On August 12, Manhattan District Attorney (DA) Cyrus Vance, Jr. announced the indictment of twelve payday lending companies and related individuals for allegedly engaging in criminal usury by making high interest payday loans to Manhattan residents. According to the DA’s press release, between 2001 and 2013, one of the indicted individuals allegedly created multiple companies, including establishing one as a website and offshore corporation, to accept and process online applications for payday loans. The DA also indicted the payday lending business’ chief operating officer and legal counsel. The DA charged the defendants with 38 counts of felony first degree criminal usury and one count of conspiracy in the fourth degree. The defendants are also accused of continuing to extend such loans to New York residents for years, even after, according to the DA, they had been repeatedly warned by New York State officials of the loans’ illegality.
On September 17, Attorney General Holder commented on the DOJ’s efforts to pursue criminal activity against corporate financial fraud. Specifically, Holder argued for Congress to modify the FIRREA whistleblower provision by increasing the $1.6 million cap on awards, possibly to False Claims Act levels, so that there is greater “individual cooperation.” Currently, under the False Claims Act, an individual whistleblower can receive up to 30 percent of a sanction. In addition to Holder’s focus on increasing the award whistleblowers are given, he referenced the significance the DOJ places on investigating the individual executives at financial firms for criminal activity, stating that the department “recognizes the inherent value of bringing enforcement actions against individuals, as opposed to simply the companies that employ them.” Holder identified the following three main reasons for its continued efforts in pursuing both the individuals and the companies: (i) accountability – the department is focused on identifying the “decision-makers at the company who ought to be held responsible” for corporate misconduct; (ii) fairness – the company should not solely endure the punishment when “the misconduct is the work of a known bad actor, or a handful of known bad actors”; and (iii) the deterrent effect – while an individual person found guilty of a fraud crime will likely go to prison, there are few things that discourage a company from performing illegal activity.
On July 24, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Holder raising questions about the DOJ’s “inclination to enter into settlement agreements with respect to mortgage securities fraud” claims. The Chairman notes that large RMBS settlements to date have been predicated on violations of FIRREA, which allows the DOJ to initiate lawsuits seeking civil money penalties. The letter suggests the DOJ’s decision not to litigate or secure a criminal plea diverges from the agency’s strategy in other contexts. Chairman Issa asks the DOJ to produce, by August 14, all documents and communications since January 2011 referring or relating to two recent major RMBS settlements, as well as any policies in effect during that time governing the decision to conclude pre-suit negotiations.
On July 18, FinCEN published SAR Stats—formerly called By the Numbers—an annual compilation of numerical data gathered from the Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by financial institutions using FinCEN’s new unified SAR form and e-filing process. Among other things, the new form and process were designed to allow FinCEN to collect more detailed information on types of suspicious activity. As such, FinCEN describes the data presented in this first SAR Stats issue as “a new baseline for financial sector reporting on suspicious activity.” The primary purpose of the report is to provide a statistical overview of suspicious activity developments, including by presenting SAR data arranged by filing industry type for the more than 1.3 million unique SARs filed between March 1, 2012 and December 31, 2013. In addition, the redesigned annual publication includes a new SAR Narrative Spotlight, which focuses on “perceived key emerging activity trends derived from analysis of SAR narratives.” The inaugural Spotlight examines the emerging trend of Bitcoin related activities within SAR narrative data. It states that FinCEN is observing a rise in the number of SARs flagging virtual currencies as a component of suspicious activity, and provides for potential SAR filers an explanation of virtual currencies and the importance of SAR data in assessing virtual currency transactions.
On July 3, the DOJ announced the resolution of a multi-agency criminal investigation into the way a large mortgage company administered the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). According to a Restitution and Remediation Agreement released by the company’s parent bank, the company agreed to pay up to $320 million to resolve allegations that it made misrepresentations and omissions about (i) how long it would take to make HAMP qualification decisions; (ii) the duration of HAMP trial periods; and (iii) how borrowers would be treated during those trial periods. In exchange for the monetary payments and other corrective actions by the company, the government agreed not to prosecute the company for crimes related to the alleged conduct. The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, as well as the FHFA Inspector General—which has authority to oversee Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s HAMP programs—and the Special Inspector General for TARP—which has responsibility for the Treasury Department HAMP program and jurisdiction over financial institutions that received TARP funds. This criminal action comes in the wake of a DOJ Inspector General report that was critical of the Justice Department’s mortgage fraud enforcement efforts, and which numerous members of Congress used to push DOJ to more vigorously pursue alleged mortgage-related violations. In announcing the action, the U.S. Attorney acknowledged that other HAMP-related investigations are under way, and that more cases may be coming.
On June 18, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland announced that a federal judge ordered a bank to forfeit $560,000 in drug proceeds laundered through the bank on which the bank failed to file currency transaction reports. The DOJ claimed that a member of a drug trafficking organization asked a teller at a Maryland bank branch to convert the proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs from small denomination bills to $100 bills, and paid the teller a one percent fee for each transaction for making the exchange without filing a currency transaction report. The government filed a civil action in February 2014 seeking forfeiture and alleging that the money was subject to forfeiture because the bank failed to file currency transactions reports on bank transactions in amounts in excess of $10,000, as required by law. The teller admitted that on each occasion she converted the bills without filing or causing anyone else at the bank to file a currency transaction report. She was sentenced to a month in prison followed by eight months of home detention for failing to file currency transaction reports on suspected drug proceeds, and must perform community service and forfeit the $5,000 she was paid in the scheme.
On June 5, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) announced a Dutch aerospace firm has agreed to pay $21 million to resolve allegations that the company violated U.S. sanctions on Iran and Sudan. OFAC alleged that from 2005 to 2010, the company indirectly exported or re-exported aircraft spare parts to Iranian or Sudanese customers, which the company either specifically procured from or had repaired in the United States, and required the issuance of a license by a federal agency at the time of shipment. The company self-reported 1,112 apparent violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, and 41 apparent violations of the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations. The settlement includes the payment of a $10.5 million civil penalty to OFAC and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, a forfeiture of an additional $10.5 million pursuant to a deferred prosecution agreement reached with the DOJ, and the acceptance of responsibility for its alleged criminal conduct. OFAC stated that the base penalty for the alleged violations was over $145 million, however it agreed to a lower settlement after considering that the company self-disclosed the violations and the company: (i) had no OFAC sanctions history in the five years preceding the date of the earliest of the alleged violations; (ii) adopted new and more effective internal controls and procedures, and (iii) provided substantial cooperation during the investigation.
On May 19, the DOJ announced that a Swiss bank pleaded guilty and entered into agreements with federal and state regulators to resolve a multi-year investigation into the bank’s alleged conspiracy to assist U.S. taxpayers in filing false income tax returns and other documents with the IRS by helping those individuals conceal undeclared foreign bank accounts. Under the plea agreement, the bank agreed to (i) disclose its cross-border activities; (ii) cooperate in treaty requests for account information; (iii) provide detailed information as to other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed; (iv) close accounts of account holders who fail to come into compliance with U.S. reporting obligations; and (v) enhance compliance, recordkeeping, and reporting programs. The plea agreement also reflects a prior related settlement with the SEC in which the bank paid $196 million in disgorgement, interest, and penalties. Under the current agreements, the bank will pay $2.6 billion in fines and penalties, including $1.8 billion to the DOJ, $100 million to the Federal Reserve Board, and $715 million to the New York DFS. Federal authorities did not individually charge any officers, directors, or senior managers, and the agreements do not require the bank to dismiss any officers or employees, but eight bank executives have been indicted since 2011 and two of those individuals pleaded guilty. Further, federal and state regulators did not directly restrict the bank’s ability to operate in the U.S.—the New York Federal Reserve Bank allowed the bank to remain a primary dealer and the New York DFS did not revoke the bank’s state banking license.
On May 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit became the first circuit court to define “instrumentality” under the FCPA. U.S. v. Esquenazi, No. 11-15331 (11th Cir. May 16, 2014). The FCPA generally prohibits bribes to a “foreign official” defined as “any officer or employee of a foreign government or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof.” Two individuals appealed their convictions and sentences imposed for FCPA and related violations, arguing that the telecommunications company whose employees they were alleged to have bribed in exchange for relief from debt owed to that company was not, as the government asserted and a jury found, an “instrumentality” of a foreign government. As the court explained, “instrumentality” is not defined in the FCPA, and no circuit court has yet offered a definition. The court held that, based on the statutory context of the term following amendment of the FCPA in 1998 to implement the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, an instrumentality is “an entity controlled by the government of a foreign country that performs a function the controlling government treats as its own.” The court explained that to determine control, triers of fact should consider (i) the foreign government’s formal designation of the entity; (ii) whether the government has a majority interest in the entity; (iii) the government’s ability to hire and fire the entity’s principals; (iv) the extent to which the entity’s profits, if any, go directly into the governmental fisc, and the extent to which the government funds the entity if it fails to break even; and (v) the length of time those indicia have existed. The court added that the factors to consider in determining whether an entity performs a function of the government include: (i) whether the entity has a monopoly over the function it exists to carry out; (ii) whether the government subsidizes the costs associated with the entity providing services; (iii) whether the entity provides services to the public at large in the foreign country; and (iv) whether the public and the government of that foreign country generally perceive the entity to be performing a governmental function. In this case, the court determined that the telecommunications company at issue was an instrumentality under the FCPA, and after applying that decision to the convicted individuals’ specific challenges, affirmed their convictions and sentences.
On April 14, the DOJ and the SEC announced additional charges in a previously announced case against employees of a U.S. broker-dealer related to an alleged “massive international bribery scheme.” The DOJ announced the arrest of the CEO and a managing partner of the New York-based U.S. broker-dealer on felony charges arising from an alleged conspiracy to pay bribes to a senior official in Venezuela’s state economic development bank in exchange for the official directing financial trading business to the broker-dealer. The SEC, whose routine compliance examination detected the allegedly illegal conduct, announced parallel civil charges against the same two executives. Broker-dealer employees charged earlier in the case pleaded guilty last August for conspiring to violate the FCPA, the Travel Act, and anti-money laundering laws, as well as for substantive counts of those offenses, relating, among other things, to the scheme involving bribe payments. In November 2013, the Venezuelan bank senior official pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court for conspiring to violate the Travel Act and anti-money laundering laws, as well as for substantive counts of those offenses, for her role in the scheme.
On March 25, California Attorney General (AG) Kamala Harris announced that she and four other state AGs—Suthers (CO), Bondi (FL), Cortez Masto (NV), and King (NM)—signed a letter of intent with the President of the National Banking and Securities Commission of Mexico to establish a bi-national working group on money laundering enforcement. The working group will be tasked with (i) establishing the scope of coordination between Mexico and U.S. state AGs on money laundering enforcement issues; (ii) developing a plan for mutual technical assistance and training on combating money laundering; and (iii) sharing best practices on money laundering enforcement techniques and other enforcement issues of mutual concern, including the impact of money laundering on the border region of the U.S. and Mexico.
On March 25, FinCEN issued an advisory notice, FIN-2014-A003, in which it provided guidance to financial institutions for reviewing their obligations and risk-based approaches with respect to certain jurisdictions. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recently updated its lists of jurisdictions that appear in two documents: (i) jurisdictions that are subject to the FATF’s call for countermeasures or Enhanced Due Diligence as a result of the jurisdictions’ Anti-Money Laundering/Counter-Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) deficiencies, or (ii) jurisdictions identified by the FATF as having AML/CFT deficiencies. The advisory notice (i) summarizes the changes made by the FATF; (ii) provides specific guidance regarding jurisdictions listed in each category; and (iii) reiterates that if a financial institution knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that a transaction involves funds derived from illegal activity or that a customer has otherwise engaged in activities indicative of money laundering, terrorist financing, or other violation of federal law or regulation, the financial institution must file a Suspicious Activity Report.
Recently, the DOJ issued its first opinion release of 2014 regarding application of the FCPA. In this instance, an investment bank and securities issuer who was a majority shareholder of a foreign financial services company sought the DOJ’s opinion with regard to the bank’s purchase of the remaining minority interest from a foreign businessman who now serves as a senior foreign official. The DOJ determined that based on the facts and representations described by the requestor, the only purpose of the payment to the official would be consideration for the minority interest. The DOJ explained that although the FCPA generally prohibits an issuer from corruptly giving or offering anything of value to any “foreign official” in order to assist “in obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to” the issuer, it does not “per se prohibit business relationships with, or payments to, foreign officials.” In this situation, the DOJ determined, based on numerous, fact-intensive considerations, that the transfer of value as proposed would not be prohibited under the FCPA. The DOJ found no indications of corrupt intent, citing, among other things, the proffered purpose to sever the parties’ existing financial relationship to avoid a conflict of interest, and the use of a reasonable alternative valuation model. The DOJ also determined the bank demonstrated that the parties would appropriately and meaningfully disclose their relationships before the sale closed, and that the bank would implement strict recusal and conflict-of-interest-avoidance measures to prevent the shareholder/foreign official from assisting the bank in obtaining or retaining business. As with all Opinion Releases under the FCPA, the DOJ cautioned that the opinion has no binding application to any other party.
On March 19, the DOJ announced that Marubeni Corporation, a Japanese trading company, agreed to plead guilty to violating the FCPA by participating in a seven-year scheme to bribe high-ranking government officials in Indonesia to help the company secure a contract for a power project. The DOJ charged that to conceal the bribes, the company and a consortium partner retained two consultants purportedly to provide legitimate consulting services on behalf of the power company and its subsidiaries in connection with the project. The DOJ asserted, however, that the primary purpose for hiring the consultants was to use them to pay bribes to Indonesian officials.The eight-count criminal information against the company included one count of conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and seven counts of violating the FCPA. As part of its plea, the company admitted its criminal conduct and agreed to pay a criminal fine of $88 million, subject to the district court’s approval. Sentencing is scheduled for May 15, 2014. Two years ago, the company entered a deferred prosecution agreement and agreed to pay $54.6 million to resolve allegations it acted as an agent for a joint venture in a scheme to bribe Nigerian officials.
New York Financial Services Regulator Urges More Enforcement Against Individuals, Reaffirms Focus On Nonbank Mortgage Servicers
On March 19, New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky called on banking regulators to assess whether they are doing enough, particularly with regard to enforcement, to deter or prevent financial crime. In remarks delivered to the Exchequer Club, Mr. Lawsky asserted that true deterrence means focusing not only on corporate liability, but individual accountability. He called on banking regulators to “publicly expose – in great detail – the actual, specific misconduct that individual employees engaged in,” and, where appropriate, ensure individuals face “real, serious penalties and sanctions when they break the law.” Mr. Lawsky is the most recent of several regulators and policymakers to advocate for more individual accountability. Federal enforcement officials, including CFPB Director Richard Cordray and SEC Chair Mary Jo White, have similarly threatened an enhanced enforcement focus on individuals. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff wrote critically of financial fraud enforcement, and suggested “that the future deterrent value of successfully prosecuting individuals far outweighs the prophylactic benefits of imposing internal compliance measures that are often little more than window-dressing.” In addition to his prepared statement on individual enforcement, Superintendent Lawsky devoted a substantial amount of his remarks and Q&A responses to his concerns about nonbank mortgage servicers. He specifically raised concerns about nonbank servicers’ staffing, especially in the context of the single point of contact requirements of the CFPB’s new servicing rules and the agreements certain servicers entered into with the DFS in 2011 and 2012.