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On January 8, the Federal Reserve Board announced an enforcement action against a Texas bank for alleged weaknesses in its anti-money laundering risk management and compliance programs, including failure to comply with applicable rules and regulations, such as the Bank Secrecy Act. Under the terms of the order, the bank is required to (i) develop and implement a written plan to strengthen the board of directors’ oversight of Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) compliance; (ii) submit an enhanced written compliance program that complies with BSA/AML requirements; (iii) ensure the bank provides effective training for all personnel related to BSA/AML compliance responsibilities; (iv) submit an enhanced, written customer due diligence plan; (v) submit a program to ensure compliant, timely, and accurate suspicious activity monitoring and reporting; (vi) retain an independent third party to ensure the effectiveness of the bank’s transaction monitoring system; and (vii) submit a written plan for independent testing of the bank’s compliance with all applicable BSA/AML requirements. A civil money penalty was not assessed against the bank.
On December 26, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) entered into a Letter of Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC), fining a broker-dealer $10 million for failing to establish and enforce an anti-money laundering (AML) program that complies with Bank Secrecy Act and implementing regulation requirements. According to FINRA, alleged failures in the firm’s automated AML surveillance system allowed transactions from countries with “high money laundering risk” to flow through the financial system from January 2011 through at least April 2016. Furthermore, the firm allegedly failed to (i) devote sufficient resources to reviewing suspicious transactions; (ii) adequately monitor customers’ penny stock trades and deposits for suspicious activities; and (iii) adequately monitor and conduct risk-based reviews of correspondent accounts of certain foreign financial institutions.
The firm neither admitted nor denied the findings set forth in the AWC agreement, but agreed to address identified deficiencies in its programs. FINRA further noted that the firm “has taken extraordinary steps and devoted substantial resources since 2013 to expand and enhance its AML policies and procedures.”
On December 20, the U.S. Treasury Department issued the National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing (the National Illicit Finance Strategy). Pursuant to Sections 261 and 262 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), the National Illicit Finance Strategy describes current U.S. government efforts to combat domestic and international illicit finance threats in the areas of terrorist financing, proliferation financing, and money laundering, and discusses potential risks, priorities and objectives, as well as areas for improvement. The document addresses the strengths of U.S. counter-illicit finance efforts, including the legal and regulatory framework, as well as efforts undertaken to improve the effectiveness of national safeguards currently in place due to changes in technology and emerging threats. Recent efforts include a working group formed earlier in December to explore ways to modernize the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering regulatory regime and encourage banks and credit unions to explore innovative approaches such as artificial intelligence, digital identity technologies, and internal financial intelligence units to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit financial threats when safeguarding the financial system (see previous InfoBytes coverage here).
On December 19, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced it filed charges against a Kansas-based broker-dealer for allegedly willfully failing to file a suspicious activity report (SAR) in connection with the illegal activities of one of its customers in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). According to the announcement, this is the first criminal BSA action ever brought against a U.S. broker-dealer. The allegations are connected to the actions of the broker-dealer’s customer, who was the owner of a Kansas-based payday lending scheme that was ordered to pay a $1.3 billion judgment for making false and misleading representations about loan costs and payments in violation of the FTC Act (previously covered by InfoBytes here). The U.S. Attorney alleges the broker-dealer, among other things, failed to follow its customer identification procedures, disregarded “red flags that were known prior to [the customer] opening the accounts,” and continued to ignore additional red flags that arose over time. Additionally, the U.S. Attorney alleges the broker-dealer failed to monitor transactions using its anti-money laundering (AML) tool, which led to numerous suspicious transactions going undetected and unreported until long after the customer was convicted at trial for his actions in the scheme.
Along with the announcement of the filing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office further stated it had entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the broker-dealer in which it agreed to accept responsibility for its conduct, pay a $400,000 penalty, and enhance its BSA/AML compliance program.
The SEC also settled with the broker-dealer for the failure to file the SARs. The settlement requires the broker-dealer to hire an independent consultant to review its AML and customer identification program and implement any recommended changes. The independent consultant will monitor for compliance with the recommendations for two years.
On December 17 and 19, press reports indicate Malaysian prosecutors filed criminal charges against a New York-based financial institution and numerous individuals, including former executives of the financial institution, in connection with their alleged roles in a multi-billion bribery and money laundering scheme involving Malaysia sovereign wealth fund.
Malaysian prosecutors charged the financial institution with making false and misleading statements when raising money for the fund. Among individuals, a former participating managing director of the financial institution, and a former managing director, also were charged. These charges follow the U.S. government’s investigation and charges related to the same scheme.
As detailed in prior FCPA Scorecard coverage, the former participating managing director pleaded guilty in November to Conspiracy to Violate the FCPA and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering and agreed to forfeit $43.7 million. The DOJ charged the former managing director with similar offenses and, according to press reports, is fighting extradition to the United States.
According to press reports, in response to the filing of the criminal charges in Malaysia, the financial institution stated: “Under the Malaysian legal process, the firm was not afforded an opportunity to be heard prior to the filing of these charges against certain financial institution entities, which we intend to vigorously contest. These charges do not affect our ability to conduct our current business globally.”
The DOJ has not charged or reached a resolution with the financial institution, which previously announced that it was cooperating with the DOJ’s and all regulators’ investigations. The announcement of the Malaysian charges suggests that the U.S. DOJ and Malaysian prosecutors may not be coordinating efforts.
On December 10, a former procurement officer of a Venezuela’s state-owned and state-controlled energy company, pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing an investigation into bribes paid by the owner of U.S.-based companies to Venezuelan government officials in exchange for securing additional business with the company and payment priority on outstanding issues. The former procurement officer, who previously worked for the company in Houston, Texas, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.
The charge stems from a guilty plea he entered on December 10, 2015, to one count of conspiracy to launder money and one count of making false statements on his federal income tax return. Under the terms of a plea agreement in that case, he agreed to cooperate with the investigation by being interviewed by the United States, and to providing “truthful, complete and accurate information” to government agents and attorneys. In the latest plea, though, he admitted that after his earlier plea, he concealed facts about bribes paid to the company by a target of the investigation, referred to as Co-Conspirator 1 in the indictment. Additionally, he informed Co-Conspirator 1 that U.S. government authorities were investigating Co-Conspirator 1, and provided Co-Conspirator 1 with information about the investigation, including the topics discussed in his meetings with the government. Consequently, Co-Conspirator 1 destroyed evidence and attempted to flee the country in July 2018. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 19, 2019.
On December 17, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and the SEC announced separate settlements (see here, here, and here) with a global broker-dealer following investigations into the firm’s anti-money laundering (AML) programs. According to FINRA, the broker-dealer and its affiliated securities firm allegedly failed to establish and implement AML processes reasonably designed to detect and report potentially high-risk transactions, including foreign currency wire transfers to and from countries known to be at high risk for money laundering, as well as penny stock transactions processed through the use of an omnibus account on behalf of undisclosed customers. FINRA alleged that from January 2004 to April 2017, the broker-dealer “processed thousands of foreign currency wires for billions of dollars, without sufficient oversight.”
In a separate investigation conducted by FinCEN in conjunction with FINRA and the SEC, the broker-dealer reached a settlement over allegations that it failed to, among other things, (i) develop and implement a risk-based AML program that “adequately addressed the risks associated with accounts that included both traditional brokerage and banking-like services”; (ii) implement policies and procedures, which would ensure the detection and reporting of suspicious activity through all accounts, particularly for those accounts with little to no securities training; (iii) “implement an adequate due diligence program for foreign correspondent accounts”; and (iv) provide sufficient staffing, leading to a backlog of alerts and decreased ability to file suspicious activity reports (SARs).
According to the SEC's investigation, from at least 2011 to 2013, the broker-dealer allegedly failed to file SARs as required by the Bank Secrecy Act’s reporting requirements and Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Among other things, the SEC also claimed that the broker-dealer (i) provided customers with other services, such as cross-border wires, internal transfers between accounts and check writing, which increased its susceptibility to risks of money laundering and other types of associated illicit financial activity; and (ii) “did not properly review suspicious transactions flagged by its internal monitoring systems and failed to detect suspicious transactions involving the movement of funds between certain accounts in suspicious long-term patterns.”
After factoring in remedial actions, the broker-dealer has been assessed total civil money penalties of $14.5 million, including a $500,000 fine against the securities firm.
On December 11, the FTC entered into a proposed settlement with an Arizona-based company and its officer (defendants) relating to an allegedly deceptive credit card telemarketing operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the defendants—as part of a larger group of 12 defendants comprised of an independent sales organization, sales agents, payment processors, and identified principals—violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by assisting a telemarketing company in masking its identity by processing the company’s credit card payments and laundering credit card transactions on behalf of multiple fictitious companies. The proposed settlement, among other things, prohibits the defendants from engaging in credit card laundering and bans them from telemarketing, processing payments, or acting as an independent sales organization or sales agent. The order also stipulates a judgment of $5.7 million, which will be suspended unless it is determined that the financial statements submitted by the defendants contain any inaccuracies.
In March 2018, the FTC reached settlements with two of the other defendants (see InfoBytes coverage here). Litigation continues against the remaining defendants.
Agencies encourage financial institutions to explore innovative industry approaches to BSA/AML compliance
On December 3, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released a joint statement along with federal banking agencies—the Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, NCUA, and OCC (together, the “agencies”)—to encourage banks and credit unions to explore innovative approaches such as artificial intelligence, digital identity technologies, and internal financial intelligence units to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit financial threats when safeguarding the financial system. According to the agencies, private sector innovation and the adoption of new technologies can enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) compliance programs. Moreover, new innovations and technologies can also enhance transaction monitoring systems. Specifically, the agencies urged banks to test innovative programs to explore the use of artificial intelligence. However, the agencies emphasized that while feedback on innovative programs may be provided, the “pilot programs in and of themselves should not subject banks to supervisory criticism even if the pilot programs ultimately prove unsuccessful. Likewise, pilot programs that expose gaps in a BSA/AML compliance program will not necessarily result in supervisory action with respect to that program.” The joint statement further specifies that the agencies will be willing to grant exceptive relief from BSA regulatory requirements to facilitate pilot programs, “provided that banks maintain the overall effectiveness of their BSA/AML compliance programs.” However, banks that maintain effective compliance programs but choose not to innovate will not be penalized or criticized.
According to Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker, “[a]s money launderers and other illicit actors constantly evolve their tactics, we want the compliance community to likewise adapt their efforts to counter these threats,” pointing to the recent use of innovative technologies to identify and report illicit financial activity related to both Iran and North Korea.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, earlier in October the agencies provided guidance on resource sharing between banks and credit unions in order to more efficiently and effectively manage their BSA/AML obligations.
On December 3, the OCC released its Semiannual Risk Perspective for Fall 2018, identifying and reiterating key risk areas that pose a threat to the safety and soundness of national banks and federal savings associations. The report focuses on risks to the federal banking system based on five areas: the operating environment, bank performance, special topics in emerging risk, trends in key risks, and supervisory actions. Overall, loans and bank profitability grew in 2018 as the U.S. economy continued to grow. Moreover, recent examination findings indicate incremental improvements in banks’ general risk management practices. Specific risk areas of concern noted by the OCC include: (i) the origination quality of new loans and potential embedded risks from previously successive years of relaxed underwriting standards; (ii) an increasingly complex operating environment, including the continually evolving threat to cybersecurity; (iii) elevated money-laundering risks; and (iv) rising market interest rates, including certain risks associated with heightened competition for deposits.
The report also notes that outstanding enforcement actions continue to decline since peaking in 2010, which, according to the OCC, reflects an overall improvement in, among other things, banks’ risk management practices. The leading cause of current enforcement actions continues to be compliance or operational failures.
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