On March 5, a group of 16 Democratic U.S. House members sent letters to the leaders of the Federal Reserve Board, the OCC, the FDIC, and the NCUA requesting that the agencies issue guidance that would provide legitimate marijuana businesses access to the federal banking system. Last November, those agencies declined to provide such guidance, stating that the DOJ and FinCEN first needed to agree on a framework to apply BSA/AML provisions to banks seeking to serve marijuana businesses. With FinCEN and DOJ having recently issued such guidance, the lawmakers renewed their push for legitimate marijuana businesses—now operating in 20 states and the District of Columbia—to have “equal access to banking services as other licensed businesses.”
On March 5, the Senate voted 47-52 on a procedural motion that would have advanced President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to serve as Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats joined all voting Republicans to defeat the nomination. Mr. Adegbile’s participation in the legal representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing a Philadelphia police officer, reportedly played a factor in the voting.
On February 26, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other Democratic Senators, together with Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and other Democratic House members, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging the DOJ to “continue a vigorous review of potential payment fraud, anti-money-laundering violations, and other illegal conduct involving payments by banks and third-party payment processors.” The lawmakers highlighted a number of specific issues on which the DOJ should focus: (i) know-your-customer obligations, which they believe should include a review of whether a lender holds all required state licenses and follows state lending laws; (ii) use of lead generators, including those that auction consumer data; (iii) high rates of returned, contested, or otherwise failed debits or the regular use of remotely created checks, which they state may indicate payment fraud; and (iv) lenders’ failure to incorporate or maintain a business presence in the U.S., which they assert can be indicative of fraud and other payment system violations, including money-laundering.
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 February 14, FinCEN issued guidance to clarify BSA expectations for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana-related businesses in states that have legalized certain marijuana-related activity. The guidance was issued in coordination with the DOJ, which provided updated guidance to all U.S. Attorneys. The FinCEN guidance reiterates the general principle that the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on its particular business objectives, an evaluation of the risks associated with offering a particular product or service, its ability to conduct thorough customer due diligence, and its capacity to manage those risks effectively. The guidance details the necessary elements of a customer due diligence program, including consideration of whether a marijuana-related business implicates one of the priorities in the DOJ memorandum or violates state law. FinCEN notes that the obligation to file a SAR is unaffected by any state law that legalizes marijuana-related activity and restates the SAR triggers. The guidance identifies the types of SARs applicable to marijuana-related businesses and describes the conditions under which each type should be filed.
On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the attempted collection of past due foreclosure-related fees from a borrower in active duty military service is a violation of section 533 of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Brewster v. Sun Trust Mortg., Inc., No. 12-56560, WL No. (9th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014). The district court dismissed an active duty servicemember’s suit against the current and former servicer of his mortgage loan after the current servicer failed to remove fees associated with a foreclosure initiated, but then withdrawn, by the prior servicer. SCRA section 533 bars the “sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property” for the breach of certain obligations relating to a mortgage made before a servicemember’s military service, unless such action is pursuant to a court order or a valid SCRA waiver, and also establishes criminal penalties for a person who knowingly makes, causes to be made, or attempts to make such a prohibited sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the failure to remove the fees incidental to the previous foreclosure’s Notice of Default was a continuation of the previous “foreclosure proceeding,” and, therefore, a violation of section 533. The court did not consider whether the Notice of Default had been initially filed in violation of section 533. The court’s reasoning hinged on its reading of what the word “foreclosure” encompassed and based its interpretation on (i) a state-law statutory definition of foreclosure that the court determined included the attempted collection of foreclosure fees as part of the foreclosure proceeding, and (ii) the U.S. Supreme Court’s unambiguous requirement that courts broadly construe the statutory language of the SCRA. The court declined to determine whether SCRA allows punitive damages, as the DOJ had urged it to do in an amicus brief. The court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the borrower’s suit and remanded for further proceedings.
On February 10, Better Markets, a public interest non-profit organization, announced the filing of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging a November 2012 settlement obtained by the DOJ and several state attorneys general, which resolved allegations that a large bank and certain institutions it acquired misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. The suit claims, in short, that by resolving the allegations through a civil settlement without seeking any judicial review and approval, the DOJ violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. In addition, the suit claims, the DOJ’s failure to commence a civil action (i) violated the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989, and (ii) constituted an arbitrary and capricious action in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. The complaint asks the court to declare the agreement unlawful and invalid and to issue an injunction that would prevent the DOJ from enforcing the agreement until the agreement is reviewed and approved by a court.
On February 4, the DOJ announced the filing and simultaneous settlement of a complaint by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) against a mortgage lender alleged to have violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false loan-level certifications to HUD that fraudulently induced HUD to insure ineligible mortgage loans. The complaint makes similar claims with respect to loans insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This is the first FCA case brought by the SDNY to assert claims based on VA loans. Although the complaint was filed in a whistleblower qui tam case under seal in January 2013, it indicates the U.S. Attorney’s investigation of fraudulent lending practices has been on-going since 2011. In addition to allegations concerning reckless origination practices, the complaint also alleges that the lender’s underwriters manipulated the data entered into the AUS/TOTAL Scorecard system, repeatedly entering hypothetical data that lacked a factual basis with the goal of determining the lowest values that would generate an “accept/approve” recommendation. The U.S. Attorney claims this practice violated HUD guidance and encouraged fraud by both loan officers and borrowers, and also that the lender made false statements in its loan-level certifications when it falsely certified to the “integrity” of the data entered by underwriters into AUS/TOTAL. To resolve the matter, the lender agreed to pay a total of $614 million; $564.6 million to resolve the HUD claims and $49.4 million to resolve the VA claims. Consistent with the SDNY’s recent practice of requiring admissions in civil fraud cases, the settlement stipulation recites that the lender admits responsibility for certain specified allegations. The settlement also requires the lender to implement “an enhanced quality control program,” the terms of which are to be memorialized in a separate agreement still to be negotiated.
On January 27, during a speech to certified AML compliance specialists, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, stressed BSA/AML enforcement as a top priority for his office. Mr. Bharara focused on three issues: (i) the importance of holding institutions accountable for misconduct; (ii) the need for law enforcement to stay ahead of rapidly changing markets and technologies; and (iii) organizational changes within his office to bring the needed resources to bear. With regard to enforcement against institutions, the U.S. Attorney rebutted arguments that prosecutors should focus on individuals and described the full spectrum of tools available to hold institutions accountable—ranging from pursuing criminal prosecutions to seeking monetary fines and restitution through civil actions. He stressed the need to employ the full range of tools against institutions, especially in the AML context where many of the anti-money laundering laws and BSA provisions are specifically directed at institutions. The U.S. Attorney also announced that his office’s Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture Unit will be renamed the Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Unit to reflect his office’s commitment to dedicate more physical and human resources to addressing money laundering crimes and BSA violations.
On January 29, the DOJ filed a supplemental brief in support of its claim for civil penalties following a jury verdict it obtained last October in the first case alleging violations of FIRREA in connection with loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. U.S. v. Countrywide Fin. Corp., No. 12-CV-1422 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2014). In October, following a four week trial, a jury found a bank liable under FIRREA based on a program operated by a lender that the bank had acquired. The government originally sought damages of $864 million based on alleged losses incurred by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. After the judge requested supplemental briefing from the parties focused on the alleged gain rather than loss, the government submitted a brief arguing that the gain was $2.1 billion, and requesting that the court impose a penalty in that amount. The government asserts that the penalty should be calculated using gross gain, rather than net gain, to accomplish “FIRREA’s central purpose of punishment and deterrence.”
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 8, Senate Banking Committee members Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) released the “Truth in Settlements Act.” The legislation would mandate that for any criminal or civil settlement entered into by a federal agency that requires total payments of $1 million or more, the agency must post online in a searchable format a list of each covered settlement agreement. The list must include, among other things: (i) the total settlement amount and a description of the claims; (ii) the names of parties and the amount each settling party is required to pay; and (iii) for each settling party, the amount of the payment designated as a civil penalty or fine, or otherwise specified as not tax deductible. The bill also would require that public statements by an agency about a covered settlement describe: (i) which portion of any payments is a civil or criminal penalty or fine, or is expressly specified as non-tax deductible; and (ii) any actions the settling company is required to take under the agreement, in lieu of or in addition to any payment. The bill would exempt disclosure of information subject to a confidentiality provision, but would in cases where partial or full confidentiality is applied, require the agency to issue a public statement about why confidential treatment is required to protect the public interest of the U.S. The bill also would require public companies to describe in their annual and periodic SEC reports any claim filed for a tax deduction that relates to a payment required under a covered settlement. In announcing the legislation, Senator Warren stated that the bill is needed to “shut down backroom deal-making and ensure that Congress, citizens and watchdog groups can hold regulatory agencies accountable for strong and effective enforcement that benefits the public interest.”
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.
Last month, the DOJ announced a settlement with a three-branch, $78 million Texas bank to resolve allegations that the bank engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of national origin in the pricing of unsecured consumer loans. Based on its own investigation and an examination conducted by the FDIC, the DOJ alleged that the bank violated ECOA by allowing employees “broad subjective discretion” in setting interest rates for unsecured loans, which allegedly resulted in Hispanic borrowers being charged rates that, after accounting for relevant loan and borrower credit factors, were on average 100-228 basis points higher than rates charged to similarly situated non-Hispanic borrowers. The DOJ claimed that “[a]lthough information as to each applicant’s national origin was not solicited or noted in loan applications, such information was known to the Bank’s loan officers, who personally handled each loan transaction.”
The consent order requires the bank to establish a $159,000 fund to compensate borrowers who may have suffered harm as a result of the alleged ECOA violations. Prior to the settlement, the bank implemented uniform pricing policies that substantially reduced loan officer discretion to vary a loan’s interest rate. The agreement requires the bank to continue implementing the uniform pricing policy and to (i) create a compliance monitoring program, (ii) provide borrower notices of non-discrimination, (iii) conduct employee training, and (iv) establish a complaint resolution program to address consumer complaints alleging discrimination regarding loans originated by the bank. The requirements apply not only to unsecured consumer loans, but also to mortgage loans, automobile financing, and home improvement loans.
The action is similar to another fair lending matter referred by the FDIC and settled by the DOJ earlier in 2013, which also involved a Texas community bank that allegedly discriminated on the basis of national origin in its pricing of unsecured loans.