Is Art an “Ideal Playing Ground” for Money Laundering?

Last week, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for the U.S. Senate released a detailed, 147-page report titled “The Art Industry and U.S. Policies That Undermine Sanctions” (“the Report”). Although the Report ostensibly addresses the evasion of U.S. sanctions law, much of the Report actually focuses on the connection between high-end art and potential money laundering schemes and anti-money laundering (“AML”) risks. Among other proposals, the Report recommends that the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) be amended to include art dealers as “financial institutions” subject to AML obligations under the BSA.

The Report focuses on an elaborate case study documenting how certain Russian oligarchs allegedly used transactions involving high-end art and shell companies to evade U.S. sanctions, imposed on them on March 20, 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. We will not focus on the detailed allegations in the Report regarding the particular facts of this alleged scheme, or the alleged involvement of certain major art auction houses. Rather, we will focus on the more general sections in the Report relating to systemic concerns about the potential role of high-end art in money laundering schemes, and the more general findings of fact and recommendations generated by these concerns.

The Report was not issued in a vacuum; rather, it clearly was written in part to spur legislative action. Proposed legislation on BSA/AML reform is pending before the U.S. Congress and Senate, including a proposal – currently nestled within a lengthy proposed amendment to a defense spending bill – to (i) add to the list of “financial institutions” covered by the BSA “a person trading or acting as an intermediary in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation of the sale of antiquities;” and (ii) require a study by the Secretary of the Treasury “on the facilitation of money laundering and terror finance through the trade of works of art or antiquities,” including an evaluation of whether certain art industry markets (“by size, entity type, domestic or international geographic locations, or otherwise”) should be regulated under the BSA. And, this general issue has been percolating for some time. Last year, we blogged in detail about the potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes, and the voluntary AML programs which art dealers might adopt to combat such schemes.
Continue Reading Using Art to Evade Sanctions and Launder Money: The Senate Report

The Border with North Korea

Indictment Again Highlights the Role of Correspondent Banking in Money Laundering

On May 28, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) unsealed a 50-page indictment against 28 North Korean and 5 Chinese bankers accused of using more than 250 front companies to obscure $2.5 billion in illicit financial dealings (“the Indictment”). The complex and far-flung scheme purportedly involved covert branches of North Korea’s state-owned Foreign Trade Bank (“FTB”)—all opened in foreign countries in an attempt to access the U.S. financial system, and to circumvent sanctions intended to guard against threats to national security, foreign policy, and the U.S. economy. The Indictment charges the individuals with conspiring to launder money, violations of the “international” prong of the money laundering statute (about which we have blogged), bank fraud, and violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Although the Indictment is interesting standing alone, it also represents the latest in a series of enforcement actions involving North Korea and the U.S. financial system.
Continue Reading 28 North Korean and 5 Chinese Bankers Accused of a $2.5 Billion Laundering Scheme

In the past month, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”), a non-partisan legislative agency that monitors and audits government spending and operations, has issued a series of reports urging banking regulators and certain executive branch agencies to adopt recommendations related to trade-based money laundering (“TBML”) and derisking. These reports underscore (1) the importance of TBML as a key, although still inadequately measured, component of money laundering worldwide, and (2) that the GAO remains interested in assessing how banks’ regulatory concerns may be influencing their willingness to provide services.

Taken together, the GAO’s recent activity signals that even in the face of unprecedented public health and regulatory challenges posed by COVID-19, the GAO still expects banking regulators and agencies alike to fulfill its prior commitments on other, unrelated topics.


Continue Reading Government Accountability Office Roundup: Recent Activity on Topics Related to Trade-Based Money Laundering and Derisking

Second Post in a Two-Post Series on Recent FATF Activity

As we just blogged, the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) issued a statement from its President on COVID-19 and measures to combat illicit financing during the pandemic (the “Statement”). Before turning its attention to COVID-19, however, FATF issued a more traditional report, and one with potentially longer-term implications: its 3rd Enhanced Follow-up Report & Technical Compliance Re-Rating of the United States’s Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) and Counter-Terrorist Financing (“CTF”) (the “United States Report”) measures. The United States Report was the third follow-up on a mutual evaluation report of the United States that was adopted in October 2016. During the first two evaluations, “certain technical compliance deficiencies” were identified. The United States Report evaluates the United States efforts’ in addressing those deficiencies. Moreover, FATF evaluated the United States’ progress in implementing new recommendations since February 2016.

FATF’s judgment: The United States has improved, particularly in the area of customer due diligence and the identification of beneficial ownership.
Continue Reading Financial Action Task Force Grades America’s AML Compliance

First in a Two-Post Series

The U.S. Department of Treasury (“Treasury”) has issued its 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2020 Strategy”). This document sets forth the key priorities of the U.S. government regarding enforcement of the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”), and the furthering of the government’s Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) goals in general. It is lengthy document addressing numerous issues – albeit in a relatively high-level fashion in regards to any specific issue.

In this post, we will summarize the findings and recommendations of the 2020 Strategy, and will highlight some topics this blog has followed closely – including calls for: increased transparency into beneficial ownership; strengthening international regulation and coordination, and modernization of the AML/BSA regime. Our next post will focus on the 2020 Strategy as it relates to combating money laundering relating to real estate transactions and “gatekeeper” professions, such as lawyers, real estate professionals and other financial professionals, including broker-dealers.

The 2020 Strategy also focuses on several other important issues which we will not discuss in this limited blog series, but on which we certainly have blogged before, including the role of money laundering in international trade, casinos, money services businesses and digital assets.
Continue Reading Treasury Department’s 2020 National Illicit Finance Strategy: Aspirations for BSA/AML Modernization and the Combatting of Key Threats

Bank Accused of Being Asleep at the AML-CTF Switch

On November 20, 2019, AUSTRAC, Australia’s anti money-laundering (“AML”) and counter-terrorism financing (“CTF”) regulator, initiated an action in the Federal Court of Australia seeking civil penalty orders against Westpac Banking Corporation (“Westpac”), Australia’s second largest retail bank, alleging systemic failures to comply with Australia’s AML-CTF laws.  Specifically, AUSTRAC alleges over 23 million breaches of those laws, including activity involving potential child exploitation. As we will discuss, the bank has taken, and continues to take, several steps to try to mitigate and contain the scandal’s consequences.

The Allegations

AUSTRAC’s Statement of Claim focuses on Westpac’s correspondent banking relationships with financial institutions in other countries. Correspondent banking relationships require increased due diligence efforts because of the inherent money laundering and terrorism financing risks associated with cross border movement of funds; dealing with banks in high risk jurisdictions, doing business with banks who themselves do business in, or with, sanctioned or high risk countries; and the limited information about the identity and source of funds of customers of the correspondent banks.
Continue Reading Westpac Banking Corporation Faces Money Laundering Scandal in the Land Down Under

On November 12, 2019, FinCEN issued its latest Advisory on the Financial Action Task Force-Identified Jurisdictions with Anti-Money Laundering and Combatting the Financing of Terrorism Deficiencies and Relevant Actions by the United States Government. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is a 39-member intergovernmental body, including the United States, that establishes international standards to combat money laundering, the financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). As part of its listing and monitoring process to ensure compliance with its international Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) standards, the FATF identifies certain jurisdictions as having “strategic deficiencies” in their AML/CFT regimes.

In its latest Advisory, FinCEN notes the changes in the FATF-named jurisdictions and directs financial institutions to consider these changes when reviewing their obligations and risk-based policies, procedures and practices relating to the named jurisdictions. We will discuss these changes and suggest some practical takeaways for U.S. financial institutions seeking to ensure compliance with these changes in their AML programs.
Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Advisory on Foreign Jurisdictions with AML Deficiencies

The Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran

On October 25, 2019, FinCEN issued a final rule imposing the Fifth Special Measure against the Islamic Republic of Iran as a “jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern” (“Final Rule”) under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT ACT.  The Final Rule will prohibit the opening or maintaining of a correspondent bank account in the U.S. for, or on behalf of, an Iranian financial institution.  It also will prohibit the correspondent accounts of foreign financial institutions at covered U.S. financial institutions from processing transactions involving Iranian financial institutions.
Continue Reading FinCEN Identifies Iran as a Jurisdiction of Primary Money Laundering Concern

Town of Metula at the Israel-Lebanon border – the site of 2006 rocket attacks by Hizbollah

On September 25, 2019, the Southern District of New York dismissed a complaint brought by victims of rocket attacks in Israel perpetrated in 2006 by Hizbollah, operating in Lebanon. Kaplan v. Lebanese Canadian Bank, SAL, Civ. No. 08 Civ. 7253, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162505 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 20, 2019). The Complaint was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 18 USC 2333 (“ATA”). In it, the Plaintiffs alleged that the Lebanese Canadian Bank, SAL (“LCB”) provided banking services to five members of Hizbollah (“Hizbollah affiliates”), and by doing so, they materially supported an act of international terrorism.

Specifically, the Complaint alleged, among other things, that LCB failed to take certain due diligence measures, including reviewing public sources, and as a result continued to bank with members of Hizbollah. According to the Complaint, the bank’s customers’ afficilation with Hizbollah was “notorious public knowledge” due to news articles, reports, and Hizbollah’s own media sources. The Plaintiffs alleged that, even if the bank did not have actual knowledge, the bank at least should have known because it had a duty to perform due diligence on its customers, monitor and report suspicious or illegal banking activities, and not provide banking services to terrorist organizations.

Although the Kaplan case arises in the context of international terrorism and potential liability under the ATA, its analysis and conclusions can apply to more mundane state law tort claims against financial institutions by investors or consumers defrauded by the institution’s (former) customers. These claims often attempt to bootstrap allegations that a bank knew should have known about the customer’s fraud scheme due to the bank’s anti-money laundering (AML) monitoring and reporting obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). As we have blogged, courts hold that evidence of an imperfect AML program and potential red flags about a customer fall short of the high bar required to sustain a claim for aiding and abetting a fraud or other tort against third party non-customers.


Continue Reading Anti-Terrorism Act Liability Requires More than Mere Failures of Customer Due Diligence

Last Wednesday, FinCEN Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi appeared at the annual conference of the Money Transmitter Regulators Association and delivered prepared remarks. The topics of his address covered three issues of continuing interest: (i) innovation and reform with respect to implementation of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA); (ii) FinCEN supervision of non-banking financial institutions; and (iii) maintaining a strong culture of compliance.
Continue Reading FinCEN Deputy Director Stresses Technological Innovation, Virtual Currency Enforcement and the U.S. Culture of Compliance