Undercover Investigations

Last week, the law enforcement agencies across the globe executed a historic two-day takedown of hundreds of alleged criminals who used securely encrypted communication devices to further their criminal enterprises.  The operation, dubbed “Operation Trojan Shield,” involved over 9,000 law enforcement officers deployed worldwide to search more than 700 locations, which resulted in more than 800 arrests.  Their secret weapon? The encrypted communication devices used by these criminal organizations were manufactured and distributed by a company called ANOM, which just happens to be owned and operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”).

To date, government press releases throughout the world have focused on the arrests and the seizures of contraband:  more than eight tons of cocaine; 22 tons of marijuana; two tons of methamphetamine/amphetamine; six tons of precursor chemicals; 250 firearms; and more than $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies.  However, law enforcement agencies also have been clear that, of course, spin-off investigations are in the works.  As we discuss, money laundering already is a focus, and presumably numerous money laundering charges will be forthcoming over the years as a result of this operation, including as to any third parties or professionals knowingly involved in helping to move the massive amount of illicit proceeds.
Continue Reading The Ultimate Inside Job: FBI-Owned Encrypted Communication Devices Take Down Criminal Syndicates Worldwide – With Money Laundering Cases Across the Globe to Follow

SARs Do Not Need to Be Filed At the First Sign of Potential Problems

Honoring “Keep Open” Letters from Law Enforcement Should Not Lead to Criticism

On January 19, 2021, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), along with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and the National Credit Union Administration jointly published Answers to Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Suspicious Activity Reporting and Other Anti-Money Laundering Considerations.  The agencies provided answers to certain frequently asked questions (FAQs) in an effort to (1) clarify for financial institutions the regulatory requirements related to Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that they must comply with; and (2) help financial institutions focus their resources on Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) reporting activities that provide the most value to law enforcement.

The banking agencies developed these FAQs in response to recommendations made by the Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group, which are detailed in FinCEN’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Anti-Money Laundering Program Effectiveness published in September 2020.  Notably, the FAQs do not change existing legal obligations or create new regulatory requirements.  Instead, they address several questions that have emerged among anti-money laundering compliance personnel.  Generally, they are helpful and make clear that a decision to file a SAR in a particular case is driven by specific circumstances and good judgment, rather than a rigid “check the box” mentality.
Continue Reading FinCEN and Other Federal Banking Agencies Provide Much-Needed Guidance on Suspicious Activity Reports

“Front” Seafood Businesses Allegedly Hid the Proceeds From Smuggled Shark Fins and Marijuana Distribution

Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia unsealed an indictment returned in July, charging twelve defendants and two businesses with wire and mail fraud conspiracy, drug trafficking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy. The indictment describes a transnational criminal organization that allegedly began as early as 2010 and spanned multiple locations including, Georgia, District of Columbia, California, Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Canada. The indictment accuses the defendants of submitting false applications for import/export licenses to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and using two seafood businesses and dozens of bank accounts to hide the proceeds of illegal activities.

According to the indictment, the criminal organization engaged in an international wildlife trafficking scheme involving shark finning—where a shark is caught at sea, its fins are removed, and the remainder of the living shark is discarded and left to die in the ocean. According to the indictment, shark finning supports the demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Shark finning is among many illegal wildlife trade practices.
Continue Reading DOJ and Multi-Agency Task Force Charge International Money Laundering, Drug Trafficking, and Illegal Wildlife Trade Scheme

OIG Audit Alleges DEA Ignored Oversight, Misunderstood Digital Currency, Didn’t Actually “Follow the Money,” and Overstated Accomplishments

A recent audit conducted by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”)’s Office of Inspector General (the “OIG”) revealed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) acted outside the scope of its authority while transacting tens of millions of dollars involving illicit activity during undercover operations from fiscal years 2015 to 2017.

The focus of the audit was a specific type of undercover operation known as Attorney General Exempted Operations (AGEOs). AGEOs are particularly risky because they are income-generating operations, designed to infiltrate and dismantle drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. Because of the sensitive nature of these investigations and the amount of money at stake, AGEOs are meant to be heavily supervised by the Attorney General (AG), other lawyers within DOJ and Congress.

The 72-page, partly redacted audit clearly found that the DEA repeatedly ignored its reporting policies, neglected its internal controls, and flagrantly violated the statutes governing AGEOs. This audit an important reminder that law enforcement agencies, even when pursuing the laudable goal of investing criminals through the often highly successful tool of undercover investigations, are still subject to legal limitations and standards, because agencies themselves are susceptible to fraud and abuse. This audit shows the importance of oversight and accountability, and reveals how bad actors sometimes can exist on both sides of an investigation.  Finally, the audit also suggests that the DEA often failed to pursue investigative leads and did not examine whether businesses and other third parties knowingly laundered the illicit money being transacted through AGEOs: once the target of the AGEO was “in the bag,” spin-off money laundering investigations did not occur.
Continue Reading DEA Accused of Ongoing Missteps in Undercover Operations

ABA Tax Fraud Panel to Discuss IRS CI and Crypto Criminals

The Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation (IRS CI) has made it clear that it is focusing on the abuse of digital currencies to further tax evasion, money laundering, and other offenses. IRS-CI also has made it clear that this is an international effort, and that it is trying to partner with law enforcement agencies across the globe in order to coordinate and share investigative leads.

This is a hot topic, and we are honored that Ballard Spahr will be moderating a panel on these very same issues, at the ABA’s annual Tax Fraud/Tax Controversy Conference in Las Vegas on December 12, entitled Charging Cryptocurrency Violations—Tax Crimes or Money Laundering.  We are pleased to be joined by our wonderful panelists, Evan J. Davis, Betty J. Williams, and Ian M. Comiskey.  This is a unique conference, and we invite you to attend if you are interested in the fascinating cross-section of tax evasion and money laundering.

This blog will discuss the recent efforts by IRS-CI to “up its game” in investigating cross-border offenses committed through cryptocurrency, such as its participation in the international Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement task force. We then will discuss a recent high-profile case which exemplifies these two goals of fighting crypto-related crime and collaborating with foreign law enforcement officials to do so: the notorious “Welcome to Video” case, which led to a global takedown of a darkweb child pornography website, its administrator, and its customers. The Welcome to Video investigation, led by IRS-CI, also illustrates a key point we will discuss at the ABA conference: that cryptocurrency is only “pseudo-anonymous,” and that its protections can yield to a determined combination of modern digital forensics and old-fashioned investigative techniques.
Continue Reading IRS CI Highlights International Efforts to Tackle Cryptocurrency Abuse, Money Laundering and Tax Evasion

Arrest is Culmination of Elaborate FBI Sting Targeting Banker Who Allegedly Catered to Drug Dealers

On November 12, 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida announced two key money-laundering developments concerning high-profile Guatemalans: the arrest of Alvaro Estuardo Cobar Bustamante, the director of a national Guatemalan bank, and the unsealing of a case against and guilty plea of Manuel Antonio Baldizon Mendez, a former presidential candidate in Guatemala who cooperated in the FBI and DEA sting operation against Cobar.

The government’s press release, coupled with its charging documents discussed below, underscore Guatemala’s strategic importance to drug traffickers and, by extension, money launderers. These developments likewise emphasize: (1) the increasing degree of international coordination often required to root out and prosecute both crimes; and (2) the United States’ willingness to prosecute alleged bad actors abusing the financial system, of which we have blogged about here.

Guatemala’s Strategic Importance to Central and South American Drug Trafficking Organizations

Since at least as early as 2013, the FBI and DEA have conducted extensive and numerous investigations into Drug Trafficking Organizations (“DTOs”) in Guatemala. Both agencies have emphasized the strategic importance of Guatemala for large-scale DTOs because it is a key transportation hub in the cocaine trafficking pipeline that begins in Colombia and moves through Central America and Mexico before branching off into various locations in the United States. Colombian and Mexican DTOs, seeking to avoid detection from U.S. law enforcement, often buy and sell multi-ton quantities of cocaine in Guatemala which, in turn, creates a plethora of opportunities for Guatemalan DTOs to serve as intermediaries receiving and re-selling cocaine.
Continue Reading International Efforts to Combat Guatemalan Money Laundering Schemes Nets High-Profile Arrest and Guilty Plea

A Textbook Case of Alleged Money Laundering?

On November 18, 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest and unsealed the indictment of Bruce Bagley – a 73-year-old college professor whose scholarship focuses on U.S.-Latin American relations, with an emphasis on drug trafficking and security issues. He has been