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The DOJ released a statement regarding a plea agreement made with a former loan officer of the Export-Import Bank. According to the DOJ, the former loan officer accepted bribes totaling over $78,000 in exchange for providing favorable action on loan applications. From June 2006 through December 2013, the former loan officer managed the review of credit underwriting for companies and lenders submitting financing applications to the Export-Import Bank and admitted to recommending the approval of unqualified loan applicants on 19 different occasions. In addition, the former loan officer also pleaded guilty to improperly expediting the process of certain applications. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 20, 2015.
On April 23, the U.S. Senate confirmed Loretta Lynch to be the next U.S. Attorney General with a 56-43 majority vote, succeeding current Attorney General Eric Holder. With the confirmation, Lynch, who currently serves as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, becomes the first African-American woman to lead the DOJ.
On April 2, the DOJ announced a guilty plea by a Northern California real estate investor to charges of bid rigging and fraud conspiracy at foreclosure auctions in violation of the Sherman Act. The charges are the outcome of the DOJ’s antitrust investigations into bid rigging and fraud at foreclosure auctions in Northern California, during the course of which 52 individuals have pled guilty to criminal charges. According to the DOJ, the Defendant allegedly worked with others to designate one bidder to win the selected properties at public foreclosure auctions and then held second, private auctions with the conspirators. The DOJ also charged the Defendant with conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection with the bid rigging activities.
DOJ Announces Indictment of U.S. Senator Menendez and Friend Salomon Melgen for Conspiracy, Bribery, and Honest Services Fraud
On April 1, the DOJ indicted Senator Robert Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen for an alleged bribery scheme in which Menendez accepted financial gifts from Melgen in exchange for using his position of power to assist Melgen in furthering financial and personal interests. According to the DOJ, from January 2006 and January 2013, Menendez accepted gifts including a vacation on the coast of the Dominican Republic, hundreds of thousands of dollars to his 2012 Senate campaign, and numerous trips on Melgen’s private jet. In return for these gifts, which were never reported on the appropriate financial disclosure forms, Menendez (i) pressured executive agencies regarding a dispute between Melgen and the Dominican Republic government concerning a contract relating to the “exclusive screening of containers coming through the Dominican ports;” (ii) advocated on Melgen’s behalf in regards to a Medicare billing dispute; and (iii) actively supported the visa applications of persons related to or in a relationship with Melgen.
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 March 16, DOJ Assistant AG Leslie Caldwell delivered remarks at the annual ACAMS anti-money laundering conference regarding the importance of establishing and maintaining robust compliance programs within financial institutions to prevent criminal activity, and recent DOJ enforcement actions taken against financial institutions in the anti-money laundering space. Caldwell outlined the integral parts of an effective compliance program, to include: (i) providing sufficient funding and access to essential resources; (ii) incentivizing compliance and ensuring that disciplinary measures are even handed for low-level and senior employees; and (iii) ensuring that third parties interacting with the institutions understand the institution’s expectations and are serious about compliance management. Caldwell emphasized that the strength of an institution’s compliance program is “an important factor for prosecutors in determining whether to bring charges against a business entity that has engaged in some form of criminal misconduct.” Caldwell highlighted the Criminal Division’s recent actions involving financial fraud and sanctions violations, observing that many have resulted in deferred prosecution agreements or non-prosecution agreements (DPAs and NPAs), enforcement tools the DOJ utilizes in the Criminal Division’s cases. Finally, addressing concerns that the DOJ and other law enforcement authorities have targeted the financial industry for investigation and prosecution, Caldwell stated, “banks and other financial institutions continue to come up on our radar screens because they, and the individuals through which they act, continue to violate the law, maintain ineffective compliance programs or simply turn a blind eye to criminal conduct to preserve profit.”
On March 10, the DOJ announced a $4.9 million civil and criminal settlement with a California-based bank. The bank admitted to the DOJ’s allegations that, from December 2011 through July 2013, it ignored warning signs indicating that its third party processor was defrauding hundreds of thousands of consumers by allowing fraudulent merchants to withdraw money from customers’ accounts without consent. The bank chose to ignore the complaints and inquiries it received regarding the third party processor’s activity, failing to terminate its affiliation with the entity or file a Suspicious Activity Report. The DOJ’s complaint alleges that the bank violated FIRREA; the $4.9 million settlement will cover both the criminal and civil charges, however under an agreed deferred prosecution agreement, criminal charges will be deferred for two years contingent upon the bank admitting to wrongdoing and giving up claims to approximately $2.9 million from accounts seized by the government.
On February 4, a federal jury found Ross Ulbricht guilty on all seven federal charges brought against him in connection with his role in operating the Silk Road website, including narcotics and money laundering charges. According to the government, Mr. Ulbricht created, owned, and operated the website, which functioned as a criminal marketplace for illegal goods and services until the website was shut down in October 2013. This marketplace allowed individuals to sell controlled substances and illegal services, and included a Bitcoin-based payment system that allowed buyers and sellers to conceal their identities. According to Ulbricht’s attorneys, while Ulbricht did create the Silk Road, he turned over operation of the website to other individuals who eventually grew the site into the vast criminal marketplace. Ulbricht faces a sentence of 20 years to life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Forrest on May 15. Ulbricht’s attorney described the verdict as “very disappointing” and is planning to appeal. U.S. v. Ulbricht, No-14-cr-68 (S.D. NY. Feb. 3, 2014).
On January 6, FinCEN released a fact sheet highlighting its Section 314(a) Program of the USA PATRIOT Act. Under the Section 314(a) Program, federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement are able to contact, through FinCEN, over 43,000 points of contact at more than 22,000 financial institutions to locate accounts and transactions of individuals or organizations engaged in, or reasonably suspected of, terrorism or money laundering. According to FinCEN, since its inception, the 314 Program has aided in 1,909 money laundering and 459 terrorism/terrorist financing criminal investigations. In addition, based on feedback from law enforcement, the Program has contributed to 95 percent of 314(a) requests lead to an arrest or indictment.
On December 22, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Sally Yates as the Deputy Attorney General. Since 2010, Yates has served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. If confirmed, Yates would be second-highest ranking official at the DOJ.