Obama Administration Sanctions Numerous Russian, Ukrainian Officials

This week, President Obama issued two new Executive Orders, one on March 17 and another on March 20, authorizing the Treasury Department to impose sanctions on (i) current and former Russian and Ukrainian officials; (ii) a Russian bank; (iii) any individual or entity that operates in the Russian arms industry; and (iv) any individual or entity determined to be owned or controlled by, to act on behalf of, or provide material or other support to, any senior Russian government official or blocked person. Concurrent with each executive order, OFAC added (on March 17 and March 20) numerous current and former Ukrainian and Russian officials to its list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. These latest actions expand on the President’s initial March 6 Executive Order authorizing sanctions in response to Russia’s recent actions related to Ukraine, which the Obama Administration has characterized as threatening Ukraine’s democratic processes and institutions, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and assets. Generally, the orders exclude the designated persons and entities from the U.S. financial system and block the designated persons’ and entities’ access to property and interests in property that are within the U.S. As a result, U.S. banking institutions are required to block the financial assets of the designated individuals and entities and report such blocked property to OFAC within 10 business days. The orders and sanctions are the beginning stages of a potential extended sanctions framework involving Russian officials and businesses.

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OFAC Announces Sanctions Settlement With Securities Intermediary

On January 23, the Treasury Department’s OFAC announced that a Luxembourg bank agreed to pay $152 million to resolve potential civil claims that the bank concealed the interest of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) in certain securities held in one of the Luxembourg bank’s custody accounts. OFAC claims that from December 2007 through June 2008, the bank held an account at a U.S. financial institution through which the CBI maintained a beneficial ownership in 26 securities valued at nearly $3 billion. After assuring OFAC of its intention to terminate all business with its Iranian clients, the bank allegedly transferred the securities to another European bank’s custody account at the Luxembourg bank. Though the transfer changed the record ownership of the securities, the custody account allowed CBI to retain beneficial ownership. OFAC alleged that in acting as the channel through which the CBI held interests in the securities, the Luxembourg bank exported custody and related securities services in violation of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations. OFAC highlighted the bank’s “strong remedial response” after learning of the alleged lapse mitigated the penalty amount. Although OFAC did not identify the specific enhanced controls implemented by the bank, it encouraged other firms operating as securities intermediaries to implement certain specific measures: (i) make customers aware of the firm’s U.S. sanctions compliance obligations and have customers agree in writing not to use their account(s) with the firm in a manner that could cause a violation of OFAC sanctions; (ii) conduct due diligence, including through the use of questionnaires and certifications, to identify customers who do business in or with countries or persons subject to U.S. sanctions; (iii) impose restrictions and heightened due diligence requirements on the use of certain products or services by customers who are judged to present a higher risk; (iv) attempt to understand the nature and purpose of non-proprietary accounts, including requiring information regarding third parties whose assets may be held in the accounts; and (v) monitor accounts to detect unusual or suspicious activity.

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Federal, State Authorities Announce Coordinated Economic Sanctions Enforcement Actions Against Foreign Bank

On  December 11, the Federal Reserve Board, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets and Controls (OFAC), and the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) announced that a foreign bank agreed to pay $100 million to resolve federal and state investigations  into the bank’s practices concerning the transmission of funds to and from the U.S. through unaffiliated U.S. financial institutions, including by and through entities and individuals subject to the OFAC Regulations. The investigations followed a voluntary review by the bank of its U.S. dollar transactions, the results of which it submitted to federal, state, and foreign authorities. The federal and state authorities alleged that the bank engaged in payment practices that interfered with the implementation of U.S. economic sanctions, including by removing material references to U.S.-sanctioned locations or persons from payment messages sent to U.S. financial institutions. They assert the alleged failures resulted from inadequate risk management and legal review policies and procedures to ensure that activities conducted at offices outside the U.S. comply with applicable OFAC Regulations. As part of the resolution, the bank consented to a Federal Reserve cease and desist order and civil money penalty order, pursuant to which the bank must pay $50 million, continue to enhance its compliance controls, and retain an independent consultant to conduct an OFAC compliance review. A separate settlement with OFAC requires the bank to pay $33 million, which will be satisfied as part of the payment to the Federal Reserve. The DFS order  assesses an additional $50 million penalty. The DFS highlighted that, as part of its cooperation with authorities, the bank took disciplinary action against individual wrongdoers, including through dismissals.

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Multinational Oil Services Company Resolves FCPA, Sanctions, And Export Control Matter

On November 26, the DOJ announced that Weatherford International—a multinational oil services company—and certain of its subsidiaries agreed to pay approximately $250 million in fines and penalties to resolve FCPA, sanctions, and export control violations. The DOJ alleged in a criminal information that the company knowingly failed to establish an effective system of internal accounting controls designed to detect and prevent corruption, including FCPA violations. The alleged compliance failures allowed employees of certain of the company’s subsidiaries in Africa and the Middle East to engage in prohibited conduct over the course of many years, including both bribery of foreign officials and fraudulent misuse of the United Nations’ Oil for Food Program. The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, pursuant to which it must pay an approximately $87 million penalty, retain an independent corporate compliance monitor for at least 18 months, and continue to implement an enhanced FCPA compliance program and internal controls. Read more…

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Treasury Fines Foreign Investment Firm Over Iran Sanctions Violations

On October 21, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed a $1.5 million civil penalty in an enforcement action against a UAE-based investment and advising company for violating the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations. OFAC determined that the firm recklessly or willfully concealed or omitted information pertaining to $103,283 in funds transfers processed through U.S.-based financial institutions for the benefit of persons in Iran. OFAC determined that the firm’s actions were egregious because (i) it did not voluntarily self-disclose the violations to OFAC, has no OFAC compliance program, and did not cooperate in the investigation, (ii) the firm’s management had actual knowledge or reason to know of the conduct, and (iii) the conduct resulted in potentially significant harm to the U.S. sanctions program against Iran.

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New York Announces Agreement to Resolve Alleged International Sanctions Violations

On June 20, New York announced a consent order with the New York branch of a foreign bank to resolve charges that the bank — over a five year period that ended more than five years ago — violated Bank Secrecy Act, Anti-Money Laundering and international sanctions rules by stripping from wire transfer messages information that could have been used to identify government and privately owned entities in Iran, Sudan, and Myanmar, and entities on the Specially Designated Nationals list issued by the OFAC and moving billions of dollars through New York on their behalf. The order requires the bank to pay a $250 million penalty, conduct a compliance review, and revise written compliance and management oversight plans. The compliance review must be conducted by an independent consultant that will be subject to the new DFS code of conduct for bank consultants described in a prior Byte. This is at least the second time in the last year that New York has taken a major action against a domestic branch of a foreign bank related to money laundering and international sanctions violations. In a previous instance, federal authorities followed with substantial civil and criminal penalties related to the same conduct.

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New York Signals Crackdown on Bank Consultants with Substantial Fine, Temporary Ban

On June 18, New York announced an agreement with a bank consulting firm in connection with the firm’s work for a state-regulated bank alleged to have engaged in deceptive and fraudulent misconduct on behalf of client Iranian financial institutions in violation of anti-money laundering and sanctions rules. An investigation conducted by the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) found that the consultant (i) failed to demonstrate autonomy and removed a recommendation aimed at rooting out money laundering from a written final report submitted to the DFS, and (ii) violated New York Banking Law § 36.10 by disclosing confidential information of other consulting firm clients to the bank. To resolve that investigation, the consulting firm agreed to (i) a voluntary one-year suspension from consulting work at any DFS-regulated institution, (ii) pay a $10 million penalty, and (iii) adopt a new code of conduct. The DFS intends for the code of conduct to serve as “a new model that will govern independent consulting firms that seek to be retained or approved by DFS.” The code of conduct states, among other things: (i) the financial institution and consultant must disclose all prior work by the consultant for the institution in the previous three years, (ii) the engagement letter must require that the ultimate conclusions and judgments will be that of the consultant based upon the exercise of its own judgment, (iii) the consultant and institution must submit a work plan for the engagement and timeline for completion of work, (iv) the DFS and the consultant must have ongoing communication, including outside the presence of the institution, and (v) the consultant must implement numerous record keeping, training, reporting, and other policies and procedures.

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Obama Administration Targets Iranian Currency

On June 3, the Obama Administration announced a new Executive Order authorizing sanctions that directly target trade in Iran’s currency, the rial. The order authorizes the Treasury Secretary to take action against foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct or facilitate significant transactions for the purchase or sale of the rial, or that maintain significant accounts outside of Iran denominated in the rial. Specifically, the Treasury Secretary can (i) prohibit opening, and prohibit or impose strict conditions on maintaining, in the United States, a correspondent account or a payable-through account by such foreign financial institution; or (ii) block all property and interests in property that are in the United States, that come within the United States, or that are or come within the possession or control of any United States person (including any foreign branch) of such foreign financial institution, and provide that such property and interests in property may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in. The order also (i) subjects to new sanctions persons and financial institutions that knowingly engage in transactions for the supply of significant goods or services used in connection with the automotive sector of Iran, and (ii) expands sanctions against those who materially assist, sponsor, or provide financial, material, or technological support to persons designated by Treasury as the “Government of Iran.”

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OFAC Issues Advisory on Efforts to Evade Iran Sanctions

On January 10, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued an advisory to highlight practices being used to evade sanctions on Iran, including the use of third-country exchange houses or trading companies that are acting as money transmitters to process funds transfers through the United States in support of unauthorized business with Iran. According to the advisory, the transactions at issue omit references to Iranian addresses and omit the names of Iranian persons or entities in the originator or beneficiary fields. Funds are then transmitted from an exchange house or trading company located in a third country to or through the United States on behalf of an individual or company located in Iran or on behalf of a U.S.-designated person without referencing the involvement of Iran or the designated persons. OFAC urged U.S. financial institutions to (i) monitor payments involving the third-country exchange house or trading company that may be processing commercial transactions related to Iran, and requesting additional information from correspondents on the nature of such transactions and the parties involved, (ii) conduct account and/or transaction reviews for individual exchange houses or  trading companies that have repeatedly violated or attempted to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, and (iii) contact their correspondents that maintain accounts for, or facilitate transactions on behalf of, a third-country exchange house or trading company that engages in any of the practices identified in the advisory.

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U.S. Law Enforcement Authorities and Regulators Resolve Significant Money Laundering and Sanctions Investigations

On December 11, a major international bank holding company announced agreements with U.S. law enforcement authorities and federal bank regulators to end investigations into alleged inadequate compliance with anti-money laundering and sanctions laws by the holding company and its U.S. subsidiaries (collectively the banks). Under these agreements, the banks will make payments totaling $1.92 billion, will continue to cooperate fully with regulatory and law enforcement authorities, and will take further action to strengthen its compliance policies and procedures. As part of the resolution, the bank entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the DOJ pursuant to which the banks will forfeit $1.256 billion, $375 million of which satisfies a settlement with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The four-count criminal information filed in conjunction with the DPA charges that the banks violated the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and to conduct appropriate due diligence on its foreign correspondent account holders. The DOJ also alleged that the banks violated the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act by illegally conducting transactions on behalf of customers in certain countries that were subject to sanctions enforced by OFAC. The banks agreed to pay a single $500 million civil penalty to satisfy separate assessments by the OCC and FinCEN related to the same alleged conduct, as well as a $165 million penalty to the Federal Reserve Board. The banks already have undertaken numerous voluntary remedial actions, including to (i) substantially increase AML compliance spending and staffing, (ii) revamp their Know Your Customer program, (iii) exit 109 correspondent relationships for risk reasons, and (iv) claw back bonuses for a number of senior officers. Read more…

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New York Financial Regulator Obtains Settlement on AML Charges

On August 14, the New York Superintendent of Financial Services announced the resolution of recent charges that a British bank and its U.S. subsidiary engaged in deceptive and fraudulent misconduct in order to move substantial funds on behalf of client Iranian financial institutions that were subject to U.S. sanctions. While the details of the settlement have not been released, the Superintendent stated that the bank must (i) pay a civil penalty of $340 million to the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS), (ii) install a monitor for a term of at least two years who will report directly to DFS and who will evaluate the money-laundering risk controls in the New York branch and implementation of appropriate corrective measures, (iii) allow DFS examiners to be placed on site at the bank, and (iv) permanently install personnel within its New York branch to oversee and audit the bank’s offshore money-laundering due diligence and monitoring program.

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New York Banking Regulator Orders Bank to Defend License Over Money Laundering Allegations

On August 6, the New York Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) ordered the U.S. subsidiary of a British bank to appear on August 15 to respond to allegations of money laundering that, if true, could cost the bank its license to conduct business in New York. The order alleges that the bank engaged in deceptive and fraudulent misconduct in order to move at least $250 billion through its New York branch on behalf of client Iranian financial institutions in contravention of U.S. sanctions. While the bank acknowledges that it has been conducting a historical review of its money laundering compliance, and that it has voluntarily disclosed that review to federal agencies, it argues that the NY DFS is misinterpreting the transactions at issue and strongly refutes the allegations.

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