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On April 25, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a roughly $6 million settlement with a freight forwarding and logistics company for allegedly processing transactions in violation of Iran-Related Sanctions Regulations, among others. According to OFAC’s web notice, between approximately January 2013 and February 2019, the company processed payments through the U.S. financial system in connection with sea, air, and rail shipments to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, and Syria, involving the property or interests in property of an entity on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN List) in apparent violation of OFAC sanctions. Specifically, in processing such payments, the company allegedly “failed to adopt or implement policies and controls that prevented it from conducting transactions that involved designated parties or persons in sanctioned jurisdictions.”
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered various aggravating factors, including, among other things, that (i) the company “acted with reckless disregard for U.S. economic sanctions laws when, over the period of six years, it caused at least 2,958 payments involving shipments from, to, or through sanctioned jurisdictions or the blocked property or an interest in blocked property of entities on the SDN List to be routed through U.S. financial institutions”; (ii) the company had knowledge “of the apparent violations”; and (iii) nearly “14 percent of the apparent violations were for transactions involving entities blocked by OFAC for terrorism or [weapons of mass destruction (WMD)] concerns.” OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that the company (i) has not received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years; (ii) “voluntarily self-disclosed the apparent violations to OFAC and cooperated with OFAC’s investigation”; and (iii) “ultimately took extensive actions to remedy its compliance gaps.”
Providing context for the settlement, OFAC stated that this “action highlights the importance of instituting strong internal controls and procedures to govern payments involving affiliates, subsidiaries, agents, or other counterparties when any of them conduct business with sanctioned jurisdictions or persons.”
On March 30, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, as amended, as well as E.O. 13382, against an Iran-based procurement agent and his network of companies that supported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Research and Self Sufficiency Jihad Organization (IRGC), the IRGC unit responsible for the research and development of ballistic missiles, as well as Iran’s Parchin Chemical Industries (PCI), an element of Iran’s Defense Industries Organization. Additionally, OFAC sanctioned an Iranian intermediary involved in the procurement of parts used to develop missile propellant on behalf of PCI.
According to OFAC, the sanctions follow Iran’s missile attack on March 13 in Erbil, Iraq and an Iranian-enabled Houthi missile attack against a Saudi Aramco facility on March 25, in addition to other missile attacks by Iranian proxies against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 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, and “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more” by the targeted persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.
On February 23, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 against members of an international network for funding the Houthis’ war against Yemen and threatening civilians and infrastructure in neighboring states. According to OFAC, the group is led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and a Houthi financier, which has transferred money to Yemen via a complex international network of intermediaries in support of the Houthis’ attacks. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June 2021, OFAC designated the Houthi financier and members of his network pursuant to E.O. 13224, for their role in generating revenue through the sale of commodities such as petroleum to fund the Houthis. OFAC also noted that “the Houthis continue their destructive campaign inside Yemen, and have repeatedly launched ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that have struck civilian infrastructure in neighboring states, resulting in civilian casualties.” As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned individuals, and “any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more” by the individuals that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. OFAC’s announcement further noted that OFAC regulations “generally prohibit” U.S. persons from participating in transactions with designated persons or their blocked property, and foreign financial institutions that knowingly participate in significant transactions related to the designated individuals risk exposure to sanctions that could discontinue their access to the U.S. financial system or block their property or interests in property under U.S. jurisdiction.
OFAC reaches $5.2 million settlement with Hong Kong company for apparent Iranian sanctions violations
On January 11, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced a $5.2 million settlement with a Hong Kong, China-based company for allegedly processing certain transactions related to goods of Iranian origin through U.S. financial institutions in violation of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR). According to OFAC’s web notice, from August 2016 through May 2018, certain company employees violated company-wide policies and procedures by causing the company to purchase Iranian-origin goods from a supplier in Thailand for resale to buyers in China. Under the terms of the trading arrangement, the company made 60 separate U.S. dollar payments from its bank in Hong Kong to the Thai supplier’s banks in Thailand, transferring a total of $75.6 million. Each of these payments were allegedly “processed and settled through multiple U.S. financial institutions, including the U.S. correspondent banks of the Hong Kong and Thai banks.” Due to the noncompliant employees’ misconduct, the funds transfer instructions omitted references to Iran. As a result, U.S. financial institutions were unable to flag the transfers as violating the ITSR, which would have “caused them to reject and report each of these U.S. dollar denominated funds transfers.”
In calculating the settlement amount, OFAC considered the following aggravating factors: (i) the noncompliant employees omitted Iranian country of origin references from all relevant transactional documents over a period of two years, despite knowing and having been advised repeatedly that this conduct violated the ITSR and company policy; (ii) the noncompliant employees “had actual knowledge about the [supplier’s] relation to Iran”; (iii) the company’s actions conferred significant economic benefits to Iran, specifically with respect to Iran’s petrochemical sector; and (iv) the company “is a sophisticated offshore trading and cross-border trade financing company with ready access to experience and expertise in international trade, investment, financing, and sanctions compliance.”
OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that (i) the company repeatedly reminded noncompliant employees not to make U.S. dollar payments in connection with Iran-related business transactions; (ii) senior management and compliance personnel were unaware of the violations due to the concealment of the information internally; (iii) the company has not received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years; and (iv) the company voluntarily self-disclosed the apparent violations, cooperated with OFAC’s investigation, and has undertaken significant remedial measures to ensure sanctions compliance.
On December 8, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a $133,860 settlement against an individual for allegedly facilitating four payments on behalf of an Iranian company using a personal bank account in the U.S., in violation of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR), 31. C.F.R. part 560. According to OFAC’s web notice, between February 2016 and March 2016, the individual accepted $133,860 in the U.S., which went to a personal bank account, on behalf of an Iran-based company selling Iranian-origin cement to another company for a project in a third country.
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered various aggravating factors, including, among other things, that the individual: (i) willfully was in violation of or recklessly ignored U.S. sanctions on Iran when receiving payments on behalf of an Iranian company; (ii) was aware of, and actively participated in, the violations; and (iii) “harmed the objectives of the ITSR by enabling the evasion of sanctions by an Iranian company.” OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that the individual did not receive a penalty notice, finding of violation, or cautionary letter from OFAC in the past five years, and is a natural person with a limited ability to pay.
On November 18, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13848 against six Iranian individuals and one Iranian entity for allegedly attempting to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election. According to OFAC, “state-sponsored Iranian cyber actors executed an online operation to intimidate and influence American voters, and to undermine voter confidence and sow discord” by obtaining or attempting to obtain U.S. voter information, sending threatening and intimidating emails to voters, crafting and disseminating “disinformation pertaining to the election and election security,” and illicitly accessing “content management accounts of several online U.S. media entities, which resulted in their ability to edit and create fraudulent content.” 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 “financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned entity and individuals may expose themselves to sanctions or be subject to an enforcement action.”
The sanctions are part of a collective effort with the U.S. Department of State and the FBI. Concurrent with the designations, the DOJ unsealed an indictment against two of the sanctioned individuals. The DOJ charged the Iranian nationals with (i) conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse, voter intimidation, and transmission of interstate threats, (ii) voter intimidation, and (iii) transmission of interstate threats. One of the individuals was additionally charged with unauthorized computer intrusion and computer fraud.
On October 29, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, as amended, as well as E.O. 13382, against members of a network of companies and individuals that supported Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its expeditionary unit, the IRGC Qods Force (IRGC-QF). The IRGC-QF used and proliferated lethal Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for use by Iran-supported terrorist groups, and to Ethiopia, where a crisis threatens to destabilize the region. Additionally, deadly UAVs were utilized in attacks on international shipping and on the U.S. OFAC also announced sanctions against the commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force (IRGC ASF) UAV Command who allegedly directs the planning, equipment, and training for IRGC ASF UAV operations. As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned individual subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked. U.S. persons are also generally prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.
On October 13, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied a relator’s motion seeking indicative relief, ruling that post-ruling news reports were insufficient to reverse the dismissal of a qui tam suit accusing a UK-based bank and related entities (collectively, “defendants”) of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. In 2020, the court dismissed the complaint after finding that the government “had articulated multiple valid purposes served by dismissal, and that relator had not carried its burden to show that a dismissal would be ‘fraudulent, arbitrary or capricious, or illegal.’” The relator’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is pending. At the district court, the relator moved for indicative relief based on the premise that if the court had jurisdiction, it would have vacated the dismissal based on disclosures in post-dismissal media reports.
According to the opinion, the defendants entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the DOJ in 2012 following a multi-year, multi-agency investigation concerning allegations that defendants deceptively facilitated U.S. dollar transactions by Iranian clients between 2001 and 2007 in violation of U.S. sanctions and various New York and federal banking regulations. The defendants admitted to the violations and paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and penalties. The relator subsequently filed a qui tam action alleging the defendants misled the government in negotiating the DPA. A government investigation found no support for the allegations. In 2019, the DOJ entered a new DPA with defendants. The relator amended its complaint alleging improper conduct related to the 2019 DPA, which the court dismissed.
The relator then filed the instant motion to reopen the case, arguing that news reports published in 2020 showed that the defendants engaged in transactions with sanctioned Iranian entities after 2007, which was contrary to the government’s representations when it moved to dismiss the case. The relator claimed that the government incorrectly asserted that it closely examined records before seeking dismissal and failed to honestly conclude that the allegations were meritless. In denying the relator’s motion, the court explained that the relator failed to show that the news reports would be admissible or were important enough to change the outcome of the earlier motion to dismiss. The court held that news reports are inadmissible and further concluded that none of the suspicious activity reports discussed in the news reports contradicted the government’s representations in its motion to dismiss.
On September 30, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced the publication of a new Iran-related FAQ. FAQ 932 clarifies that “transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from Iran by U.S. persons are within an exemption under the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR), 31 C.F.R. part 560, and therefore generally are not prohibited.” OFAC also noted that U.S. persons could be prohibited from engaging in transactions associated with persons blocked by sanctions programs or authorities outside the scope of the ITSR.
The same week, on October 1, OFAC announced the publication of a new Venezuela-related FAQ. FAQ 933 clarifies that authorizations in paragraph (a) of Venezuela-related General Licenses 7C and 20B, respectively, have not expired.
On September 17, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13224 against members of Lebanon- and Kuwait-based financial conduits that fund Hizballah. In addition, OFAC designated members of an international network of financial facilitators and front companies connected to Hizballah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Together, these networks allegedly “laundered tens of millions of dollars through regional financial systems and conducted currency exchanges and trades” for the benefit of both entities. According to OFAC, Hizballah, supported by the IRGC-QF, utilized the revenues from these networks to fund terrorism, and condoned instability throughout the region. As a result, all property and interests in property belonging to the designated persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and any “entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by them, individually, or with other blocked persons, that are in the United States or in control of a U.S. person must be blocked.” U.S. persons are “generally prohibited from engaging in transactions” with the designated members. OFAC further warned that the agency “can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that either knowingly conducted or facilitated any significant transaction on behalf of a Specially Designated Global Terrorist or, among other things, knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for Hizballah or certain persons designated for their connection to Hizballah.”
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