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On December 9, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13818 against two individuals and the networks of entities they control, along with eight other affiliated entities. Additionally, this action identifies 157 People’s Republic of China flagged fishing vessels in which these entities have an interest. According to OFAC, the designations “demonstrates the U.S. government’s ongoing effort to impose tangible and significant consequences on those engaged in serious human rights abuse, including on those vessels engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.” OFAC also noted that this is the first time Treasury has designated an entity listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned persons that are in the U.S. or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. Further, “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked.” U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, unless exempt or authorized by a general or specific OFAC license.
On November 22, Ranking Member James Comer (R-KY), Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent a follow-up letter to a global social media company claiming it may have provided misleading or false information about its data sharing and privacy practices related to China. According to the lawmakers, the company claimed in a briefing to the committee that it does not track users’ internet data if they are not using the app, and that China-based employees cannot access U.S. users’ location-specific data—both of which appear to be “misleading at best, and at worst, false.” The lawmakers referenced reports alleging the company “clandestinely” gathers U.S. users’ sensitive internet history, and expressed concerns about statements made by employees responsible for company data that “‘it is impossible to keep data that should not be stored in [China] from being retained in [China]-based servers.’” Claiming the company has withheld information, the lawmakers are seeking additional information, including documents and communications related to the monitoring of U.S. users’ browsing data and location tracking.
On September 29, the SEC issued a cease and desist order against the Chinese affiliate of a global accounting firm for allegedly failing to comply with U.S. professional auditing requirements when conducting component audits of U.S. issuers and auditing foreign companies listed on U.S. exchanges. According to the SEC, during the course of numerous audits, personnel at the Chinese affiliate allegedly, among other things, asked clients to choose their own samples for testing and complete required audit documentation purportedly showing that the Chinese affiliate had obtained and assessed supporting evidence for certain clients’ accounting entries. This was allegedly done in order to create the illusion that the required testing of clients’ financial statements and internal controls had been conducted when there was allegedly no evidence that it had in fact happened. The SEC noted that the alleged misconduct involved both junior and senior audit team members and demonstrated a lack of supervision by audit partners. Moreover, the Chinese affiliate’s alleged failure to follow required Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) auditing standards created a significant threat to U.S. investors.
“While the SEC’s action today does not implicate a violation of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, the action does underscore the need for the [PCAOB] to be able to inspect Chinese audit firms,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said in the announcement. “A fundamental goal of the PCAOB’s inspection regime is to identify weaknesses in the firms’ quality control processes—the very weaknesses at issue in this case.”
Without admitting or denying the allegations, the Chinese affiliate agreed to settle the charges by paying a $20 million civil money penalty and implementing extensive remedial measures, including completing a review and assessment of its policies and procedures by an independent consultant and implementing a course of action to address identified deficiencies. Audit professionals at the Chinese affiliate who serve U.S. public company audit clients are also required to undertake additional training.
On September 6, SEC acting Chief Accountant Paul Munter issued a warning to Chinese companies that they may face enforcement actions if they switch auditing firms to remain listed in the U.S. that do not follow applicable standards. Munter pointed to instances of foreign issuers, especially those located in China or Hong Kong, “changing their lead auditor from a local registered public accounting firm to a registered public accounting firm located either in the U.S. or elsewhere, generally within the same network.” According to Munter, these types of arrangements create “special challenges that raise questions about whether the newly engaged registered public accounting firms—whether located in the U.S. or elsewhere—will be able to satisfy their responsibilities to serve as the lead auditor.” Munter noted that the U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), the China Securities Regulatory Commission, and the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China, recently signed a Statement of Protocol governing inspections and investigations of audit firms based in China or Hong Kong. He said, however, that certain issuers based in China and Hong Kong have started structuring audits with registered public accounting firms located either in the U.S. or elsewhere “to avoid the potential of consecutive PCAOB [Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act] determinations and a potential resultant trading prohibition.” Issuers and firms looking to avoid compliance could result in investigations and enforcement actions by the PCAOB, the SEC, or both.
On July 6, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13846 against an international network of individuals and entities for facilitating the delivery and sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products from Iranian companies to East Asia through a web of Gulf-based front companies. The designations follow OFAC sanctions announced June 16 against a network of Iranian petrochemical producers, as well as front companies in the People’s Republic of China and the United Arab Emirates, working to support Iranian petrochemical sales (covered by InfoBytes here). As a result, all property and interests in property of the sanctioned persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked and must be reported to OFAC, as well as any entities owned 50 percent or more by such persons. U.S. persons are also generally prohibited from entering into transactions with the sanctioned persons. Additionally, OFAC warned that “any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of the individuals or entities designated today could be subject to U.S. sanctions.”
On June 16, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against a network of Iranian petrochemical producers, as well as front companies in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for supporting two entities connected to the sale of Iranian petrochemicals abroad. According to OFAC, the designated network "helps effectuate international transactions and evade sanctions, supporting the sale of Iranian petrochemical products to customers in the PRC and the rest of East Asia.” As a result, all property and interests in property of the sanctioned persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, as well as any entities owned 50 percent or more by such persons. U.S. persons are also generally prohibited from entering into transactions with the sanctioned persons. Additionally, OFAC warned that “any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for any of the individuals or entities designated today could be subject to U.S. sanctions.”
On June 1, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) published three new frequently asked questions related to the Chinese military-industrial complex sanctions. As previously covered by InfoBytes, Executive Order 13959, as amended, addressed threats from securities investments that finance Communist Chinese military companies. The FAQs address questions pertaining to (i) whether U.S. financial institutions are required to block the attempted purchase or sale of covered securities after the relevant 365-day divestment period; (ii) whether U.S. financial institutions are permitted to process transactions for holders of covered securities related to stock splits, cash dividends, or dividend reinvestments; and (iii) whether U.S. persons are required to divest their holdings of covered securities before the end of the relevant 365-day divestment period.
On March 16, NYDFS announced the imposition of an $8.25 million fine on a money transmitter alleged to have violated anti-money laundering (“AML”) requirements and New York law by failing to adequately supervise local agents in New York City that processed an unusual volume of suspicious transactions to China. NYDFS conducted an examination and enforcement investigation, which found that the company “did not adequately oversee the activity of six agents that saw a large spike in transaction volume of business with China.” According to the investigation, there were roughly 7,500 transactions aggregating approximately $30 million in 2014. These figures rose to more than 25,000 transactions aggregating more than $100 million during the period between January 2016 and May 2017. Most of these transactions were processed by small, store-front independent agents—“a clear indicator of increased money laundering risk, particularly given that the destination was known to carry a high AML risk,” NYDFS stated, adding that the company should have also addressed risks resulting from a suspicious pattern of different senders transmitting money to the same recipient. NYDFS acknowledged that the company, when alerted to the increased transaction activity, severed its relationship with the problematic agents and implemented remedial measures to improve supervision of its agents. Under the terms of the consent order, the company will pay an $8.25 civil money penalty and is required to submit a report to NYDFS outlining enhancements made with respect to new and existing agents, suspicious activity reporting program, and special transaction limitations. Additionally, NYDFS announced that the company will also update the Department on improvements to the policies and procedures of its Bank Secrecy Act/AML compliance program and will provide data to NYDFS for ongoing monitoring purposes.
On February 15, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it is adding regulations to implement a November 2020 Executive Order (E.O.), which is related to securities investments that finance Communist Chinese military companies, as amended by a June 2021 E.O. related to the Chinese military-industrial complex and Chinese surveillance technology. As previously covered by InfoBytes, President Biden issued E.O. 14032, “Addressing the Threat from Securities Investments that Finance Communist Chinese Military Companies.” The E.O. took additional steps pursuant to the national emergency declared pursuant to E.O. 13959 (covered by Infobytes here), including the threat posed by the military-industrial complex of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and “its involvement in military, intelligence, and security research and development programs, and weapons and related equipment production under the PRC’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy.” According to OFAC, with respect to the recent regulations, the agency “intends to supplement these regulations with a more comprehensive set of regulations, which may include additional interpretive guidance and definitions, general licenses, and other regulatory provisions.” The regulations took effect February 16.
Additionally, OFAC announced that it is publishing an amendment to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations “to revise an existing general license authorizing the provision of certain legal services and add a general license authorizing payments for legal services from funds originating outside the United States.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The amendment also took effect February 16.
On February 4, the U.S. House passed, by a vote of 222-210, the “America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act” H.R. 4521, which aims to strengthen the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and U.S. businesses, and counters anti-competitive actions taken by the People’s Republic of China. The COMPETES Act includes provisions affecting financial services, such as:
- U.S. Policy on World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank Loans to China. This provision would, among other things, direct Treasury to vote against any loans to China from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank under certain circumstances, and allow borrowing countries to seek restructuring of China loans in official multilateral debt relief forums.
- Prohibitions or Conditions on Certain Transmittal of Funds. This provision would streamline the process by which special measures may be introduced and modernizes the authorities granted to the FinCEN by permitting the agency to pursue bad actors.
- Study on Chinese Support for Afghan Illicit Finance. This provision would direct Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence to brief Congress on the identification and analysis of Chinese economic, commercial, and financial connections to Afghanistan, to include illicit financial networks involved in narcotics trafficking, illicit financial transactions, official corruption, natural resources exploitation, and terrorist networks.
- Support for Debt Relief for Developing Countries. This provision would direct the Treasury secretary and U.S. representatives at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to engage with international financial institutions, official creditors, and relevant commercial creditor groups to advocate for the effective implementation of the G-20’s Common Framework.