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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Former officials agree SEC usurped FinCEN’s BSA enforcement authority

Courts U.S. Supreme Court Appellate Second Circuit SEC Financial Crimes Bank Secrecy Act SARs FinCEN Securities Exchange Act Of Interest to Non-US Persons


On August 20, former FinCEN officials filed an amicus brief in support of a petition for certiorari filed by penny stock broker-dealer (petitioner) against the SEC claiming the agency usurped FinCEN’s Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) enforcement authority. The petition seeks to reverse a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decision, which upheld a $12 million penalty and concluded the SEC has the authority to bring an action under Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder for failure to comply with the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) provisions of the BSA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the appellate court rejected the broker-dealer’s argument that the SEC is attempting to enforce the BSA, which only the U.S. Treasury Department has the authority to do. The appellate court noted that the SEC is enforcing the requirements of Rule 17a-8, which requires broker-dealers to adhere to the BSA in order to comply with requirements of the Exchange Act, which does not constitute the agency’s enforcement of the BSA. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the SEC did not overstep its authority when promulgating Rule 17a-8, as SARs “serve to further the aims of the Exchange Act by protecting investors and helping to guard against market manipulation,” and that the broker-dealer did not meet its “‘heavy burden’ to show that Congress ‘clearly expressed [its] intention’ to preclude the SEC from examining for SAR compliance in conjunction with FinCEN and pursuant to authority delegated under the Exchange Act.”

The former officials’ brief states that they “have no interest in the facts” of the petitioner’s dispute with the SEC, but rather “are concerned that the Second Circuit’s misunderstanding of FinCEN’s delegated enforcement authority will lead to confusion among the financial institutions that must comply with the BSA; create multiple, conflicting BSA regulatory regimes; decrease American influence over global financial regulators; and hamper U.S. law enforcement and national security efforts by diminishing the value of BSA data.” They further pointed out that the appellate court “erred in conflating delegated compliance examination efforts with the exercise of enforcement authority and let stand SEC and lower court decisions applying materially different legal standards with a lower level of judicial oversight and review than that established by Congress.” The former officials stressed that the appellate court’s decision fails “to appreciate the nature of the AML regime and therefore FinCEN’s unique expertise and central role,” adding that the decision “threatens to undermine the BSA statutory regime and harm U.S. efforts to fight money laundering and terrorist financing” and may affect other regulators and regulated entities.

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