On April 2, the United States, along with the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and the EU (the “P5+1”), agreed with Iran on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”). The JCPOA is a preliminary framework to reduce Iran’s nuclear program, and details key parameters to provide the foundation upon which a final JCPOA is intended to be agreed by June 30, 2015. The framework includes five key components: (i) Enrichment, (ii) Inspections and Transparency, (iii) Reactors and Reprocessing, (iv) Sanctions Relief, and (v) Phasing. In particular, the sanctions relief will not be immediate and, instead, linked to verifiable measures Iran takes with respect to its commitments under the JCPOA. In addition, sanctions relief is specific to a suspension of nuclear-related sanctions. Importantly, the structure of such sanctions will remain in place, allowing for a “snap-back” of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance. U.S. sanctions with respect to terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missiles will remain in place against Iran.
On April 14, President Obama submitted to Congress a report and certifications signaling the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, according to a statement by the White House Press Secretary. The decision to rescind Cuba’s designation, which has been in effect since 1982, was based on a recommendation from the Secretary of State, resulting from the Department of State undertaking a comprehensive review of Cuba’s record. As statutorily required for a country’s designation to be rescinded, the President must submit a report to Congress at least 45 days before the proposed rescission would be effective and certifying that (i) Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6-month period; and (ii) the Cuban government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. The White House’s announcement follows recent policy changes by the Administration aimed at normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.
On March 23, Department of the Treasury’s OFAC announced a settlement agreement with a large money services business (MSB) for failing to implement an effective compliance program “to identify, interdict, and prevent transactions in apparent violation of the sanctions programs administered by OFAC.” According to the settlement, prior to the MSB’s 2013 “long term solution” to screen its transactions in real time against OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (the “SDN List”), deficiencies in the company’s transaction monitoring compliance procedures allowed for the processing of hundreds of transactions with OFAC-sanctioned individuals and countries. Specifically, OFAC alleged that from October 20, 2009 to April 1, 2013, the MSB processed over 100 transactions to or from an account registered to an individual on the SDN List because its “automated interdiction filter” did not initially identify the account holder as a potential match to the SDN List, and when it did, the MSB Operations Agents dismissed alerts on six separate occasions after failing to obtain or review documentation corroborating the identity of the SDN. Under the terms of the agreement, the MSB will (i) pay over $7 million to the Department of the Treasury and (ii) within six months, provide OFAC a summary of the company’s current policies and procedures as they relate to screening transactions and/or customers” to ensure compliance with OFAC regulations.
On March 25, the DOJ entered into a plea agreement with an oil company that agreed to pay over $230 million and plead guilty for facilitating illegal transactions and participating in trade activities with Iran and Sudan. According to the DOJ, from 2004 through 2010, the oil company’s subsidiaries provided oilfield services to customers in Iran and Sudan, and failed to adhere to U.S. sanctions against Iran and Sudan and enforce internal compliance procedures, resulting in a conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Pending court approval, among other stipulations, the plea agreement also requires the oil company to (i) cease all operations in Iran and Sudan during the probation period; (ii) submit to a three-year period of corporate probation and agree to continue to cooperate with the government and not commit any additional felony violations of U.S. Federal law; and (iii) respond to requests to disclose information related to the company’s compliance with U.S. sanctions laws when requested by U.S. authorities.
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 August 18, the New York DFS announced an agreement with a bank consulting firm to resolve allegations related to certain services it performed for a bank charged last year with sanctions violations. The consulting firm allegedly altered an historical transaction review (HTR) report submitted to regulators regarding wire transfers that the bank completed on behalf of sanctioned countries and entities. At the bank’s request, the firm allegedly removed from the original HTR report key information and warning language concerning the bank’s transactions. Specifically, the DFS alleges that the firm: (i) removed the English translation of the bank’s wire stripping instructions; (ii) removed a regulatory term to describe the wire-stripping instructions and a discussion of the activities; and (iii) deleted “several forensic questions” that the firm identified as necessary for consideration in connection with the HTR report. The agreement prohibits the firm from doing business with any DFS-regulated institution for two years and requires the firm to: (i) pay a $25 million penalty; and (ii) implement certain reforms to address the conflicts of interest within the consulting industry. Those reforms are based on a similar agreement obtained by the DFS last year from another consulting firm.
On July 24, the OFAC released a settlement agreement with a large bank to resolve apparent violations of narcotics sanctions regulations. The settlement agreement states that during separate periods from September 2005 through March 2009, the bank allowed transactions to be processed for certain individuals designated under the narcotics sanctions regulations, and failed to timely file blocked property reports regarding accounts owned by other designated individuals. The bank did not admit to any allegation made or implied by the apparent violations, but agreed to pay approximately $16.5 million to resolve the matter. The agreement explains that most of the apparent violations were disclosed by the bank to OFAC as a result of remedial action designed to correct a screening deficiency giving rise to the apparent violations, but that such disclosures do not qualify as voluntarily self-disclosed to OFAC within the meaning of OFAC’s Economic Sanctions Enforcement Guidelines because they were substantially similar to apparent violations of which OFAC already was aware.
On June 5, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) announced a Dutch aerospace firm has agreed to pay $21 million to resolve allegations that the company violated U.S. sanctions on Iran and Sudan. OFAC alleged that from 2005 to 2010, the company indirectly exported or re-exported aircraft spare parts to Iranian or Sudanese customers, which the company either specifically procured from or had repaired in the United States, and required the issuance of a license by a federal agency at the time of shipment. The company self-reported 1,112 apparent violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, and 41 apparent violations of the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations. The settlement includes the payment of a $10.5 million civil penalty to OFAC and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, a forfeiture of an additional $10.5 million pursuant to a deferred prosecution agreement reached with the DOJ, and the acceptance of responsibility for its alleged criminal conduct. OFAC stated that the base penalty for the alleged violations was over $145 million, however it agreed to a lower settlement after considering that the company self-disclosed the violations and the company: (i) had no OFAC sanctions history in the five years preceding the date of the earliest of the alleged violations; (ii) adopted new and more effective internal controls and procedures, and (iii) provided substantial cooperation during the investigation.
On May 8, OFAC released enforcement information regarding “apparent violations” of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations by Canadian subsidiaries of a U.S. insurance company. The U.S. company self-reported 3,560 apparent violations that occurred between January 2006, and March 2009, and agreed to remit $279,038 to settle potential civil liability. OFAC stated that over a more than three-year period two Canadian subsidiaries issued or renewed property and casualty insurance policies that insured Cuban risks of a Canadian company, and that one of the subsidiaries maintained a D&O liability insurance policy that insured certain directors and officers of three Cuban joint venture partners of a Canadian corporation. Separately, another subsidiary sold, renewed, or maintained in force individual or annual multi-trip travel insurance policies in which the insured identified Cuba as the travel destination. The civil penalty reflects OFAC’s balancing of aggravating and mitigating factors, including the actual knowledge of the company and certain members of management of the violative conduct; and the company’s self-disclosure, cooperation, and advance remediation.
On May 8, OFAC issued regulations to implement recent Executive Orders establishing sanctions against Russian individuals and entities related to the situation in Ukraine. The Ukraine-Related Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. Part 589, implement Executive Order 13660 of March 6, 2014, Executive Order 13661 of March 17, 2014, and Executive Order 13662 of March 20, 2014. Consistent with its prior practice, OFAC published the regulations in abbreviated form and plans to provide a more comprehensive set of regulations, which may include additional interpretive and definitional guidance and additional general licenses and statements of licensing policy.
On April 28, the Treasury Department announced additional sanctions in response to developments in Ukraine by designating seven Russian government officials and 17 entities, including numerous financial institutions, pursuant to Executive Order 13661. That order authorizes sanctions on, among others, officials of the Russian Government and any individual or entity that is owned or controlled by, that has acted for or on behalf of, or that has provided material or other support to, a senior Russian government official. The designated individuals will be subject to an asset freeze and a U.S. visa ban, and the companies will be subject to an asset freeze. In addition, the Department of Commerce imposed additional restrictions on 13 of the companies by imposing a license requirement with a presumption of denial for the export, re-export or other foreign transfer of U.S.-origin items to the companies. Further, the Departments of Commerce and State tightened review of export license applications for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russia’s military capabilities, and plan to revoke any existing export licenses that meet the tightened conditions.
On April 18, OFAC announced that a privately held travel services provider based in the Netherlands but majority-owned by U.S. persons agreed to pay nearly $6 million to resolve allegations that over a roughly six-year period the company’s business units mostly outside the U.S. provided services related to travel to or from Cuba, which assisted 44,430 persons. OFAC states that such business activities constitute alleged violations of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. The company voluntarily self-disclosed the alleged violations to OFAC, the vast majority of which occurred prior to such disclosure. OFAC claims that the company (i) failed to exercise a minimal degree of caution or care regarding its obligations to comply with OFAC sanctions against Cuba by processing unauthorized travel related transactions for more than four years before recognizing that it was subject to U.S. jurisdiction; (ii) processed a high volume of transactions and assisted a large number of travelers, which caused significant harm to the objectives of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations; and (iii) failed to implement an adequate compliance program. OFAC’s Cuba Penalty Schedule sets a base penalty for the alleged violations at $11,093,500, which was reduced given that (i) the conduct at issue was the company’s “first violation”; (ii) the company provided substantial cooperation during OFAC’s investigation of the alleged violations, including by agreeing to toll the statute of limitations and by providing OFAC with detailed and well-organized documents and information; and (iii) the company already has taken significant remedial action in response to the alleged violations.
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.