D.C. Circuit: Maintaining a U.S. correspondent account can subject a foreign bank's records located abroad to USA PATRIOT Act subpoenas; Chinese banks subject to subpoenas in case claiming sanctions evasion
On August 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that ordered three Chinese banks to comply with subpoenas seeking customer records stemming from a DOJ investigation into a now-defunct Chinese company’s evasion of North Korean sanctions, or face contempt fines each of $50,000 per day. According to the DOJ, the banks allegedly facilitated transactions for the Chinese company that may have operated as a front for the North Korean government in violation of U.S. sanctions. In 2017, the DOJ obtained grand jury subpoenas seeking records related to U.S. correspondent banking transactions of the defunct company from two of the banks with U.S. branches, and served the third bank, which did not have U.S. branches, with a Patriot Act subpoena. After the banks refused to comply with the subpoenas, the district court granted the DOJ’s motion to compel.
On appeal, the D.C. Circuit concluded that the district court had personal jurisdiction to enforce the subpoenas. The appellate court held that the two banks with U.S. branches consented to jurisdiction when they opened those branches because they had executed agreements with the Federal Reserve which required compliance with relevant provisions of federal law. For the bank without U.S. branches, the D.C. Circuit determined that “it had sufficient contact with the [U.S.] as a whole and the subpoena sufficiently related to that contact so as to support the court’s personal jurisdiction.” The court also held that the foreign records sought from the bank without U.S. branches were within the scope of the PATRIOT Act subpoena, noting that the PATRIOT Act authorized the DOJ to issue a “subpoena to any foreign bank that maintains a correspondent account in the [U.S.] and request records related to such correspondent account, including records maintained outside of the [U.S.] relating to the deposit of funds into the foreign bank.” The appellate court also affirmed the district court’s decision to hold the banks in contempt, dismissing the banks’ argument that this move was improper because they had done all they could to obtain approval from the Chinese government to produce the subpoenaed records.