This morning, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued the much-anticipated final rule (“Final Rule”) under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”) regarding access to beneficial ownership information (“BOI”) reported to FinCEN.  These regulations could hardly have arrived any later than they did – the CTA becomes effective on January 1, 2024, although FinCEN recently extended the reporting deadline for companies created in 2024 to a period of 90 days from the date of creation

The access regulations initially proposed in December 2022 (see our blog post here) were complex; the Final Rule is as well, or more so.  Indeed, it is over 247 pages long, prior to its final publication version in the Federal Register.  Given the Final Rule’s length, we will analyze it in more detail in a future blog post. 

Today, we will describe the YouTube video contemporaneously released by FinCEN, which describes the Final Rule at a high level, and notes certain differences between it and the initially proposed regulations.  The headline here is that FinCEN has attempted to address certain criticisms raised by financial institutions regarding the initially proposed regulations and their access to BOI.  In the video, FinCEN Director Andrea Gacki observed that FinCEN still needs to propose regulations aligning the CTA with the existing Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) Rule for banks and other financial institutions (“FIs”), which requires covered FIs to obtain BOI from designated entity customers.

This blog post is high-level and focuses only on the statements made during the video.  The details of the Final Rule still need to be parsed.  Also, FinCEN continued the information onslaught today by issuing an accompanying news release, fact sheet, statement for banks, and statement for non-bank financial institutions.

Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Final CTA BOI Access Rules, Heralded by YouTube Video

In its Fall 2023 Semiannual Risk Perspective, published on December 7, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) reported on key issues facing the federal banking system.  In evaluating the overall soundness of the federal banking system, the OCC emphasized the need for banks to maintain prudent risk management practices. The key risk themes that the OCC underscored in the report included credit, market, operational, and compliance risks. 

Of particular note was the discussion on the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”)/Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) compliance risks with respect to fintech relationships.  We also will discuss briefly certain other compliance and operational risks highlighted by the OCC.

Continue Reading OCC Risk Perspective Report Focuses on Third-Party Relationships with Fintechs

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

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) has extended the deadline for reporting beneficial ownership information (“BOI”) under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”) for reporting companies formed in 2024.  Specifically, FinCEN has extended the filing deadline from 30 to 90 days from the date of formation for both domestic and foreign entities created or registered on or after January 1, 2024 and before January 1, 2025.  The 30-day filing deadline for pre-existing entities, which must file BOI reports by January 1, 2025, is not affected.

The CTA is scheduled to become effective on January 1, 2024.  In the short time between now and then, FinCEN still must promulgate final regulations regarding access to the BOI database, propose regulations on the alignment between the CTA and the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) Rule applicable to banks, and actually finalize the BOI reporting form.  The time frame in which FinCEN must act is shrinking quickly.  And, of course, the BOI database must be functional as a practical matter, and ready to effectively process many millions of CTA filings.

Indeed, when issuing this extension, FinCEN noted in the Federal Register publication that some commentators argued that an extension was necessary because FinCEN itself needed additional time to implement the BOI regulations.  However, FinCEN rejected calls for an even longer extension – including through the end of 2024, or 90 days from the income tax return deadline for new companies (which would have benefitted CPAs and tax return preparers assisting clients with BOI reporting).  FinCEN stated that a longer extension was unnecessary because “the [BOI] database must be reasonably up-to-date and accurate,” and because FinCEN “expects the public to become increasingly aware of the BOI reporting requirements as 2024 progresses, and in the coming years FinCEN will build upon its existing efforts to educate entrepreneurs who start new reporting companies.” 

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. Please click here to find out about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team.

On November 22, 2023, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), in close coordination with the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) Criminal Investigation (“CI”), issued an alert (“Alert”) regarding the COVID-19 Employee Retention Credit (“ERC”). The Alert echoes the FinCEN’s previous Notice on payroll tax evasion and workers’ compensation fraud in the construction sector, which was similarly issued by FinCEN in coordination with IRS CI, which has established itself as one of the primary “consumers” of Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) reports filed with FinCEN.

Since 2020, IRS CI has investigated more than $2.8 billion of potentially fraudulent ERC claims. The Alert indicates that ERC fraud occurs when fraudulent claims are filed using shell companies or existing but ineligible businesses to pay for personal expenses upon receipt of the credit. The fraud also occurs when businesses are “duped” into filing for the ERC by a third-party, who often provides the business with misinformation about program qualifications and takes a fee to help the business file a claim for the ERC.

Continue Reading FinCEN Issues Alert on COVID-19 Employee Retention Tax Credit Fraud

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

On November 16, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) issued – again –expanded FAQs pertaining to beneficial ownership information (“BOI”) reportable under the Corporate Transparency Act (“CTA”).  These expanded FAQs enlarge upon the previously expanded FAQs set forth by FinCEN in September

The expanded FAQs of course cannot and do not expand upon the statutory and regulatory obligations already established by the CTA.    In that sense, they do not add any additional insight, but rather repeat the rules already set by statute and regulation.  With that in mind, we set forth below the new FAQs, some of which have particular relevance to attorneys and other so-called gatekeepers.

The CTA is scheduled to become effective on January 1, 2024.  In the short time between now and then, FinCEN still must promulgate final regulations regarding access to the BOI database and propose regulations on the alignment between the CTA and the Customer Due Diligence (“CDD”) Rule applicable to banks.  The time frame in which FinCEN must act is shrinking quickly.

Continue Reading FinCEN Expands CTA FAQs

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (the “Court”) has issued a detailed and complicated Order in the case Banco San Juan Internacional, Inc. v. Fed. Reserve Bank of New York, denying a motion for preliminary injunction by Banco San Juan Internacional, Inc. (“BSJI”), a Puerto Rican bank entity, against the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (the “FRBNY”) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “Board”).

The case arose out of the FRBNY’s decision to close BSJI’s master account for alleged deficiencies in its anti-money laundering (“AML”) system, which thereby posed systemic risk. The Court held, amongst other rulings, that there is no statutory right to a so-called “master account” with a federal reserve bank.

After the Court filed its Order on October 27, BSJI filed its appeal on October 30, and requested an emergency stay pending appeal and an expedited appeal. On November 9, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit referred BSJI’s motion for a stay pending appeal and to expedite to a three-judge motions panel and denied the request for a stay pending appeal.

As we have blogged, and generalizing greatly, having a master account allows financial institutions to operate in the normal course as a custodial bank in the U.S. Having a master account is therefore critical to any institution looking to operate in the U.S. financial system. Accordingly, the FRBNY’s decision, and the Court’s Order, in effect prevent BSJI from operating.

Although some of the background allegations are eye-catching, the Order makes broad legal pronouncements, many of which are not necessarily tied to the alleged facts. The Order therefore emphasizes the significant and unilateral powers of a federal reserve bank, and its discretion to provide or deny master accounts going forward. These powers apply to all financial institutions and require financial institutions to take a serious approach in meeting their AML obligations under the BSA as well as regulator remediation and recommendations regarding the same.  This matter also illustrates how a financial institution can resolve an enforcement action with the Department of Justice, only to find itself still facing an existential threat posed by a regulator for the same underlying activity. 

Continue Reading SDNY Court Finds Broad Fed Powers Over Master Accounts in Puerto Rican Bank Case Involving AML Concerns

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

The CFPB has issued a proposed rule to supervise nonbank companies that qualify as larger participants in a market for “general-use digital consumer payment applications.”  Comments on the proposal are due by January 8, 2024 or by the date that is 30 days after the proposal’s publication in the Federal Register, whichever is later.

The proposal is based on the CFPB’s authority to supervise nonbank entities considered to be “a larger participant of a market for other consumer financial products or services.”  It would cover providers of consumer financial products and services that are commonly referred to as “digital wallets,” “payment apps,” “funds transfer apps,” and “person-to-person or P2P payment apps.”

Continue Reading CFPB Issues Proposal to Supervise Nonbank Providers of Digital Wallets and Payment Apps