On December 30, FinCEN announced a civil money penalty of $200,000 against a Los Angeles-based precious metals business – a financial institution as defined by the BSA – and its owner and compliance officer. The company and the two individuals admitted to willfully violating federal AML laws by (i) failing to adequately asses its own risk; and (ii) failing to conduct due diligence on its highest-risk customers. Specifically, the business did not have an AML program in place until 2011, five years after the IRS instructed it to establish one. In 2013, IRS examiners found that the company’s recently-established AML program did not ensure compliance with the BSA and, as a result, the company “failed to appropriately assess its money laundering to terrorist financing risks, conducted almost no due diligence on money laundering and terrorist financing, conducted almost no due diligence on many of its highest risk customers, and failed to implement effective procedures to identify red flags or to conduct inquiries when such red flags were present, among other things.” In addition to the civil money penalty, the company and the two individuals agreed that, until 2020, they would: (i) retain an auditor; (ii) provide a comprehensive annual report to FinCEN detailing the implementation of the company’s improved AML program; and (iii) annually provide FinCEN with a copy of the company’s AML training program, certifying attendance and testing results of the program.
District Court Denies Motion to Dismiss, Rules Compliance Officers Responsible for AML Program Failures
On January 8, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota ruled that individual officers of financial institutions may be held responsible for ensuring compliance with anti-money laundering laws under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). U.S. Dep’t of Treasury v. Haider, No. 15-cv-01518, WL 107940 (Dist. Ct. Minn. Jan. 8, 2016). In May 2015, defendant Thomas Haider filed a motion to dismiss the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s December 2014 complaint against him. The Treasury’s complaint alleged that Haider failed in his responsibility as the Chief Compliance Officer for an international money transfer company to ensure that “the Company implemented and maintained an effective AML program and complied with its SAR-filing obligations.” The complaint sought a $1 million judgment against Haider and enjoined him from working for, either directly or indirectly, any “financial institution” as defined in the BSA. In his motion to dismiss, Haider contended that the Treasury’s complaint should be dismissed because, among other reasons, 31 U.S.C. § 5318(a) permits the imposition of a penalty for AML program failures against an entity, not an individual. However, the District Court of Minnesota dismissed Haider’s motion, ruling that the BSA’s more general civil penalty provision, § 5321(a)(1), could subject a partner, director, officer, or employee of a domestic financial institution to civil penalties for violations “of any provision of the BSA or its regulations, excluding the specifically excepted provisions.” Read more…
On December 16, the OCC released its Semiannual Risk Perspective report to provide an overview of supervisory concerns for the federal banking system, including operational and compliance risks. According to the report, which covers data through June 30, 2015, risks relating to strategic, compliance, and interest rates remain unchanged, but risks connected to underwriting and cybersecurity continue to grow. Notable findings in the report reveal that (i) the low interest rate environment has led banks to reevaluate risk tolerance and extend their reach for yield; and (ii) banks are responding to competitive pressures and growth objectives by adopting a more relaxed approach toward credit underwriting standards and practices, particularly in high-growth loan segments, such as indirect auto, commercial and industrial, and multifamily.
On December 17, FinCEN announced a $650,000 settlement with a “card club” gaming establishment in California for willfully violating the program and reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). The gaming establishment allegedly trained its staff using misleading and inaccurate AML policy, which either failed to provide instructions at all, or provided incorrect instructions regarding the establishment’s obligations and reporting requirements under the BSA. As an example, the establishment “encouraged employees to provide notice to patrons if they were about to conduct a cash transaction that would put them over the $10,000 threshold for the filing of a Currency Transaction Report, thereby possibly encouraging structured transactions.” In addition, since the establishment’s policy did not contain instructions regarding when an employee should file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”), it failed to file SARs in 2009 and 2010. Card clubs are gaming facilities that generally host only games involving cards; like casinos, card clubs are defined as financial institutions under the BSA, rendering them subject to FinCEN’s rules and regulatory authority.
On December 17, the New York DFS announced an enforcement action against a New York branch of a Pakistan-based bank. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) and the DFS recently conducted an examination of the branch and found significant risk management and compliance failures with regard to state and federal laws, rules, and regulations relating to anti-money laundering (AML) compliance. Under the terms of the DFS’s order, the branch agreed to reform its policies and procedures to ensure compliance with AML laws. Per the order, the bank must submit to the DFS, within 60 days of the order, a number of written programs regarding its (i) corporate governance and management oversight; (ii) BSA/AML compliance review; (iii) customer due diligence; and (iv) suspicious activity monitoring and reporting. The branch must also hire an independent third-party approved by the DFS and the FRBNY to review the effectiveness of the bank’s compliance program, and to prepare a written report of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations for the program. Because the branch’s compliance with OFAC regulations was insufficient, the order also mandates that the bank retain an independent third-party to examine its U.S. dollar-clearing transactions between October 2014 and March 2015. Significantly, the order does not require the branch to pay a civil money penalty.
On December 7, FinCEN announced the selection of Andrea Sharrin as Associate Director for its Policy Division, the division responsible for drafting BSA rules as well as addressing strategic policy issues surrounding anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing. Sharrin currently serves as the Director of the Office of Compliance and Enforcement in FinCEN’s Enforcement Division with responsibility for FinCEN’s BSA compliance and enforcement program. In her new role, Sharrin will lead the team that “defines the framework for protecting the U.S. financial system from money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit finance,” and will oversee FinCEN’s regulatory functions, which include drafting guidance and issuing regulatory rulings related to BSA. Sharrin replaces Jamal El-Hindi who was named FinCEN’s Deputy Director earlier this year.
On December 1, the New York DFS announced a proposed anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering regulation, Transaction Monitoring and Filtering Program Requirements and Certifications. Key requirements of the proposed regulation include maintaining programs (i) to monitor transactions after they’ve been executed for potential BSA/AML violations and Suspicious Activity Reporting; and (ii) to ban certain transactions that are prohibited by applicable sanctions, politically exposed persons lists, and internal watch lists. The proposed regulation outlines the programs’ respective minimum requirements, including ensuring that they are based on the Risk Assessment of the institution. Critically, the proposal also requires a Certifying Senior Officer of the regulated financial institutions to file with the Department executed certifications ensuring compliance with the requirements by April 15 of each year.
On November 16, FinCEN Director Jennifer Calvery and Treasury’s Acting Under Secretary Adam Szubin delivered remarks at the American Bankers Association and American Bar Association Money Laundering Enforcement Conference on continued AML enforcement efforts. Szubin focused on the topic of “de-risking,” which he described as “instances in which a financial institution seeks to avoid perceived regulatory risk by indiscriminately terminating, restricting, or denying services to broad classes of clients, without case-by-case analysis or consideration of mitigating options,” and addressed Treasury’s efforts to curtail the negative effects attributed to de-risking, such as preventing access to the dollar and pushing people out of the regulated financial system. Szubin emphasized, however, that the Treasury would not “dilute or roll back [its] AML/CFT standards,” but expects financial institutions to be vigilant when identifying potential risks and to implement AML/CFT programs that effectively address risks associated with illicit financing on a client-by-client basis. In a separate speech, Director Calvery addressed FinCEN’s reliance on Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) data to “uncover risks, vulnerabilities, and gaps in each financial sector,” noting that BSA data supports FinCEN’s ongoing AML enforcement efforts.
Federal Reserve and New York DFS Take Action Against Canadian Bank for Deficiencies Relating to AML Compliance
On November 10, the Federal Reserve and the New York DFS announced an enforcement action against a Canadian bank for alleged deficiencies relating to its BSA/AML compliance program. In order to resolve the allegations, the bank agreed to prepare various written policies and procedures, including (i) a written plan that provides for a sustainable governance framework, including improving the management information systems reporting of compliance with BSA/AML requirements, OFAC regulations, and State Regulations; (ii) a revised written BSA/AML compliance program; (iii) a revised written program for conducting customer due diligence; (iv) a written program that ensures that any suspicious activity is timely reported; and (v) a written plan to improve compliance with OFAC regulations. All policies must be submitted for approval within 60 days of the agreement’s issuance date.
On November 6, FinCEN issued a final assessment of civil money penalty against a Las Vegas-based casino and its branch offices for violating the BSA by failing to develop and implement a sufficient AML program and report suspicious activity in connection with its private gaming areas. As FinCEN previously announced on September 8, the terms of the assessment require the casino to pay an $8 million civil monetary penalty, hire an independent auditor to test its BSA/AML compliance program, and conduct a look-back review of all transactions through branch offices in Asia and California for recordkeeping and reporting compliance. FinCEN’s final assessment follows approval on October 19 of the settlement from the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, as the casino remains a debtor in its bankruptcy case.
Texas Department of Banking Issues Supervisory Memorandum to Money Services Business License Holders
On October 29, the Texas Department of Banking (the Department) issued a supervisory memorandum to Money Services Business (MSB) license holders. The purpose of the memorandum “is to provide license holders with industry best practices regarding the documentation of [authorized delegate] and agent compliance monitoring efforts.” According to the Department, agents and Authorized Delegates (AD) pose substantial compliance risks to MSBs, with agent and AD file review comprising “a significant component of the examination process for assessing compliance with AML Program requirements and Texas law.” The memorandum provides MSBs with industry guidance on how to meet regulators’ expectations for maintaining documentation in compliance with agent and AD oversight. The Department identifies various documents that support effective agent and AD on-boarding due diligence, including: (i) agent and AD BSA policies and procedures; (ii) approval by foreign regulators to conduct money transmission; (iii) evidence of initial AML/BSA training; and (iv) credit review and approval documents, such as financials and credit reports. Moreover, the memorandum indicates that on-going due diligence requires MSBs to maintain, among other things, evidence to support (i) periodic BSA training; (ii) agent compliance with independent AML review requirements; and (iii) the license holder’s review of updated BSA/AML Program policies and procedures.
On September 28, FinCEN announced its intention to withdraw its February 2011 Notice of Finding and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking identifying a Lebanon-based bank as a “financial institution of primary money laundering concern” under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. The bank had been linked with Hezbollah and found to be involved in international narcotics and money laundering networks. Accordingly, through the Notice of Finding, FinCEN sought to impose certain “special measures” on the bank which are designed to, among other things, weaken foreign banks suspected of money laundering and financing terrorism, as well as protect American financial institutions. However, given that the bank’s license was revoked in September 2011 by Lebanon’s central bank, the Banque du Liban, and all of its assets were subsequently liquidated, the bank no longer exists as a foreign financial institution and, as such, is no longer subject to the prohibitions set forth in the proposed rule. The withdrawal of FinCEN’s Notice of Finding does not require a comment period and will be effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
On September 8, FinCEN announced the assessment of an $8 million civil money penalty against a leading U.S.-based casino for its willful violations of the BSA’s requirements to develop and implement a reasonably designed AML program and to report suspicious activity. Among other things, FinCEN alleged that the casino failed to implement adequate internal controls, conduct adequate independent testing of AML compliance, provide adequate training, and file SARs. Of note were private gaming salons that cater to wealthy patrons and allowed such patrons to gamble anonymously. In addition to the $8 million penalty, which will be allowed as a general unsecured claim in the casino’s bankruptcy proceeding (pending approval of the consent by the bankruptcy court), the casino must also, among other things, hire an independent third party to test its BSA/AML compliance program, annually provide its implementation plan and training program to FinCEN for a period of three years, and conduct a look-back review of all transactions through branch offices in Asia and California for SAR compliance.
On August 25, FinCEN issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking to adopt minimum Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and anti-money laundering (AML) standards that would be applicable to investment advisers. Under the proposal, investment advisers would be required to implement AML programs and report suspicious activity, among other safeguards. The NPRM states that the proposal would cover investment advisers registered or required to register with the SEC. The proposal would also add such investment advisers to the definition of “financial institution.” This would result in investment advisers being required to file currency transaction reports and to comply with recordkeeping and other requirements applicable to financial institutions. With respect to supervisory authority, FinCEN stated that it would delegate its authority to the SEC for purposes of examining investment advisers for compliance with the proposed requirements.
FinCEN Determines That Issuing a Digital Certificate Evidencing Ownership in Precious Metals, and Buying and Selling Precious Metals, Are Subject to The BSA
On August 14, FinCEN issued an Administrative Ruling, FIN-2015-R001, determining that a company who: i) provides Internet-based brokerage services between buyers and sellers of precious metals; ii) buys and sells precious metals on its own account; and iii) holds precious metals in custody, opens a digital wallet, and issues a digital proof of custody certificates evidencing ownership of such metals, is subject to the BSA.
FinCEN determined that, as a broker or dealer in e-currencies and e-precious metals, the company did not fall under the e-currencies or e-precious metals trading exemption from money transmission: “when the Company issues a freely transferable digital certificate of ownership to buyers, it is allowing the unrestricted transfer of value from a customer’s commodity position to the position of another customer of a third-party, and it is no longer limiting itself to the type of transmission of funds that is a fundamental element of the actual transaction necessary to execute the contract for the purchase of sale of the currency or the other commodity.” As such, it is acting as a convertible virtual currency administrator (the freely transferable digital certificates being the commodity-backed virtual currency). Further, the purchases and sales of precious metals made on its own account render the Company a dealer in precious metals (subject to certain monetary thresholds and other considerations), and thus a financial institution for purposes of the BSA.