Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On September 15, the DOJ announced a settlement with a Texas-based furniture and appliance company, resolving allegations that the company charged excess interest on servicemembers’ purchases in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). According to the press release, the DOJ launched an investigation into the company after receiving a referral from a United States Army Staff Judge Advocate. After receiving notice of the investigation, the company conducted a self-audit and determined that between March 2014 and May 2019, it had not granted the request for the full six percent interest rate cap required by the SCRA for 184 out of the 322 servicemembers that requested the relief. The complaint, filed by the DOJ in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, states that the company “engaged in a pattern or practice of violating” the SCRA by “failing or refusing to timely and/or accurately lower the interest rate on pre-service obligations obtained by at least 184 SCRA protected servicemembers to 6% per year after being provided with the documentation required by the SCRA.”
The settlement notes that the company voluntarily disclosed its findings to the DOJ and issued over $59,000 in refund checks and over $28,000 in account credits to affected servicemembers. The settlement requires the company to pay an additional $500 to each affected servicemember, and to hire an independent consultant to determine if any other servicemembers were overcharged. Additionally, the company is required to make a $50,000 payment to the United States.
On September 10, the DOJ announced a Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) settlement with a Florida-based towing and storage company, resolving allegations that the company auctioned cars owned by active duty servicemembers without first obtaining a court order. According to the complaint, filed on the same day as the settlement, the DOJ initiated the investigation into the company after “becoming aware of a complaint” by a U.S. Navy Lieutenant whose car was towed while he was deployed abroad. The DOJ asserts that between 2013 and 2020, the company “auctioned off motor vehicles, without court orders, belonging to at least 33 SCRA-protected servicemembers.” The settlement requires the company to pay nearly $100,000 in compensation to affected servicemembers and a $20,000 civil money penalty. Additionally, the company must develop new SCRA policies and procedures for enforcing storage liens and provide annual SCRA compliance training to all of its employees.
On September 10, in remarks at the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Criminal Fraud Enforcement Action press conference, Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Rabbitt provided an overview of recent PPP enforcement actions and noted that “[m]any financial institutions have been strong partners” in assisting the DOJ with “detecting and investigating potentially fraudulent activity in connection with the PPP.” In addition to partnerships with private institutions, Rabbitt emphasized the agency’s data analytics capabilities as a key component in their ability to bring PPP fraud cases quickly—within six months, the DOJ has charged 57 defendants in at least 19 federal judicial districts. Moreover, Rabbitt discussed commonalities among the cases, including the “defendants’ use of their stolen PPP funds for entirely illegitimate purposes” having nothing to do with the intended relief. In total, according to the DOJ, the current charges against the 57 defendants “involve attempts to steal over $175 million from the PPP” and over $70 million in “actual losses to the federal government.”
On August 31, the DOJ announced that a company operating in South East Asia has pleaded guilty to “conspiring to launder monetary instruments in connection with evading sanctions on North Korea and deceiving correspondent banks into processing U.S. dollar transactions.” The company admitted and accepted responsibility for the criminal conduct and will pay a $673,714 fine. According to the DOJ, from at least February 2017 until at least May 2018, the company’s dual invoicing practices and false statements concealed the purchase of commodities for North Korean customers, leading to U.S. correspondent banks processing U.S. dollar transactions that would otherwise not have been authorized. Among other things, the company and its co-conspirators admitted to using front companies to “conceal the North Korean nexus,” including utilizing financial cutouts and falsifying shipping records. These actions, the DOJ stated, circumvented the U.S. correspondent banks’ sanction and anti-money laundering filters, which are designed to prevent banks from processing wire transfers on behalf of customers located in North Korea. In addition to paying the financial penalty, the company has agreed to “implement rigorous internal controls” and cooperate fully with the DOJ.
On August 28, the DOJ and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced (see here and here) they had entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with a multinational nutrition company headquartered in Los Angeles, in which the company agreed to pay a criminal fine of over $55.7 million related to violations of the FCPA’s books and records provisions. According to the DOJ, the company “knowingly and willfully conspired with others in a scheme to falsify its books and records and provide corrupt payments and benefits to Chinese government officials.” Between 2007 and 2016, the company’s books showed that its Chinese subsidiary reimbursed its employees “more than $25 million for entertaining and giving gifts to Chinese government officials and Chinese media personnel. . ., some of which was used for improper purposes,” which the DOJ said was part of a scheme to obtain, retain, and increase business in China and remove negative media reports about the subsidiary. The payments were used to obtain and retain “certain direct selling licenses for its wholly-owned subsidiaries in China” and to “improperly influenc[e] certain Chinese governmental investigations into [the subsidiary’s] compliance with Chinese laws,” as well as to influence state-owned or controlled media.
As part of the deferred prosecution agreement, the company agreed to cooperate with the DOJ’s ongoing or future criminal investigations and to enhance its compliance program. The company received credit for cooperating with the investigation and taking remedial measures such as “terminating and disciplining individuals who orchestrated the misconduct, adopting heightened controls and anti-corruption protocols, and significantly increasing the resources devoted to compliance.”
The SEC simultaneously announced a resolution in which the company agreed to pay over $58.6 million in disgorgement and more than $8.6 million in prejudgment interest to settle allegations that the company violated the FCPA’s books and records and internal accounting controls provisions.
On August 21, the FDIC, Federal Reserve Board, FinCEN, NCUA, and OCC issued a joint statement clarifying that banks should ensure customers who may be considered “politically exposed persons” (PEPs) be subject to customer due diligence matching the risk levels posed by the relationships. In general, while PEPs are not defined within the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) regulations, they commonly refer to “foreign individuals who are or have been entrusted with a prominent public function, as well as their immediate family members and close associates.” U.S. public officials are not included. Specifically, the agencies emphasized that not all individuals who might qualify as PEPs “are high risk solely by virtue of their status.” While FinCEN’s customer due diligence rule (CDD rule), requires banks to identify and verify the identities of new account holders, assess the riskiness of these customer relationships, and conduct ongoing monitoring (see InfoBytes coverage of the CDD Rule here), the agencies note that “the CDD rule does not create a regulatory requirement, and there is no supervisory expectation, for banks to have unique, additional due diligence steps for customers who are considered PEPs. Instead, the level and type of CDD should be appropriate for the customer risk.”
The joint statement also outlines a number of considerations for banks to take into account when evaluating a PEP’s risk level, including the type of products and services used, the volume and nature of transactions, the nature of the customer’s authority or influence over government activities or officials, and the customer’s access to significant government assets or funds. Among other impacts, the agencies note that the customer risk profile may effect “how the bank complies with other regulatory requirements, such as suspicious activity monitoring, since the bank structures its BSA/AML compliance program to address its risk profile, based on the bank’s assessment of risks.” The joint statement also rescinds the 2001 Guidance on Enhanced Scrutiny for Transactions that May Involve the Proceeds of Foreign Corruption related to foreign PEPs.
The agencies emphasized, however, that the joint statement does not change existing BSA/AML legal or regulatory requirements, nor does it “require banks to cease existing risk management practices if the bank considers them necessary to effectively manage risk.”
OFAC sanctions persons for providing support to Iranian airline, DOJ files concurrent criminal charges
On August 19, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two companies, as well as the owner of one of the companies, pursuant to Executive Order 13224 for allegedly providing material support to an Iranian airline previously “designated under counterterrorism authorities for support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), as well as under a counter proliferation authority that targets weapons of mass destruction proliferators and their supporters.” According to OFAC, the designated persons allegedly provided services to assist the airline sustain its fleet of aircraft and allow it to support the IRGC-QF, as well as transport Iranian technicians and technical equipment to Venezuela to support the Maduro regime. The designations follow a recent OFAC action that targeted a China-based company for allegedly acting as a general sales agent for or on behalf of the Iranian airline (covered by InfoBytes here), and serves as “another warning to the international aviation community of the sanctions risk for individuals and entities that choose to maintain commercial relationships with [the Iranian airline] and other designated airlines.” As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property of the designated persons that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC. OFAC further noted that its regulations “generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, unless licensed or exempt,” and warned foreign financial institutions that knowingly facilitating significant transactions or providing significant financial services to the designated persons may subject them to U.S. correspondent account or payable-through sanctions.
On the same day, the DOJ announced criminal charges against the designated individual and one of the companies for allegedly conspiring to violate U.S. export laws, defraud the U.S., and violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSRs).
On August 18, the DOJ announced (see here and here) two separate Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) actions. First, the DOJ filed a complaint against a Massachusetts-based moving and storage company for failing to obtain a court order prior to auctioning an active duty servicemember’s storage unit, while he was deployed overseas. The DOJ asserts that while a servicemember has no duty to inform lienholders of their military service, the servicemember told the storage company’s agent about his military status during a phone call. Additionally, the servicemember provided the storage company with his address on Hanscom Air Force Base. In the second complaint, the DOJ alleges a Florida-based towing company auctioned a car belonging to an active duty servicemember without obtaining a court order. The DOJ asserts that the towing company had reason to believe the car was owned by a servicemember, including that there was a military decal on the car and the owner’s auto loan was through a military-oriented financial institution. In both actions, the DOJ is seeking damages, injunctive relief and civil penalties.
On August 14, the DOJ issued an FCPA Opinion Procedure Release concluding that a U.S. financial institution’s proposed payment to a foreign government-linked investment bank would not result in an enforcement action. This is the first FCPA advisory opinion issued since 2014. According to the opinion, a U.S.-based multinational financial institution (Requestor) asked the DOJ for guidance on whether its planned conduct would conform with the DOJ’s enforcement policy regarding the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions. The Requestor explained that it intended to pay a $237,500 fee to a foreign subsidiary of a foreign investment bank that was majority owned by a foreign government, as “compensation for services the [foreign subsidiary] provided during a two-year period in which Requestor sought to and ultimately did acquire a portfolio of assets” from a different foreign subsidiary of the same investment bank. The fee represented 0.5 percent of the face value of the assets, and was intended to compensate the foreign subsidiary for “certain enumerated analytical and advisory tasks it had performed on Requestor’s behalf.”
In response to the request, the DOJ stated that it did not presently intend to take any enforcement action if the fee payment was made, noting that there is “no information evincing a corrupt intent to offer, promise, or pay anything of value to a ‘foreign official.’” For the purposes of review, the DOJ assumed that the foreign subsidiary receiving payment is “an instrumentality of a foreign government” and its employees are considered “foreign officials” as defined by the FCPA. With those assumptions, the DOJ concluded that the facts “do not reflect a corrupt intent to influence a foreign official,” because (i) the payment would be to an office, not an individual; (ii) there was no indication the payment would be diverted to an individual and there were no representations of “corrupt offers, promises, or payments of anything of value”; and (iii) the fee was commercially reasonable in response to “specific, legitimate services.”
On July 23, the DOJ announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that four companies engaged in a scheme to launder U.S. dollars on behalf of sanctioned North Korean banks and seeking forfeiture of $2,372,793. The DOJ claims that the North Korean banks illegally accessed the U.S. financial market and used the companies to make and receive U.S. dollar payments to and from North Korean front companies. According to the DOJ, the complaint “illuminates how a global money laundering network coordinates with front companies to move North Korean money through the [U.S.] and violate the sanctions imposed by [the] government on North Korea.” The DOJ further refers to a United Nations Panel of Experts statement that North Korean networks access formal banking channels by, among other things, maintaining correspondent bank accounts and representative offices abroad staffed by foreign nationals that make use of front companies, which permit North Korean banks “to conduct illicit procurement and banking activity.”
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Making customers whole: Trends in remediation and restitution expectations" at the American Bar Association Business Law Virtual Section Meeting
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fairness gone viral: Fair lending considerations for financial institutions amid Covid-19" at the American Bar Association Business Law Virtual Section Meeting
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "High standards: Best practices for banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Wait wait ... do tell me! Where the panelists answer to you" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Matthew P. Previn and Walter E. Zalenski to discuss "Is valid when made ... valid?" at the Women in Housing & Finance Partner Series webinar
- Warren W. Traiger and Caroline K. Eisner to discuss "CRA modernization and the OCC final rule" at CBA Live
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Transnational corruption: A chat with former U.S. federal prosecutors in New York" at Marval Live Talks
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk and Lauren Frank to discuss "New CFPB interpretation on UDAAP" at a California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality and Compliance Committee webinar
- Thomas A. Sporkin to discuss "Managing internal investigations and advanced government defense" at the Securities Enforcement Forum
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Independent monitoring in the United States" at the World Compliance Association Peru Chapter IV International Conference on Compliance and the Fight Against Corruption
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "The future of fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Pandemic fallout – Navigating practical operational challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute