,510,650,588 and to pay a criminal fine of $1,805,475,575 for a total criminal penalty of $4,316,126,163. Binance also entered into related civil consent orders with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (“OFAC”). Zhao also entered into a consent order with the CFTC.

The allegations are vast and detailed, and much digital ink already has been spilled regarding this matter. Our discussion therefore will be relatively high-level. Distilled, the government alleges that Binance – under the direction of Zhao – tried to hide the fact that it operated in the U.S., purposefully avoided any meaningful AML compliance, and consequently laundered many millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency involving extremely serious criminal conduct, including terrorism, child pornography, and U.S. sanctions evasion.

As for Zhao, and as we will discuss, whether he will go to prison – and if so, for how long – is an open and very interesting question. His sentencing currently is scheduled for February 23, 2024.

Continue Reading  Binance Settles Criminal and Civil AML and Sanctions Enforcement Actions for Multiple Billions – While its Founder, Owner and Former CEO Zhao Pleads Guilty to Single AML Crime

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) recently issued Joint Notice FIN-2023-NTC2, “Announnc[ing] New Reporting Key Term and Highlight[ing] Red Flags Relating to Global Evasion of U.S. Export Controls” (the “Joint Notice”). As we have blogged (here and here), these agencies issued two prior joint alerts warning financial institutions (“FIs”) about efforts by individuals or entities to evade Russia-related export controls administered by BIS.

The practical import of the Joint Notice – which re-emphasizes the focus of the U.S. government on fighting sanctions evasion – is that many customers involved in international trade should be subject to some degree of enhanced due diligence by FIs, simply because they participate in international trade.  FIs should review and adjust their risk assessments accordingly.

Continue Reading  FinCEN and BIS Issue Joint Notice on SAR Filings for Evasion of U.S. Export Controls

On October 23, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NPRM”) entitled Proposal of Special Measure Regarding Convertible Virtual Currency Mixing, as a Class of Transactions of Primary Money Laundering Concern.  Section 311 of the Patriot Act, codified at 31 U.S.C. § 5318A (“Section 311”), grants the Secretary of the Treasury authority – which has been delegated to FinCEN – to require domestic financial institutions and agencies to take certain “special measures” if FinCEN finds that reasonable grounds exist for concluding that one or more classes of transactions within or involving a jurisdiction outside of the United States is of “primary money laundering concern.” 

In this NPRM, FinCEN proposes to designate under Section 311 all convertible virtual currency (“CVC”) mixing transactions, as defined by the NPRM.  This designation would require imposing reporting and recordkeeping requirements upon covered financial institutions (“FIs”) regarding transactions occurring by, through, or to a FI when the FI “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” that the transaction involves CVC mixing.

The NPRM is complicated and raises complex questions.  We only summarize here, and note selected issues.  Comments are due on January 22, 2024.  FinCEN can expect many comments.

Continue Reading  FinCEN Proposes to Require Recordkeeping and Reporting for CVC Mixing Transactions

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

Today we are very pleased to welcome, once again, guest blogger Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska of the Basel Institute on Governance (“Basel Institute”), who will discuss the Basel Institute’s recent release of the Basel AML Index for 2022 (the “Index”). The data-rich annual Index is a research-based ranking that assesses countries’ risk exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing. It is one of several excellent online tools developed by the Basel Institute to help both public- and private-sector practitioners tackle financial crime.  We are excited to continue this annual dialogue between the Basel Institute and Money Laundering Watch.

Established in 2003, the Basel Institute, an Associated Institute of the University of Basel, is a not-for-profit Swiss foundation dedicated to working with public and private partners around the world to prevent and combat corruption. The Institute’s work involves action, advice and research on issues including anti-corruption collective action, asset recovery, corporate governance and compliance, and more.

Dr. Kateryna Boguslavska is Project Manager for the Basel AML Index at the Basel Institute. A political scientist, she holds a PhD in Political Science from the National Academy of Science in Ukraine, a master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich as well as a master’s degree in Political Science from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. Before joining the Basel Institute, Dr. Boguslavska worked at Chatham House in London as an Academy Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program.

This blog post again takes the form of a Q & A session, in which Dr. Boguslavska responds to several questions posed by Money Laundering Watch about the Basel AML Index 2022. We hope you enjoy this discussion of global money laundering risks — which addresses enforcement, virtual assets, environmental crime, AML for lawyers, how the U.S. is performing, and more.  –Peter Hardy

Continue Reading  The Basel AML Index 2022: One Step Forward, Four Steps Back. A Guest Blog.