U.S. House Passes Corporate Transparency Act; FATF Issues Guidance on Identifying Entities’ Beneficial Owners

First Post in a Two-Post Series on Beneficial Ownership

As we often blog, the issue of the beneficial ownership of entities and the potentially pernicious role of shell companies in perpetuating money laundering is the primary anti-money laundering (“AML”) concern across the globe for both enforcement officials and the financial industry.

Consistent with this concern, and within a single week, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF”), an international and intergovernmental AML watchdog group, recently took notable steps in the fight against the misuse of shell companies. Specifically, on October 23 the House passed H.R. 2513, a two-part Act which sets forth in its initial section the Corporate Transparency Act, or CTA. If passed into legislation, the CTA would require certain, defined U.S. companies to report identifying information regarding their beneficial owners to the Treasury Department – so that such information would be available to both the government and financial institutions carrying out their own AML duties. Meanwhile, FATF has issued a detailed document entitled “Best Practices on Beneficial Ownership for Legal Persons,” (“Best Practices Guidance”) which urges countries to use multiple methods to identify accurately and timely the beneficial owners of legal entities, and sets forth some high-level recommendations.

Today, we will discuss the CTA. Tomorrow, we will discuss FATF’s Best Practices Guidance, which approaches the problem of beneficial ownership from a different angle – the Guidance and its recommendations represent an evaluation of historical efforts by the member countries’ approaches to the collection and maintenance of beneficial ownership information in countries that already create repositiories of such information for law enforcement, as envisioned by the CTA. Continue Reading Shell Company Update: Congress and FATF Target Beneficial Ownership

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

The Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul, Turkey

Indictment Alleges that Bank and its Officers Used Front Companies to Evade Prohibitions on Iran’s Access to the U.S. Financial System

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has charged Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank (formally known as Türkiye Halk Bankasi A.S.) with money laundering, bank fraud and sanctions offenses under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, arising from the Bank’s alleged involvement in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. As alleged in the six-count indictment, senior officials at Halkbank designed and executed the Bank’s systemic and illicit movement of Iranian oil revenue moving through the Bank to give Iran access to the funds. This case is an extension of prosecutions initiated in late 2017 against nine individual defendants in the scheme, including bank employees and the former Turkish Minister of the Economy. Continue Reading DOJ Charges Turkish State-Owned Halkbank With Money Laundering, Fraud, and Iran-Related Sanctions Offenses

Leaders of FinCEN, CFTC and SEC Attempt an Intricate Dance of Competing Oversight of Virtual Currency

On October 11, the leaders of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a “Joint Statement on Acitivites Involving Digital Assets” in order to “remind persons engaged in activities involving digital assets of their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).”  The regulation of cryptocurrency has been a constant topic of this blog. Continue Reading Joint Statement on Digital Assets Highlights AML Regulatory Overlap

On October 1st, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) published the Fiscal Year 2020 Bank Supervision Operating Plan (“FY 2020 Plan”).

The FY 2020 Plan sets forth the OCC’s supervision priorities and objectives for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2019 and ending September 30, 2020. The supervision priorities set forth align with the the OCC’s Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2019-2023.

The FY 2020 Plan facilitates the development of supervisory strategies for individual national banks, federal savings associations, federal branches, federal agencies, and technology services providers. OCC staff members use the plan to guide their supervisory priorities, planning, and resource allocations. Continue Reading The OCC Releases Fiscal Year 2020 Bank Supervision Operation Plan

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

Remarks Focus on Account Takeovers, BEC Schemes, Beneficial Ownership, Technological Innovation and SARs

FinCEN Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered prepared remarks on September 24 at the 2019 Federal Identity (FedID) Forum and Exposition in Tampa, Florida.

Director Blanco summarized the topics of his remarks by stating the following:

  1. First, I would like to tell you a little about FinCEN. Who we are, what we do, and why I am here to speak with you today.
  2. Second, I will speak to how illicit actors are leveraging identity. Specifically, I will highlight some of the trends FinCEN is seeing in how criminals exploit and compromise identities.
  3. Third, I will discuss how we use identity to protect our national security and keep our communities and families safe from harm.

As to the “who” and “what” of FinCEN, Director Blanco emphasized the agency’s role as “Administrator of the Bank Secrecy Act” and “THE Financial Intelligence Unit” of the U.S. Director Blanco went on to describe current developments in how “identity” – described by Director Blanco as “who we are legally” – is employed in the financial sector and government. Such developments are “critically important,” in part because “the features that make identity information valuable to companies also make these data stores high value targets for criminals and other bad actors, including terrorists and rogue states.”

Director Blanco next addressed the abuse of personally identifiable information by means of “account takeover,” which involves the targeting of customer accounts to gain unauthorized access to funds. He noted that FinCEN receives approximately 5,000 account takeover reports each month (totaling about $350 million), but that this figure amount merely reflects “attempts” and not actual losses. Director Blanco further noted that, “Criminals often acquire these leaked credentials through hacks, social engineering, or by purchasing them on darknet fora to facilitate the account takeover. Depository institutions, such as banks, are the most common targets given their high numbers of customer accounts, but institutions like insurance companies, money services businesses, and casinos, and of course their customers, are also affected.” Director Blanco then called for improving “cyber hygiene” by, among other things, implementing strong authentication solutions (such as multi-factor authorization and authentication procedures for processing payments or allowing access to sensitive information).  He reminded the audience that FinCEN held in July 2019 a FinCEN Exchange on business email compromise (BEC) fraud schemes targeting U.S. financial institutions and their customers, and that FinCEN had issued a July 16, 2019 Advisory on BEC fraud.

Separately, Director Blanco warned of bad actors who exploit weaknesses posed by the ubiquity of Social Security numbers (“SSN”). A FinCEN analysis of Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) filed since January 2003 found more than 600,000 SSNs affiliated with identity theft reported from financial institutions, many of which were associated with more than one name. “That is mind-boggling, and it points to something wrong with how identity is being verified and authenticated across much of the financial system.”

Director Blanco then discussed the use of identity as a means to counter illicit activity. In doing so, he emphasized that beneficial ownership information is a critical issue whose “importance to our national security cannot be understated.” Notably, Director Blanco criticized the lack of an ability to collect identity information as a “dangerous and widening gap in our national security apparatus.” Although he praised the agency’s promulgation of the customer due diligence rule (a topic on which we have written extensively, see, e.g., here, here and here), he called for a separate rule to collect beneficial ownership information at the corporate formation stage. “To be sure, it is not that shell companies should not exist—it is just that the authorities should be able to know who owns and controls them when there is a legitimate law enforcement need, subject to appropriate information access safeguards. But currently, there is no federal standard requiring those who establish shell companies in the [U.S.] to provide basic, but critical information at company formation.”

Finally, Direct Blanco stated that FinCEN has strongly supported “responsible innovation” in the financial sector in regards to using technological advances to comply with BSA regulations. “Innovative indicators that reveal customers’ digital footprints and activities are extremely helpful to financial institutions in the conduct of their day-to-day business, including helping them understand customer activity and monitoring for suspicious activity.” He observed that FinCEN changed the SAR form in 2018 in order to allow for the reporting of up to 99 technical indicators, such as IP addresses, MD5 hashes, PGP keys, and device identifiers.

If you would like to remain updated on these issues, please click here to subscribe to Money Laundering Watch. To learn more about Ballard Spahr’s Anti-Money Laundering Team, please click here.  If you would like to remain updated on cybersecurity issues, please check out Ballard Spahr’s CyberAdviser blog.

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

A Modest Proposal

The European Union (“EU”) recently has grappled with a series of massive money laundering scandals and strategized about how to more effectively combat international money laundering and corruption. Generally, the EU has continued to issue a series of reports identifying systemic vulnerabilities to money laundering and suggest process-based recommendations for how to address future threats. These recommendations typically mirror the same range of process-based improvements set forth in earlier reports: from enhancing cross-border information sharing to increasing resources for adequate implementation and enforcement of anti-money laundering (“AML”) and counter financing of terrorism (“CFT”) policies implemented by EU member states and financial institutions. Noticeably absent from these recommendations is one of the most powerful deterrents available – and a distinctly American approach – prosecuting the bad actors.

Although many of the recent EU money laundering scandals rest on conduct occurring years ago, the recurring waves of scandals strongly suggest that the EU – like the U.S. – has a serious problem with money laundering that is not going away any time soon. They likewise indicate that the EU’s financial system will continue to be abused by bad actors who appear to be unfazed by any potential consequences. The EU therefore should consider emulating – at least in part – the American approach of more aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals, including the corrupt politicians, kleptocrats, drug dealers, fraudsters, and other criminals from around the globe who are laundering sometimes massive amounts of funds through European financial institutions.

Very recently, in a different but related context, the Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), Jay Clayton, delivered a speech during which he bemoaned his perception that his foreign counterparts failed to rigorously enforce their own anti-corruption laws. Specifically, Chairman Clayton asserted the following:

Corruption is corrosive. We see examples where corruption leads to poverty, exploitation and conflict. Yet, we must face the fact that, in many areas of the world, our work may not be having the desired effect. Why? In significant part, because many other countries, including those that have long had similar offshore anti-corruption laws on their books, do not enforce those laws.

Granted, the above comments pertained specifically to enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), and arguably the comments were in furtherance of a pro-American message regarding international competition between countries. The comments nonetheless exemplifies a certain American perception: the U.S. aggressively prosecutes individuals, whereas Europe does not. Obviously, this issue entails a lot of cultural baggage on both sides.

Although there are viable criticisms of the U.S. approach (both in theory and in practice), and although the EU’s strong focus on process and institutions’ AML and CFT systems is critical, any government’s enforcement “tool bag” must include targeted prosecutions of the people responsible for the laundering violations. Otherwise, few bad actors around the world will think twice about continuing to turn to EU institutions for their laundering needs. This blog post explores this idea. Continue Reading The EU’s Efforts to Combat Money Laundering, the Financing of Terrorism and Corruption Seem to Overlook a Very American Approach: Prosecute People

The United States continues to be plagued by mass shootings, which appear to be increasing in both frequency and lethality.  Certain businesses have reacted by adjusting their business models, such as the recent decision by mega-retailer WalMart to stop selling some — but not all — types of ammunition.  Likewise, some financial institutions have imposed restrictions on retail business clients which sell firearms or have stopped lending to certain gun manufacturers.

However, at least some commentators have made a much more far-reaching proposal.  They argue that banks and credit card companies should draw upon their experience monitoring transactions under their Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”)/Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) programs and attempt to review individual customers’ purchases of firearms, ammunition and related items such as body armor — in order to file Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) and/or terminate their accounts.

But in order to monitor these types of transactions, financial institutions first would have to convince retailers to provide extra data on customers’ purchases, which otherwise would not typically inform the institution of the precise nature of any given purchase. Moreover, because this proposal focuses on individual customers, the financial institutions would have to draw conclusions based on imperfect information regarding the “true intentions” of the purchaser.  This task would be much more nuanced and difficult than a blanket decision to not do business with a particular industry.

We recognize the sensitive nature of this topic and seek merely to acknowledge this emerging national debate — one unlikely to fade from the national discourse in light of the continued mass shootings that will (unfortunately) keep happening – and to caution the possibility that future civil lawsuits against financial institutions, worthy or not, might incorporate allegations regarding BSA/AML programs and responsibilities.  Such lawsuits could rest on unrealistic assumptions regarding the actual capacity of financial institutions to detect and report the apparent planning activities of a future mass shooter.

This issue invokes echoes of Operation Choke Point, the very controversial and now-defunct program initiated by the Department of Justice and implemented in part by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, in which financial institutions were subjected to higher regulatory scrutiny for providing services to certain allegedly “high risk” but legal businesses, such as gun and ammunition manufacturers.  Perhaps not surprisingly, certain groups have reacted with vehement opposition to the notion that financial institutions should apply higher scrutiny to transactions relating to firearms.  For example, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana has introduced a bill, entitled the “No Red and Blue Banks Act,” to “prohibit the award of federal contracts to banks that discriminate against lawful businesses through social policy considerations.”  The stated purpose of the bill is to “ensure that [banks] will not be awarded lucrative federal government contracts after trampling on business owners’ Second Amendment rights.”  Although such a bill may simply be a vehicle for a press release, the sentiment is real.

Aside from Second Amendment issues, others have argued that imposing this moral and regulatory burden on banks and credit card companies inappropriately shifts the responsibility for addressing the scourge of mass shootings from where it belongs – with Congress, state legislatures and law enforcement.

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