OFAC reaches $508 million settlement with British tobacco company on North Korean transactions
On April 25, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a $508 million settlement with one of the world’s largest tobacco companies to resolve potential civil liabilities stemming from allegations that the company sent more than $250 million in profits from a North Korean joint venture through U.S. financial institutions by relying on designated North Korean banks and several intermediaries. According to OFAC’s web notice, from 2007 to 2016, the London-headquartered company formed a conspiracy to export tobacco and related products to North Korea, and remitted approximately $250 million in payments from the North Korean joint venture. The payments were allegedly remitted through bank accounts controlled by sanctioned North Korean banks to the company’s Singaporean subsidiary via U.S. banks who cleared the transactions. By causing U.S. financial institutions to process wire transfers containing blocked property interests of sanctioned North Korean banks in order to export financial services and facilitate the export of tobacco, the company violated the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations and the North Korea Sanctions Regulations, OFAC said.
According to OFAC, the settlement is the largest ever reached with a non-financial institution and reflects the statutory maximum penalty due to OFAC’s determination that the company’s conduct was egregious and not voluntarily self-disclosed. In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC determined, among other things, that the company and its subsidiaries willfully conspired to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars related to North Korea through U.S. financial institutions while being aware that U.S. sanctions regulations prohibited this conduct. The company and its subsidiaries also allegedly “relied on an opaque series of front companies and intermediaries” to conceal their North-Korea-related business, with management having actual knowledge about the alleged conspiracy from the beginning. OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that the company has not received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years, and that the company cooperated with OFAC and agreed to toll the statute of limitations.
Providing context for the settlement, OFAC said that this action demonstrates that “creating the illusion of distance between a firm and apparently violative conduct does not shield that firm from liability.” Moreover, “[s]enior management decisions to approve or otherwise support arrangements that obscure dealings with sanctioned countries and parties can be reflected throughout an organization, compounding sanctions risks and increasing the likelihood of committing potential violations.”
Concurrently, the DOJ announced that the company and one of its subsidiaries have agreed to pay combined penalties of more than $629 million to resolve bank fraud and sanctions violations charges stemming from the aforementioned conduct. According to the DOJ, the subsidiary pleaded guilty to a criminal information charging both entities with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement related to these charges.