On February 20, in remarks to the Florida International Bankers Association Anti-Money Laundering Conference, FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery reviewed FinCEN’s key initiatives over the past year and outlined priorities going forward. She discussed FinCEN’s efforts with regard to virtual currency risks and stated that it is important for financial institutions that deal in virtual currency to put effective AML/CFT controls in place. She noted that it is also important for all stakeholders to keep virtual currency concerns in perspective given the relatively small size of the market. FinCEN is growing increasingly concerned with third party money launderers who layer transactions, create or use shell or shelf corporations, use political influence to facilitate financial activity, or engage in other schemes to infiltrate financial institutions and circumvent AML controls. FinCEN intends to pursue such actors regardless of where they are located. Director Shasky Calvery also reiterated concerns about securities firms that offer services similar to banks, and promised continued focus on threats posed by trade-based money laundering. With regard to its policy initiatives, FinCEN intends to engage stakeholders in a discussion of “balancing the policy motivations behind data privacy and secrecy laws in different jurisdictions with the need for an appropriate level of transparency to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.” The Director noted that this issue is particularly critical in the area of correspondent banking.
On February 27, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) issued a report and held a hearing related to its multi-year investigation of offshore tax evasion and the DOJ’s efforts to pursue Swiss banks who allegedly aid U.S. citizens in evading taxes. The hearing and report focused on one Swiss bank alleged to have facilitated tax evasion and criticized the DOJ for its supposedly “lax enforcement” approach towards numerous Swiss banks. The report states that U.S. law enforcement authorities have failed to prosecute more than a dozen Swiss banks the PSI staff believes facilitated U.S. tax evasion, and failed to take action against the thousands of U.S. citizens who have been revealed as tax evaders. The report also criticizes Swiss officials who the PSI alleges have worked to preserve Swiss bank secrecy by intervening in U.S. criminal investigations and hampering progress. The PSI report urges the DOJ to “use all available U.S. legal means” to obtain the names of alleged tax evaders, and to hold accountable “tax haven banks that aided and abetted” in the alleged evasion. The report also states that U.S. banking regulators should “institute a probationary period of increased reporting requirements for, or to limit the opening of new accounts by, tax haven banks that enter into deferred prosecution agreements, non-prosecution agreements, settlements, or other concluding actions with law enforcement for facilitating U.S. tax evasion, taking into consideration repetitive or cumulative misconduct.” Finally, the subcommittee recommended that the Senate promptly ratify a pending U.S.-Switzerland tax treaty that would allow for increased sharing of information by the Swiss.
On January 30, in remarks to SIFMA’s AML and Financial Crimes Conference, FinCEN Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery stressed the importance of establishing a “culture of compliance” at financial institutions to support effective AML safeguards. The Director’s comments reinforce similar remarks made in recent months by both the Deputy U.S. Attorney General and Comptroller Curry. And like Comptroller Curry, Ms. Shasky Calvery highlighted the need for better information sharing not only within institutions but between institutions. FinCEN agrees with industry feedback that the agency needs to improve its own ability to share information. Also part of a broader theme among enforcement authorities, the Director explained that financial institutions should take responsibility when their actions violate the BSA, not only by admitting to the facts alleged by FinCEN but also by acknowledging a violation of the law. She highlighted specific risks in the securities sector including those related to the use of cash, and explained that securities firms that provide bank-like services need to consider the vulnerabilities associated with engaging in such services and must ensure that their compliance programs are commensurate with those risks.
On January 30 the CFPB, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the FTC, and other federal agencies announced the launch of a new online system designed to collect information from veterans, current servicemembers, and their families regarding negative experiences at education institutions and training programs administering the Post-9/11 GI Bill, DOD Military Tuition Assistance, and other military-related education benefit programs. The new system is modeled after the CFPB’s complaint system and is intended to help the government identify and address unfair, deceptive, and misleading practices. The complaint system, which is comprised of the DOD’s Postsecondary Education Complaint System and to the VA GI Bill Feedback System, was developed in accordance with the April 2012 Executive Order 13607, Establishing Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses, and Other Family Members. That order required, among other things, the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to “create a centralized complaint system for students receiving Federal military and veterans educational benefits to register complaints that can be tracked and responded to by the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Justice, and Education, the CFPB” and other relevant agencies.
On January 27, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the unsealing of criminal charges against an underground Bitcoin exchanger and the CEO of a Bitcoin exchange company registered as a money services business for allegedly engaging in a scheme to sell over $1 million in Bitcoins to users of “Silk Road,” the website that is said to have enabled its users to buy and sell illegal drugs anonymously and beyond the reach of law enforcement. Each defendant is charged with conspiring to commit money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. The CEO of the exchange company is also charged with willfully failing to file any suspicious activity report regarding the exchanger’s illegal transactions, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act. The U.S. Attorney stated that the charges demonstrate his office’s intention and ability to “aggressively pursue those who would coopt new forms of currency for illicit purposes.” The complaint alleges that over a nearly two-year period, the exchanger ran an underground Bitcoin exchange on the Silk Road website, selling Bitcoins to users seeking to buy illegal drugs on the site. Upon receiving orders for Bitcoins from Silk Road users, he allegedly filled the orders through a company based in New York, which was designed to charge customers for exchanging cash for Bitcoins anonymously. The exchanger allegedly obtained Bitcoins with the company’s assistance, and then sold the Bitcoins to Silk Road users at a markup. The exchange company CEO, who was also its Compliance Officer, allegedly was aware that Silk Road was a drug-trafficking website, and also knew that the exchanger was operating a Bitcoin exchange service for Silk Road users. The government alleges that the CEO knowingly facilitated the exchanger’s business, personally processed orders, gave discounts on high-volume transactions, and failed to file a single suspicious activity report.
On January 17, New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman announced that Gary Fishman will lead a new Criminal Enforcement and Financial Crimes Bureau. The bureau, which expands the Attorney General’s former Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, will focus on combating complex financial crimes in (i) bank and financial institution fraud; (ii) securities and investment fraud; (iii) money laundering; (iv) tax crimes; (v) mortgage fraud; (vi) investment schemes; and (vii) insurance fraud. The bureau also intends to form a Financial Intelligence Section that will review banking, regulatory, law enforcement, and open-source data to identify trends that will enhance the investigation and prosecution of financial crime schemes. Mr. Fishman has served as Senior Investigative Counsel since joining the AG’s office in 2012. Prior to joining the AG’s office, Mr. Fishman was the Managing Director of Investigative Group International and before that served as a New York County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor for more than 15 years, including as the Principal Deputy Chief of the Major Economic Crimes Bureau in the Investigation Division.
On January 7, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the OCC, and FinCEN announced the resolution of criminal and civil BSA/AML violations by a major financial institution in connection with the bank’s relationship with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities and Madoff Securities’ Ponzi scheme. The bank entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) to resolve two felony violations of the Bank Secrecy Act: (i) that the bank failed to enact adequate policies, procedures, and controls to ensure that information about the bank’s clients obtained through other lines of business – or outside the United States – was shared with compliance and AML personnel; and (ii) that the bank violated the BSA by failing to file a Suspicious Activity Report on Madoff Securities in October 2008. According to the U.S. Attorney, pursuant to the DPA the bank (i) agreed to waive indictment and to the filing of a Criminal Information; (ii) acknowledged responsibility for its conduct by, among other things, stipulating to the accuracy of a detailed Statement of Facts; (iii) agreed to pay a $1.7 billion non-tax deductible penalty in the form of a civil forfeiture (the largest ever financial penalty imposed by the DOJ for BSA violations); and (iv) agreed to various cooperation obligations and to continue reforming its BSA/AML compliance programs and procedures. In a separate action, the OCC levied a $350 million civil money penalty to resolve parallel BSA/AML allegations included in a January 2013 cease and desist order. Finally, the bank consented to a FinCEN assessment pursuant to which it must pay an additional $461 million.
On January 9, the SEC and the DOJ announced the resolution of parallel FCPA enforcement actions against a major U.S. extractive industries firm and one of its subsidiaries. The actions related to improper payments to officials of a foreign government, and to a “middle man” serving as an intermediary to secure contracts to supply a government controlled aluminum plant. The SEC’s cease and desist order asserts the parent firm lacked sufficient internal controls to prevent and detect bribes made through foreign subsidiaries, which were improperly recorded in the parent company’s books and records as legitimate commissions or sales. The order directs the parent firm to disgorge $175 million, $14 million of which would be satisfied by forfeiture required in the parallel DOJ action. As a result of that action, the parent company pleaded guilty to one count of violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and consented to entry of a judgment that requires the company to pay a criminal fine of $209 million and forfeit $14 million. The plea agreement also requires the parent firm to maintain and implement an enhanced global anti-corruption compliance program, and both the parent and subsidiary companies must cooperate with the DOJ in its continuing investigation of individuals and institutions that were involved in the subject activities.
On January 8, in a Daily Show interview, CFPB Director Richard Cordray discussed with host Jon Stewart some of the Bureau’s efforts to date, including implementation of the CFPB’s mortgage rules and the Bureau’s credit card add-on product enforcement actions. Director Cordray added that the Bureau will continue to take enforcement actions against individual officers and employees responsible for company wrongdoing, including by imposing officer-director bans, seeking disgorgement, and referring matters for criminal investigation. “There’s always officials and people in the company that make the decisions. So going after them for money, making them feel at risk, sometimes going after them to take them out of the business for a period of time, or referring them criminally if that is appropriate, that’s part of what we’re doing,” Cordray stated.
These comments mirror statements Director Cordray made last year, in which he cautioned that “[i]ndividuals need to know they’re at risk when they do bad things under the umbrella of a company.” The agency has already pursued individuals in several enforcement actions, and Director Cordray’s remarks suggest the Bureau will continue to devote resources toward investigating individual involvement in alleged company misconduct, along with the entities themselves.
On December 17, Italy’s highest court, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation, issued a landmark ruling upholding the acquittal of three Google senior executives by the Milan Court of Appeals. Initially, an Italian trial court convicted the executives of criminal violations of Italy’s privacy laws for allegedly allowing a controversial video to be uploaded to the precursor to YouTube by a user of the service without first screening the video. The Milan Court of Appeals rejected prosecutors’ contention that the company should be responsible for prescreening user-provided content, and agreed with the executives that requiring prescreening for such content would not only infringe on users’ freedom of expression, but would undermine websites’ functionality. The Court of Cassation will issue a written statement of its reasoning early next year. BuckleySandler attorneys Samuel Buffone and Ann Wiles represented two of the three Google executives.
On December 20, the DOJ and the SEC announced separate enforcement actions against a major U.S. agribusiness firm and one of its foreign subsidiaries. In the DOJ action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, a foreign subsidiary of the U.S. corporate parent pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA, and agreed to pay $17.8 million in criminal fines. The plea agreement resolved allegations that the subsidiary paid bribes through intermediary firms to Ukrainian government officials in exchange for over $100 million in value-added tax (VAT) refunds. The DOJ also entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. parent to resolve claims that the company failed to implement internal controls sufficient to prevent and detect FCPA violations. Under that agreement, the company must periodically report on its compliance efforts, and continue implementing enhanced compliance programs and internal controls. The SEC’s parallel civil enforcement action resolved charges that the parent firm’s lack of sufficient anti-bribery compliance controls, which contributed to FCPA violations by foreign subsidiaries that generated over $33 million in illegal profits. The U.S. parent corporation consented to entry of a judgment that requires the company to disgorge the illegal profits plus $3 million in interest. The judgment also permanently enjoins the parent company from violating the relevant parts of the Exchange Act and requires compliance reporting for a three-year period.
On December 10, the DOJ announced that a German engineering and services company agreed to resolve charges that it violated the FCPA by bribing government officials of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to obtain and retain contracts related to the Eastern Gas Gathering System (EGGS) project. The settlement is the most recent of several related to that project, and the charges are based on activities that occurred over a three-year period beginning a decade ago. In a criminal information filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the DOJ charged that the company, as part of a joint venture, conspired to make corrupt payments totaling more than $6 million to Nigerian government officials to assist in obtaining and retaining contracts. Through the joint venture the companies submitted inflated bids to cover the cost of paying bribes to Nigerian officials. The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, in which it admitted to the alleged conduct, agreed to pay a $32 million penalty, and consented to enhance its internal controls and retain an independent corporate compliance monitor for at least 18 months.
On November 26, the DOJ announced that Weatherford International—a multinational oil services company—and certain of its subsidiaries agreed to pay approximately $250 million in fines and penalties to resolve FCPA, sanctions, and export control violations. The DOJ alleged in a criminal information that the company knowingly failed to establish an effective system of internal accounting controls designed to detect and prevent corruption, including FCPA violations. The alleged compliance failures allowed employees of certain of the company’s subsidiaries in Africa and the Middle East to engage in prohibited conduct over the course of many years, including both bribery of foreign officials and fraudulent misuse of the United Nations’ Oil for Food Program. The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, pursuant to which it must pay an approximately $87 million penalty, retain an independent corporate compliance monitor for at least 18 months, and continue to implement an enhanced FCPA compliance program and internal controls. Read more…
On November 18, at an American Bar Association/American Bankers Association conference on the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML), Deputy Attorney General (Deputy AG) James Cole challenged financial institutions’ compliance efforts and outlined the DOJ’s financial crimes enforcement approach. Noting that compliance within financial institutions is of particular concern to the DOJ, based in part on recent cases of “serious criminal conduct by bank employees,” the nation’s second highest ranking law enforcement official detailed DOJ’s approach to investigating and deciding in what manner to pursue potential violations. The Deputy AG included among his examples of serious misconduct recent BSA/AML, RMBS, mortgage False Claims Act, and LIBOR cases. He explained that the DOJ is particularly concerned about incentives that encourage excessive risk taking, and stated that “too many bank employees and supervisors value coming as close to the line as possible, or even crossing the line, as being ‘competitive’ or ‘aggressive.’” Read more…
On November 5, the DOJ announced that a New York check cashing company and its owner pleaded guilty to violating the Bank Secrecy Act in connection with more than $19 million in check-cashing transactions by willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program. The plea agreement requires the company to forfeit over $3 million and the owner to pay nearly $1 million in restitution for related tax violations; neither party has yet been sentenced. The DOJ alleges that over a two-year period the company cashed checks written on accounts of shell corporations. The shell corporations and the corresponding bank accounts on which the checks were written were established in the names of foreign nationals, many of whom were no longer in the United States. The check cashing company and its owner allegedly failed to obtain any identification documents or information from the individuals presenting the checks, filed false currency transaction reports (CTRs) that stated the checks were cashed by the foreign nationals who set up the shell corporations, and in certain CTRs, failed to indicate the full amount of cash provided to the individuals. Related charges remain pending against additional defendants. These cases are being prosecuted by, among others, the DOJ’s Money Laundering and Bank Integrity Unit, which investigates and prosecutes complex, multi-district and international criminal cases involving financial institutions and individuals who violate the money laundering statutes, the Bank Secrecy Act and other related statutes.