On March 8, President Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Venezuela in response to the country’s ongoing human rights violations and abuses in anti-governmental protests. Specifically, the Order (i) designates seven Venezuelan government officials as Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs), (ii) provides authorization for the designation of additional parties as SDNs who are determined to be engaged in specified activities, and (iii) suspends entry into the United States of persons designated under the Order. While the Order stems from defending human rights and democratic governance, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the Order “will be used to protect the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.”
On March 11, OFAC updated its Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) list comprising of individuals and entities including a Russian national bank, Russian National Commercial Bank. The SDN list identifies persons and entities with which U.S. citizens and permanent residents are prohibited from doing business and whose assets or interests in assets that come within U.S. jurisdiction must be frozen.
On March 2, an international bank agreed to pay $30 million to settle allegations that it changed the order in which customers’ debit transactions cleared in order to generate additional overdraft fees. According to the plaintiffs, the bank engaged in a practice known as “high-to-low” posting, whereby a bank orders transactions from the largest to the smallest dollar amount before posting them to the customer’s account. The bank also charged a $35 fee for each overdraft, regardless of the amount of the transaction. The plaintiffs allege that, when combined, these practices increased the number of overdraft fees paid by some customers because processing the largest charges first depleted their funds more quickly and increased the total number of transactions that failed to clear. The bank appropriately defended its practices, contending, among other things, that the claims were preempted by the National Bank Act and barred by the Uniform Commercial Code, and that the deposit agreement provided for discretion to order transactions. The settlement is scheduled to face a fairness hearing and final approval by the court.
On February 24, the SEC announced charges against a global manufacturer for alleged violations of the FCPA involving bribes paid by its African subsidiaries in order to make sales in Kenya and Angola. Over the course of a four-year period, the manufacturer allegedly failed to detect more than $3.2 million in bribes paid in cash to employees of private companies, government-owned entities, and other local authorities, including police or city council officials. According to the SEC Order, the manufacturer maintained “inadequate FCPA compliance controls,” allowing improper payments to be recorded as legitimate business expenses, which violated the books, records, and internal control provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Under the terms of the settlement, the manufacturer will pay over $16 million to settle the SEC’s allegations and report its FCPA remediation efforts to the SEC for three years.
On January 21, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) announced a $122,400 penalty (Australian dollars) against a large financial services company for failing to register six affiliate businesses as remittance services providers. AUSTRAC serves as Australia’s regulator of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing activities. AUSTRAC noted the company’s voluntary disclosure was taken into consideration when determining its enforcement approach.
On January 15, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a final rule amending its Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) to reflect policy changes previously announced by President Obama on December 17. The amendments (i) allow U.S. financial institutions to maintain correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions; (ii) allow U.S. financial institutions to enroll merchants and process credit and debit card transactions for travel-related and other transactions consistent with the CACR; (iii) increase the limit of remittances to $2,000 from $500 per quarter; and (iv) under an expanded license, allow U.S. registered brokers or dealers in securities and registered money transmitters to process authorized remittances without having to apply for a specific license. In addition, OFAC released a FAQ sheet to help explain the new amendments, which are effective January 16.
On December 18, President Obama signed into law H.R. 5859, the “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.” First introduced in the House on December 11, the bill gives the President the authority to impose sanctions against countries, entities, and individual persons that pose potential threats to financial stability through excessive risk-taking with the Russian market. The bill provides authority for sanctions against foreign persons, including executive officers of an entity, relating to (i) banking transactions; (ii) investing in or purchasing equity or debt instruments; (iii) U.S. property transactions; and (iv) Export-Import Bank of the United States assistance. Finally, the bill directs the President to “use U.S. influence to encourage the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and other international financial institutions to invest in and stimulate private investment in such projects.”
OFAC Settles with Independent Manufacturer for Alleged Violations of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations
Recently, OFAC settled with a Portland, Oregon based manufacturer for allegedly violating the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515. The manufacturer agreed to pay $2,057,540 for the actions of its subsidiary, which “purchased nickel briquettes made or derived from Cuban-origin nickel between on or about November 7, 2007, and on or about June 11, 2011.” OFAC concluded that the manufacturer self-disclosed the supposed violations and such violations “constitute a non-egregious case.” Under the Economic Sanctions Enforcement Guidelines, OFAC noted that the manufacturer “acted with reckless disregard for Cuba sanctions program,” and caused “significant harm to…its policy objectives by conducting large-volume and high-value transactions in products made or derived from Cuban-nickel.”
On November 12, the FCA announced that it was fining five banks for their foreign exchange practices. Specifically, ineffective controls at the banks allegedly allowed traders to strategize and manipulate exchange rates for their benefit. Additionally, confidential bank information was compromised in online chat rooms, including “the disclosure of information regarding customer order flows and proprietary Bank information, such as [foreign exchange] rate spreads.” The combined amount of civil money penalties against the banks is $1.7 billion.
On November 10, the Financial Stability Board issued policy proposals in response to G20 Leaders’ request at the 2013 St. Petersburg Summit to develop proposals by the end of 2014. The proposals consist of “a set of principles and a detailed term sheet on the adequacy of loss-absorbing and recapitalization capacity of global systemically important banks (G-SIBs).” The proposals will establish a new minimum standard for total loss-absorbing capacity (TLAC). The new TLAC standard should (i) ensure home and host authorities that G-SIBs have adequate capacity to absorb losses; (ii) allow resolution authorities “to implement a resolution strategy that minimi[zes] any impact on financial stability and ensures the continuity of critical economic functions;” and (iii) help achieve an equal playing field internationally. Comments and responses to the proposals are due by February 2, 2015.
On November 3, a medical company agreed to pay a total of $55 million to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. According to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order, subsidiaries of the bio-medical instrument manufacturer paid $7.5 million in bribes in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam from 2005 to 2010 in order to win business in violation of Section 30A of the FCPA, which resulted in $35 million in improper profits for the company. Some of the payments were disguised as commissions to foreign agents, in situations where the “agents had no employees and no capacity to perform the purported services for [a medical company].” The company also allegedly had an “atmosphere of secrecy.” The company self-disclosed the violations to the government in 2010. Read more…
Just a month after announcing its internal investigation of possible FCPA violations, news reports indicate that a major cable company’s review will be completed or substantially completed by the first quarter of 2015. The company also announced that it “plans to exit all of its Asia Pacific and African manufacturing operations,” although it did not link the exit – which affects nine plants in Asia and five plants in Africa, and approximately 17% of its total sales – to its FCPA investigation.
In September, the Kentucky-based cable manufacturer announced that it was investigating its payment practices with respect to employees of public utility companies in Angola, Thailand, India and Portugal due to possible FCPA concerns. News reports indicate that, to date, the company has spent millions on the review, which has included a review of over 450,000 documents and interviews of over 20 individuals. The company also disclosed that it was cooperating with investigations by the DOJ and SEC.
On November 6, the Financial Stability Board published its annual update of global systemically important banks (G-SIBs). Included in its annual update is the addition of one international bank bringing the total number of institutions on the list to 30. Eight U.S. G-SIBs remain on the list. Coinciding with the updated list, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision also published updated information regarding denominators and capital thresholds used to calculate bank scores and allocate capital requirements of G-SIBs.
On October 29, representatives from 51 countries, having met at the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, agreed to address tax havens in exchange for transparency in tax information. Recently, the Global Forum released a report regarding the Global Forum’s progress in efforts to increase tax transparency and exchange of information. Since the early 2000s, the Global Forum has worked with the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to increase international tax transparency. The OECD drafted the Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters so that jurisdictions participating in the fight against tax evasion will have a way to share financial information with each other.
On September 22, 2014, following a two-month trial, a federal jury in the Eastern District of New York ruled in favor of a group of 297 individual plaintiffs in a civil suit accusing Arab Bank PLC, headquartered in Amman, Jordan, of supporting terrorism. Linde vs. Arab Bank PLC, No. 1:04-CV-2799 (E.D.N.Y. filed July 2, 2004).
In summary, the plaintiffs alleged that Arab Bank was liable under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2331, et seq. (the “ATA”), for the deaths and/or severe injuries resulting from acts in international terrorism that occurred between 2001 and 2004, because the bank had processed and facilitated payments for Hamas and other terrorist or terrorist-related organizations, their members, the families of suicide bombers, or Hamas front organizations.
What this means for financial institutions, particularly foreign banks that increasingly face the potential reach of U.S. laws and plaintiffs, remains to be seen. But there are three take-aways worthy of immediate consideration.