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On February 21, the U.S. Treasury Department released a public statement issued by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) following the conclusion of its plenary meeting held February 19-21, calling on its members and urging all jurisdictions to impose countermeasures on Iran for failing to address deficiencies in its anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime. FATF provided specific examples of countermeasures within The Interpretive Note to Recommendation 19, which include, among other things, (i) “[p]rohibiting financial institutions from establishing branches or representative offices in” Iran; (ii) “[l]imiting business relationships or financial transactions with” Iran; and (iii) “[r]equiring financial institutions to review, amend, or if necessary, terminate correspondent relationships with [Iranian] banks.” According to Treasury, the “countermeasures should be developed and implemented to protect the international financial system from the ongoing money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing . . . risks emanating from Iran.”
Treasury also discussed recent FATF guidance on digital identity for customer identification and verification. According to FATF, the guidance “explains how digital ID systems can meet FATF customer due diligence requirements and will assist governments and financial institutions worldwide when applying a risk-based approach to using digital ID systems.”
FATF’s public statement also discussed progress made by the U.S. to strengthen its AML/CFT system, including Treasury’s customer due diligence rulemaking and beneficial ownership requirements that took effect in 2018. According to Treasury, the U.S. is also one of the first countries to voluntarily submit to an assessment of its compliance with new FATF standards regarding virtual assets.
Finally, Treasury reported that FATF is calling “on all countries to apply countermeasures on North Korea due to the ongoing money laundering, terrorist financing, and weapons of mass destruction proliferation financing risks to the international financial system.” On the same day as its public statement, Treasury released an updated list of jurisdictions under increased monitoring that are actively working with FATF to address strategic AML/CFT deficiencies.
On February 19, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a joint statement on the U.S. – EU Financial Regulatory Forum held February 11-12 in Washington, D.C. U.S. participants included officials from the Federal Reserve Board, CFTC, FDIC, SEC, OCC, and Treasury. Forum topics focused on five key themes: “(1) supervision and regulation of cross-border activities, particularly in the areas of derivatives and central clearing; (2) the importance of monitoring market developments, both in relation to financial assets classes, like leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligations, and reference rates, like the London Interbank Offered Rate; (3) implementation of international standards in banking and insurance; (4) regulatory issues presented by fintech/digital finance; and (5) EU regulations related to sustainable finance.”
Among other topics, participants discussed U.S. banking developments concerning prudential requirements for foreign banks, including tailoring standards based on risk; proposed amendments to the Volcker Rule; EU data protection rules; cross-border supervision and data flow in financial services; the transition period following the U.K.’s departure from the EU; and European Commission priorities such as preventing and combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Participants acknowledged the importance of fostering continued dialogue between the U.S. and the EU noting that, “[r]egular communication on supervisory and regulatory issues of mutual concern should foster financial stability, supervisory cooperation, investor protection, market integrity, and a level playing field.”
On February 18, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13850, as amended, against a Swiss-incorporated, Russian-controlled oil brokerage and its board chairman and president for operating in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy. According to the press release, the company assisted Venezuela state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., in brokering, selling, and transporting Venezuelan petroleum products.
In connection with the designations, OFAC issued Venezuela General License (GL) 36, titled “Authorizing Certain Activities Necessary to the Wind Down of Transactions Involving [company].” GL 36, which expires on May 20, authorizes certain transactions and activities otherwise prohibited under E.O.s 13850 and 13857 that are required in order to wind down business with the company. Concurrently, OFAC issued a new Venezuela-related frequently asked question regarding GL 36, addressing the significance of OFAC’s designation of the company, and whether the E.O. 13850 blocking sanctions on the company apply to its corporate parent and affiliates. In its press release, OFAC added that “all property and interests in property of [the company] and [its president] that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, and of any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by the designated individual and entity, are blocked and must be reported to OFAC.”
On February 6, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Deputy Director Jamal El-Hindi delivered remarks at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s 20th Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Financial Crimes Conference discussing, among other things, the agency’s focus on the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). Specifically, El-Hindi stressed the importance of information sharing in the BSA context, remarking that the financial sector is “in an evolutionary state” dealing with “new technologies and new payment systems, such as those that involve virtual currency.” He asserted that innovators in the development of cryptocurrencies and messaging systems “cannot turn a blind eye to illicit transactions that they may be fostering,” and noted that FinCEN will regulate these emerging systems in accordance with existing principles that underlie the BSA and AML rules and regulations for the financial sector. El-Hindi encouraged the securities industry to share information, observing that only 14 percent of eligible securities companies are registered to take part in the 314(b) business-to-business information sharing program. He suggested that the industry needs better communication and cooperation to increase the effectiveness of BSA information collection. El-Hindi also discussed how cooperation has helped FinCEN’s cross-agency coordination and enhanced the agency’s rulemaking and guidance—specifically in the establishment of the Customer Due Diligence and Beneficial Ownership rule, but recognized that the lack of information collected regarding the formation of new corporations can frustrate the agency’s risk assessment abilities. To motivate information sharing, El-Hindi emphasized the importance of BSA information financial companies collect, sharing that SARs filings by securities companies have “increased roughly eight-fold” from 2003 to 2019, and that data provided from BSA filings is used frequently by law enforcement and regulators to inform their investigations and examinations and to “identify trends and focus resources.”
On February 6, the U.S. Treasury Department announced the 2020 National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing. The report provides an overview of the anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) program in the U.S. and details how the program can be updated to be more efficient and effective. Among other things, the report covers the most noteworthy threats to the financial system such as fraud, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, and highlights that one of the greatest vulnerabilities to the U.S. financial system is a failure to collect beneficial ownership information when new companies are formed or when company ownership changes. The report also focuses on ways to make the AML/CFT framework stronger, including through increased transparency and improved financial institution regulation and supervision. Additionally, the report advocates boosting the AML/CFT operational framework through the use of technologies, expanded data analytics, increased information sharing, and promotion of worldwide standards.
On January 31, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced charges against an employee (defendant) of an Iranian company for bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and for making false statements to federal agents regarding financial transactions made through U.S. banks to benefit Iranian entities and individuals. According to the indictment, an agreement between the Iranian government and the Venezuelan government resulted in a construction contract for housing units in Venezuela where an Iranian company would construct the units and be paid with money funneled through U.S. banks by a Venezuelan state-owned company subsidiary. The defendant was purportedly part of a committee formed to guide the project. In coordination with other individuals, the defendant allegedly directed money from the Venezuelan company to the Iranian company through bank accounts—set up to hide the transactions from U.S. banks—in Switzerland. The indictment charges that, among other things, the defendant “knowingly and willfully” conspired with others to commit bank fraud against an FDIC-insured institution by directing the Venezuelan company to route $115 million in payments for the Iranian company to the Swiss bank account through correspondent U.S. banks in New York. Additionally, when the defendant was interviewed by federal agents, he “knowingly and willfully” concealed the scheme and made materially false statements about his knowledge of the applicability of sanctions against Iran. The indictment seeks forfeiture of any proceeds or property obtained by the defendant in the course of the alleged offenses.
On January 23, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it took action against four petroleum products companies (network) designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13846 for making payments to “an entity instrumental in Iran’s petroleum and petrochemical industries, which helps to finance Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and its terrorist proxies.” The Iranian entity is on the List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons and its property is blocked in conformance with E.O. 13599. According to OFAC, the network transferred payments to the Iranian entity for petroleum exports and “worked to conceal the Iranian origin of these products.” Among other things, these sanctions prohibit foreign financial institutions from “knowingly facilitat[ing] transactions for, or persons that provide material or certain other support to,” the designated petroleum products broker. See the new Iran-related designations here.
OFAC identifies Venezuelan aircraft as blocked property, issues amended Venezuela-related general licenses
On January 21, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced amendments to the list of property implicated by the Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN List) pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13884, which blocks the property of the Venezuelan government. OFAC identified 15 aircraft that either transported senior members of the Maduro regime or “operated in an unsafe and unprofessional manner in proximity to U.S. military aircraft, while in international air space.” OFAC reiterated that its “regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of blocked persons.”
In connection with the designations, OFAC issued amended Venezuela General License (GL) 20B, titled “Authorizing Official Activities of Certain International Organizations Involving the Government of Venezuela.” GL 20B authorizes certain transactions and activities otherwise prohibited under E.O.s 13850 and 13857 involving Banco Central de Venezuela, and E.O. 13884 involving the Government of Venezuela.
Earlier, on January 17, OFAC issued two additional amended Venezuela GLs. GL 5B provides that on or after April 22, all transactions related to the financing for, and other dealings in the Petróleos de Venezuela SA 2020 8.5 Percent Bond that would be prohibited under a certain subsection of E.O. 13835, as amended by E.O. 13857, are authorized. GL 8E, titled “Authorizing Transactions Involving Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA) Necessary for Maintenance of Operations for Certain Entities in Venezuela,” supersedes GL 8D to extend the expiration date for certain authorizations through April 22.
On January 16, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced the issuance of Iran-related Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) 816, which addresses the question, “Is there a wind-down period for Executive Order [(E.O.)] 13902?” (previously covered in InfoBytes here). According to the FAQ, individuals and entities involved in activities that qualify as sanctionable under E.O. 13902, which include activities dealing with the mining, construction, manufacturing and textiles industries in Iran, should wind down those transactions within 90 days after the E.O. was issued. OFAC stresses that new engagements entered into with the specified Iranian sectors on or after January 10 will not be considered wind-down activities. These new engagements may be sanctionable during the wind-down period, even if the new engagements commence prior to the end of the 90-day wind-down period, which expires on April 9.
On January 10, the Trump administration issued new sanctions intended to deny the Iranian government revenues from the export of key economic products that may be used to fund its nuclear program. Specifically, newly-issued Executive Order 13902 authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in conjunction with the Secretary of State, to impose asset blocking sanctions on any person determined to operate in the construction, mining, manufacturing or textile sectors of the Iranian economy, or any additional sector as they may jointly determine. Additionally, EO 13902 authorizes the imposition of certain sanctions on any person determined to have engaged in, or any foreign financial institution determined to have knowingly facilitated, a significant transaction involving one of the aforementioned sectors of the Iranian economy.
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