Actions Highlight Risky Mix of Sanctions Law, Inadequate Transaction Monitoring and Dealing with Anonymity-Enhanced Cryptocurrencies

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) announced on October 11 simultaneous settlements with Bittrex, Inc. (“Bittrex”), a virtual currency exchange and hosted wallet provider. Under the OFAC settlement, Bittrex has agreed to pay $24,280,829.20 to settle its potential civil liability for 116,421 alleged violations of multiple sanctions programs. Under the FinCEN consent order, Bittrex agreed to pay a civil penalty of $29,280,829.20 for alleged anti-money laundering (“AML”) violations under the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). FinCEN has agreed to credit Bittrex’s payment to OFAC against its penalty because it found that the alleged BSA violations “stem from some of the same underlying conduct”; thus, Bittrex’s total payments to the two regulators come to $29,280,829.20. 

According to the Department of the Treasury dual press release, the two settlements represent the first parallel enforcement actions by FinCEN and OFAC in the virtual currency and sanctions space. Also, it is OFAC’s largest virtual currency enforcement action to date. To further highlight the importance of the settlements, the press release quotes the OFAC Director Andrea Gacki and FinCEN Acting Director Himamauli Das, both sternly warning operators in the same environment as Bittrex to implement effective AML compliance and sanction screening programs.

It is conceivable that Bittrex, for years now, has been on notice that federal and state regulators are closely watching and expecting more comprehensive risk assessment programs and procedures from businesses transacting with virtual currency. As we previously blogged here, in 2019 the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) denied Bittrex’s application for a Bitlicense, citing: “deficiencies in Bittrex’s BSA/AML/OFAC compliance program; a deficiency in meeting the Department’s capital requirement; and deficient due diligence and control over Bittrex’s token and product launches.”  In its letter denying Bittrex’s application, NYDFS set forth in detail the deficiencies it found in Bittrex’s BSA/AML/OFAC compliance program, noting that Bittrex’s compliance policies and procedures “are either non-existent or inadequate.”

As we will discuss, the FinCEN consent order highlights Bittrex’s alleged failure to address adequately the overall risk environment in which it operated, including transactions involving anonymity-enhanced cryptocurrencies, or AECs.  The consent order also highlights two repeated themes in enforcement actions: lack of adequate compliance staff, and a seemingly robust written compliance policy that was not matched by an effective day-to-day transaction monitoring system.

Continue Reading  OFAC and FinCEN Settle with Bittrex in Parallel Virtual Currency Enforcements

On August 8, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) sanctioned “notorious” virtual currency “mixer” Tornado Cash, which allegedly has been used to launder more than $7 billion worth of virtual currency since its creation in 2019.  Tornado Cash is a virtual currency mixer that operates on the Ethereum blockchain.  Tornado Cash receives a variety of transactions and mixes them together before transmitting them to their individual recipients.  The stated purpose of such mixing is to increase privacy, but mixers are often used by illicit actors to launder funds because the process enhances anonymity and makes it very hard to track the flow of funds.  According to the Treasury Department press release, “[d]espite public assurances otherwise, Tornado Cash has repeatedly failed to impose effective controls designed to stop it from laundering funds for malicious cyber actors on a regular basis and without basic measures to address its risk.”  This statement seems to imply that Tornado Cash is run by actual people – an implication that is at the heart of the controversy over these sanctions, as we will discuss.

The sanctions against Tornado Cash have elicited enormous controversy in the crypto world because, some argue, (1) Tornado Cash is not an entity run by actual people, but is merely code; and (2) although OFAC has the legal authority to sanction people and entities, it lacks such authority to sanction code or a technology – or at the very least, such sanctions create many practical problems for innocent actors, including in ways which no one has foreseen fully.  As we discuss,  even a member of the U.S. House of Representatives has waded into the controversy this week, questioning the ability of OFAC to issue the sanctions and demanding answers.  The controversy also reflects that, once again, whether one chooses to focus on the word “privacy” or on the word “anonymity” typically reflects an a priori value judgment predicting one’s conclusion as to whether something in the crypto world is good or bad. 

Indisputably, the Tornado Cash sanctions are, to date, unique and unprecedented.  Although they may turn out to be an outlier experiment by OFAC, public pronouncements by the U.S. Treasury Department strongly suggest that, to the contrary, they represent part of the future of crypto regulation, in which the enormous power of the U.S. government to issue broad sanctions obliterates legal and practical hurdles which could stymie other agencies, such as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).  This may be because, ultimately, the government actually agrees that no person is in control of a powerful technology that has easy application for malicious uses, and that is precisely the problem.

Continue Reading  OFAC Sanctions Virtual Currency “Mixer” Tornado Cash and Faces Crypto Backlash

Strategy Includes Professionals Not Yet Covered by BSA

On May 13, 2022, the U.S. Treasury (“Treasury”) released its 2022 Strategy for Combatting Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (“2022 Strategy”).  The proposed 2022 Strategy, prepared pursuant to Sections 261 and 262 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), outlines four goals to address the key risks identified by the 2022 National Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Proliferation Financing Risk Assessments:

  • Increasing transparency and closing legal and regulatory gaps in the U.S. Anti-Money Laundering / Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“AML/CFT”) framework exploited by bad actors;
  • Making the AML/CFT regulatory framework for financial institutions more effective and efficient;
  • Enhancing operational effectiveness in combating illicit finance; and
  • Utilizing technological innovation to combat illicit finance risks.

The 2022 Strategy is incredibly broad, identifying sixteen threats and vulnerabilities to the AML/CFT system as top priorities, and providing fourteen separate supporting actions necessary to achieve Treasury’s four goals outlined above.  This post summarizes the priorities outlined in the 2022 Strategy, and details the specific supporting action targeting financial intermediaries and gatekeepers not presently covered by the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”), such as investment advisors, lawyers and accountants. 

Continue Reading  U.S. Treasury Releases 2022 Strategy for Combatting Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing

Enforcement Trends, Crypto, the AML Act — and More

We are very pleased to be moderating, once again, the Practising Law Institute’s 2022 Anti-Money Laundering Conference on May 17, 2022, starting at 9 a.m. This year’s conference will be both live and virtual — and it will be as informative, interesting and timely as always. 

But AML Concerns Linger As To “High End” Art and NFTs

On February 4, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury published a study (the “Study”) on the facilitation of money laundering (“ML”) and terrorist financing (“TF”) through the trade in works of art.  The study was commissioned as a result of Section 6110(c) of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (the “Act”), which required Treasury to examine art market participants and sectors of the art market that may present ML/TF risks to the U.S. financial system, and examine what steps regulators might take to mitigate these risks.

According to the press release accompanying the Study, “[s]everal qualities inherent to high-value art – the way it is bought and sold and certain market participants – may make the high-value art market attractive for money laundering by criminals. These include the high dollar value of transactions, transportability of goods, a longstanding culture of privacy and use of intermediaries (e.g., shell companies and art advisors), and the increasing use of high-value art as an investment class.”  As we will discuss, the Study proposes four scenarios—two regulatory and two nonregulatory—to mitigate money laundering risks in the art industry. Ultimately, however, the Study concludes that, “[w]eighed against other sectors that pose ML/TF risks, . . . the art market should not be an immediate focus for the imposition of comprehensive AML/CFT requirements.” (emphasis added).  Accordingly, any ML/TF regulation of the art trade will not happen soon.

Ironically, dealers in antiquities – an industry dwarfed by the size of the global art market – are not so lucky, because Congress already has subjected them to anti-money laundering (“AML”) duties.  As we blogged, the Act amended the Bank Secrecy Act’s (“BSA”) definition of “financial institution” to include those “engaged in the trade of antiquities, including an advisor, consultant, or any other person who engages as a business in the solicitation or the sale of antiquities, subject to regulations prescribed by the [Treasury] Secretary.”  The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) still must issue implementing regulations for antiquities dealers.
Continue Reading  Treasury Report:  No Immediate Need for BSA Regulations for the Art Industry

Global environmental crime—the third largest illicit activity in the world, according to a report by the FATF—is estimated to generate hundreds of billions in illicit proceeds annually.  This criminal activity harms human health, the climate, and natural resources.  To help address the threat presented by environmental crimes, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an environmental crimes and associated illicit financial activity notice (Notice) on November 18, 2021.  The FinCEN Notice states that environmental crime and related illicit financial activity are associated strongly with corruption and transnational criminal organizations, both of which FinCEN has identified as national anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) priorities for financial institutions to detect and report.

We have blogged with increasing frequency (see here, here, here and here) on the nexus between environmental crime and illicit financial flows, and how these money laundering risks are often overlooked and are especially difficult for financial institutions to monitor.  Environmental offenses are also receiving more attention in the U.S., in part because of the growing interest by investors, companies and regulators in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) concerns.

The Notice includes an appendix that describes five categories of environmental crimes and the illicit financial activity related to them: wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, illegal fishing, illegal mining, and waste and hazardous substances trafficking.  The Notice also includes new suspicious activity report (SAR) filing instructions in order to enhance analysis and reporting of illicit financial flows related to environmental crime.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Issues Notice on Environmental Crimes and Illicit Financial Activity

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has been busy during the last few weeks – and presumably will remain busy for the rest of 2021, as it attempts to satisfy numerous mandates imposed by the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020.  In October, in addition to issuing an analysis of Suspicious Activity Reports and ransomware, FinCEN extended its Geographic Targeting Order for real estate transactions; issued exceptive relief providing that a casino may use suitable non-documentary methods to verify the identity of online customers; and reminded U.S. financial institutions to account for the fact that the Financial Action Task Force added and removed countries from its list of jurisdictions with anti-money laundering (“AML”) deficiencies.  We discuss each of these developments in turn.
Continue Reading  FinCEN Round-Up:  Real Estate GTOs, Exceptive Relief for On-Line Gaming for Non-Documentary Customer Verification, and the FATF Grey and Black Lists

Second Post in a Two-Part Series on Recent OFAC Designations

As we blogged yesterday, OFAC has been busy.  Right before OFAC designated the virtual currency exchange SUEX for allegedly facilitating ransomware payments,  OFAC announced another significant but more traditional action on September 17, 2021 by designating members of a network of Lebanon and Kuwait-based

Third Post in a Series on the FATF Plenary Outcomes

This blog is the third post on the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) fourth Plenary, an event where delegates were invited from around the world to (virtually) meet and discuss a wide range of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas.  Among the several strategic initiatives identified by FATF was Ethnic or Race Motivated Terrorist Financing (“EoRMTF”), on which FATF issued a report detailing its implications for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) (the “Report”).

Similar to FATF’s first-time report regarding environmental crime and money laundering, the Report marks the first time FATF has looked at the financing of ethnically or racially motivated terrorism. The Report highlights how very difficult it can be to identify and trace EoRMTF, including because of the following factors: the major role of so-called “lone wolf” actors; competing legal regimes in different countries; growing transnational links between extreme right wing (“ERW”) groups; limited information on ERW groups; and the fact that some ERW groups are not considered illegal or have not been listed as groups to monitor.  The Report also notes the irony that ERW groups often use legal – not illicit – funds to promote their efforts, and that “ERW groups appear to be less concerned with concealing their transactions than in other forms of [terrorist financing]” – but that “many jurisdictions also reported that ERW actors are becoming increasing operationally sophisticated in how they move [and conceal] their funds.”
Continue Reading  FATF Report Stresses Challenges in Combatting Ethnically- and Racially-Motivated Terrorism

Second Post in a Series on the FATF Plenary Outcomes

As we blogged, last month the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”) held its fourth Plenary, inviting delegates from around the world to (virtually) meet and discuss a wide range of global financial crimes and ongoing risk areas. Following the Plenary, FATF identified a number of strategic initiatives for future research and publication, and issued six reports to detail their findings on specific topics. One such report, Money Laundering from Environmental Crime (the “Report”), and its implications for anti-money laundering (“AML”) and countering the financing of terrorist (“CFT”), will be the focus of this post.

The 66-page Report is compiled from case studies and best practices submitted by over 40 countries, as well as input from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. While this Report is the first deep dive into environmental crimes and recommendations for members of the FATF Global Network, it is not the first time FATF has addressed environmental issues. The current Report aims to build upon FATF’s previous study on money laundering and the illegal wildlife trade, on which we also blogged. The current Report is also connected to earlier FATF studies on money laundering risks from the gold trade and the diamond trade.  Indeed, the Report references U.S. enforcement cases involving money laundering and gold or diamonds on which we previously have blogged (see here, here and here).

As this post will discuss, these areas of money laundering risk are often overlooked and are especially difficult to monitor. Further, the Report finds that “[l]imited cooperation between AML/CFT authorities and environmental crime and protection agencies in most countries presents a major barrier to effectively tackle [money laundering] from environmental crimes.”  Stated otherwise, government AML/financial flow experts and government environmental law experts don’t understand or even consider each other’s area of expertise, and often don’t communicate with each other, resulting in missed enforcement opportunities.  With global environmental crimes generating up to $281 billion per year, the Report suggests that government interventions are not proportionate to the severity of this issue. By issuing this Report, FATF hopes to raise awareness of the scope and scale of harm caused by environmental crimes and related money laundering, and enhance collaboration by financial crime and environmental crime enforcement officials.
Continue Reading  FATF Issues First-Ever Report on Environmental Crime and Money Laundering