DOJ Seeks Civil Forefeiture of $34 Million in Bribe Payments Made to Chadian Diplomats by Griffiths Energy

On June 30, the DOJ filed a Complaint to forfeit shares of Griffiths Energy International, a Canadian energy company accused of bribing various Republic of Chad diplomats to receive oil development rights in Chad.  The diplomats include the former Chadian Ambassador to the United States and Canada, and Chad’s Deputy Chief of Mission to the United States.  The assets at issue are currently frozen in the U.K.

The DOJ is seeking roughly $34 million in Griffiths Energy shares, as the cash value amount “traceable to, and involved in the laundering of, bribe payments made to the Chadian diplomats” for the rights to develop oil blocks in Chad. According to the Complaint, the former Ambassador, serving from 2004 to 2012, and the Deputy Chief of Mission, serving from approximately 2007 through the end of 2014, used their official positions to assist Griffiths Energy in securing development rights to oil blocks in Chad. The bribes were allegedly paid in several ways, including through issuance of company shares and payments to companies nominally owned by the wives and associates of the diplomats.  The Complaint highlighted that before the company pursued the shell company avenue, legal counsel had warned the company that a planned consulting agreement directly with the Ambassador was illegal.  This Complaint follows a separate suit by the DOJ in 2014, with sought a “civil forfeiture of over $100,000 in allegedly laundered funds traceable to the $2 million bribe payments.”

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Special Alert: Disparate Impact Under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act After Inclusive Communities

On June 25, the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. held that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The Court, in a 5-4 decision, concluded that the FHA permits disparate-impact claims based on its interpretation of the FHA’s language, the amendment history of the FHA, and the purpose of the FHA.

Applicability to ECOA

When certiorari was granted in Inclusive Communities, senior officials from the CFPB and DOJ made clear that they would continue to enforce the disparate impact theory under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) even if the Supreme Court held that disparate-impact claims were not cognizable under the FHA. It is reasonable to expect that the Court’s decision will embolden the agencies, as well as private litigants, to assert even more aggressively the disparate impact theory under ECOA. Read more…

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DOJ Assistant AG Caldwell Delivers Remarks at the ABA’s National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies

Today, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell delivered remarks at the ABA’s National Institute on Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies. Speaking on the DOJ Criminal Division’s approach to the developing landscape of virtual currency, Caldwell acknowledged the legitimate uses of virtual currencies, such as having the ability to lower costs for brick and mortar businesses and its potential to promote a more efficient online marketplace, while also addressing the Department’s concern for the criminal activity surrounding  virtual currencies, noting, “virtual currency facilitates a wide range of traditional criminal activities as well as sophisticated cybercrime schemes.” Citing recent actions against various individuals and groups involved in criminal activities that “sought to exploit decentralized systems such as Bitcoin” – specifically, Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht; and Carl Force and Shaun Bridges, both involved in the Baltimore Silk Road Task Force – Caldwell stressed that there are “many exchanges that don’t concern themselves with following the law.” She explained that the primary legal bases for enforcement are money services business, money transmission, and anti-money laundering statutes, as well as state money transmitter licensing laws and, in some states like New York, virtual-currency specific licensing requirements. Caldwell also noted the Department’s partnership with FinCEN, summarizing its involvement in the Ripple Labs resolution to show that “compliance and remediation can lead to a more favorable resolution of criminal investigations.”  Further, Caldwell observed that while there is no “one-size-fits-all” compliance program, the adherence to regulations and state licensing laws by those involved in virtual currency businesses will reduce liability and complying with anti-money laundering guidelines will allow “the legitimate use of virtual currency to grow and be responsive to infiltration and abuse by criminal elements.”

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Alleged Ringleader of Global Cybercrimes Extradited to United States to Face Charges

Today, the DOJ unsealed an eighteen-count indictment in Brooklyn, New York charging a Turkish citizen (Defendant) with organizing worldwide cyberattacks against at least three U.S. payment processors’ computer networks. The Defendant’s organization allegedly used “sophisticated intrusion techniques” to hack the computer systems, stealing prepaid debit card data and subsequently using the stolen data to make ATM withdrawals in which standard withdrawal limits were manipulated to allow for greater withdrawals. According to the indictment, the Defendant managed a group of co-conspirators responsible for distributing the stolen card information to “cashing crews” around the world, who then used the information to conduct tens of thousands of fraudulent ATM withdrawals and fraudulent purchases. Within two days – February 27 and 28, 2011 – the DOJ alleges that the “cashing crews withdrew approximately $10 million through approximately 15,000 fraudulent ATM withdrawals in at least 18 countries.” The remaining two operations, occurring in late 2012 and early 2013, resulted in ATM withdrawals of roughly $5 million and $40 million, respectively. The Defendant, along with other high-ranking members of the conspiracy, received the funds from the fraudulent operations via wire transfer, electronic currency, and personal delivery of U.S. and foreign currency. The Defendant was arrested in Germany on December 18, 2013, and was extradited to the United States on June 23, 2015. The charges against the Defendant follow previous charges against members of the conspiracy, including the arrest of a member of the New York cashing crew.

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FIFA Investigation Updates: Plea Agreement with American FIFA Official Unsealed

On June 15, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York unsealed a 2013 plea agreement under which American FIFA Executive Committee Member Chuck Blazer secretly pleaded guilty to ten charges related to corruption in the soccer organization. Mr. Blazer agreed to forfeit more than $1.9 million, and to pay back-taxes and penalties on more than $11 million in unreported income.

According to the plea agreement, Mr. Blazer began cooperating with the DOJ’s investigation in December of 2011, even agreeing to work undercover making secret recordings. The unsealing of the plea agreement is the latest development in the ongoing fallout from the racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering indictments announced three weeks ago by the DOJ against soccer executives at FIFA and others tied to the organization. Mr. Blazer’s testimony at his plea hearing in November 2013 was unsealed two weeks ago.

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DOJ Reaches Agreement with Government Contracting Company and Former VP over Alleged Bribery

On June 16, the DOJ entered into a non-prosecution agreement with a Florida-based defense and government contracting company to resolve allegations that it conspired to bribe Kuwaiti officials for the purpose of securing a government contract. In connection with his alleged involvement in the bribery scheme, the company’s former vice president (VP) also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). In 2004, Kuwait’s Ministry of the Interior initiated the Kuwait Security Program, a homeland security project intended to “provide nationwide surveillance for several Kuwaiti government agencies, primarily through the use of closed-circuit television cameras.” The program was divided into two phases: (i) the planning and feasibility period; and (ii) the installment of equipment, methods, and programs suggested during the first phase. According to the non-prosecution agreement, the company and its former VP schemed to ensure that the company won both the Phase I and II contracts. Specifically, the company, its former VP, and other senior employees established a shell company to bid on Phase I, giving the company an advantage in the Phase II bidding, which contained the more lucrative revenues. The shell company secured the Phase I contract for approximately $4 million, and half of those funds were allegedly diverted to a consultant who bribed Kuwaiti officials to assist the government contracting company in obtaining the Phase II contract. Admitting to the DOJ Criminal Division’s charges and cooperating with the federal investigation, the company has agreed to (i) pay a $7.1 million penalty; (ii) conduct a review of its current internal controls, policies, and procedures, and make any necessary changes to ensure that its record keeping and anti-corruption compliance program are sufficient; and (iii) report annually to the Criminal Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Virginia on the remediation and implementation of its compliance program and internal controls, policies, and procedures.

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Net 1 Announces Closure of SEC FCPA Investigation

On June 8, Net 1 UEPS Technologies, Inc., a South Africa-based mobile payments company incorporated in Florida, announced that the SEC had closed a FCPA investigation arising out of a contract with the South African Social Security Agency. The SEC and the DOJ opened parallel investigations in November 2012, and the DOJ investigation remains ongoing. Net 1 has asserted that the investigation was instigated by one of the losing bidders on the contract.

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POSTED IN: Miscellany, Payments

U.S. House Passes Amendment To Ban DOJ’s Use of Disparate Impact Claims

On June 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to H.R. 2578, the Fiscal Year 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Act. The amendment, passed in a 232-196 vote, would prohibit the DOJ from using funds to prosecute and obtain legal settlements from lenders, landlords, and insurers in discrimination suits based on the disparate impact legal theory. This legislative development comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this summer in Texas Dept. of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project, which challenges the disparate impact theory in mortgage lending under the Fair Housing Act

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Regional Bank Agrees to Pay Over $200 Million for Alleged Violations of the False Claims Act

On June 1, a regional bank agreed to pay the United States $212.5 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly violated the False Claims Act by originating and underwriting FHA-insured mortgage loans that did not meet applicable requirements. The bank – through its subsidiary and as a Direct Endorsement Lender in the FHA insurance program – had the authority to approve mortgage loans for FHA insurance without having FHA or HUD review the loan application first. The DOJ Civil Division’s investigation concluded that, from January 2006 through October 2008, the bank, even though it was aware of material deficiencies in its loan origination process, “failed to report even a single deficient mortgage to FHA.” DOJ further concluded that, while the bank profited from its loan process, taxpayers suffered significant losses when the loans defaulted and FHA incurred “substantial losses when it later paid insurance claims on these loans.” The bank admitted to failing to comply with FHA origination, underwriting, and quality control regulations.

 

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Silk Road Operator Sentenced to Life in Prison

On May 29, US District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Ross Ulbricht – operator of the online dark market known as Silk Road – to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As previously reported, Ulbricht was found guilty by a federal jury on February 4, 2015 for his alleged creation, ownership, and operation of a website where activities included narcotics distribution, computer hacking, and conspiracy. In addition to a life in prison sentence, Ulbricht has been ordered to pay over $180 million to the federal government. During the year and a half-long legal process of convicting and sentencing Ulbricht, the DOJ also charged two former federal agents with wire fraud and money laundering of digital currency, and held several government auctions to sell bitcoins seized during its investigation of Silk Road.

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CFPB and DOJ Settle With Mortgage Lender for Alleged Discriminatory Mortgage Pricing

On May 28, the CFPB, along with the DOJ, filed a joint complaint against a California-based mortgage lender alleging that the lender violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act by engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination from 2006 to 2011 that increased loan prices for African-American and Hispanic borrowers. The DOJ also alleges that the lender violated the Fair Housing Act. According to the complaint, the lender’s mortgage broker compensation policy, which incented discretionary interest rate and fee increases to borrowers, resulted in approximately 14,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers being charged higher total broker fees on wholesale mortgage loans than non-Hispanic white borrowers. The complaint alleges that the higher fees were not based on the borrowers’ credit risk profile, but rather on the basis of race or national origin. The parties separately filed a proposed consent order which would require the mortgage lender to, among other things, pay $9 million in consumer relief to affected borrowers to resolve the allegations. The proposed consent order is currently pending court approval.

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DOJ Indicts 14 In Global FIFA Corruption Crackdown, Announces 6 Guilty Pleas

The DOJ on May 27 unveiled indictments in one of the most sprawling, long-running alleged corruption rings in recent decades, charging nine executives of FIFA or related soccer governing bodies, as well as five sports marketing or broadcast executives, with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering.  The defendants were charged with offering and accepting over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks over a 24-year period related to the media and marketing rights for soccer tournaments.  In addition, the DOJ unsealed guilty pleas previously entered by four individual and two corporate defendants.

Seven of the defendants were arrested in Switzerland as a result of U.S. arrest warrants, pending extradition, continuing the trend of international cooperation between U.S. and foreign anti-corruption enforcement agencies.  Continuing a different trend, one of the individuals who pleaded guilty was a former FIFA executive who acted as an informer for the DOJ, including by taping key conversations.

While the indictment mainly concerned media and marketing rights, at least one reference was made to alleged bribes related to voting for World Cup host countries, and the Swiss government announced an inquiry into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.  Additional charges appear likely to be brought in the future, whether by the U.S. or other jurisdictions.  The U.S.’s jurisdiction to bring the charges is also likely to be challenged.

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DOJ Files Lawsuit Against City of Beaumont, Texas for Alleged FHA Violations

On May 26, the DOJ announced a lawsuit against the city of Beaumont, Texas (Beaumont) for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to the DOJ’s complaint, Beaumont’s Zoning Code imposes a one-half mile spacing restriction on small community homes for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities; this means that no such community home may operate within one-half mile of another such community home.  The DOJ alleges that Beaumont’s Zoning Code does not similarly restrict the spacing of housing for persons without disabilities. In addition, the DOJ asserts that Beaumont imposes on community homes for persons with disabilities excessive fire safety requirements that are not imposed on similarly situated housing for persons without disabilities.  According to the DOJ, Beaumont’s policies have “compelled the closure of several community homes” and prohibited “new community homes from opening or operating in most of Beaumont’s residential neighborhoods,” forcing residents with disabilities to move to institutional settings or out of Beaumont. The lawsuit, which arose after complaints were filed with HUD, requests that the Court enter an Order under which Beaumont, among other things, would be (i) enjoined from enforcing the one-half mile spacing rule or fire safety requirements that apply only to community homes of persons with disabilities, (ii) required to restore (to the extent practical) the alleged victims to the position they would have been in but for the alleged violations, and (iii) required to pay monetary damages.

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POSTED IN: Federal Issues, Mortgages

Oil and Gas Company with Republic of Guinea Operations Announces Conclusion of DOJ Investigation

Houston-based Hyperdynamics Corp. announced in an 8-K filed on May 26 that the DOJ had closed its investigation into alleged FCPA violations by the company in the Republic of Guinea.  A parallel investigation by the SEC remains ongoing.  The DOJ investigation was originally disclosed by the company in 2013, and was stated to relate to concession rights and relationships with charitable organizations.

The investigation and declination raise two notable issues.  First, the investigation into relationships with charitable organizations continues the government’s focus on the potential use of charitable organizations to influence acts of foreign officials.  Second, the declination letter from the DOJ to Hyperdynamics was released by the company and noted its “cooperation with investigations,” including through providing information and the results of the company’s internal investigation to the government, as well as how much the DOJ values cooperation.  Recent speeches by the DOJ have sought to reassure companies that extensive cooperation can theoretically result in a declination.

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POSTED IN: Federal Issues, International

Department of Education Releases Reports on SCRA Reviews of Major Student Loan Servicers

On May 26, the Department of Education announced the release of reports on its reviews of four major federal student loan servicers, which were conducted to ensure that the servicers adhered to federal law concerning loan interest rates for active-duty servicemembers. Specifically, the Department aspired to determine whether eligible borrowers of eligible Family Federal Education Loans (FFEL) and Direct Loans received the benefit of the 6 percent interest rate cap provided by the SCRA in accordance with applicable statutes and the Department’s regulations and guidance. The reviews considered servicemembers’ SCRA eligibility between 2009 and 2014, and showed that “in less than 1 percent of cases, borrowers were incorrectly denied the 6 percent interest rate cap required by the laws.”  In addition to these reviews, the Department will be “expanding its review of compliance with the SCRA and HEA to the Department’s seven non-profit servicers as well as commercial [FFEL] servicers,” with completion expected later this year. The Department’s reviews follow a May 2014 DOJ settlement with one of the four student loan servicers.

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