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OFAC sanctions front company network for providing financial support to Islamic Revolutionary Guards
On March 26, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13224 against 20 Iran- and Iraq-based front companies and individuals for providing financial support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force, as well as certain Iranian-backed terrorist militias in Iraq. Among other activities, OFAC alleged that the designated companies and individuals laundered money through Iraqi front companies, sold Iranian oil to the Syrian regime, and smuggled weapons to Iraq and Yemen. Pursuant to the sanctions, “all property and interests in property of these persons that are in or come within the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC.” OFAC noted that its regulations “generally prohibit” U.S. persons from participating in transactions with the designated persons and warned foreign financial institutions that if they knowingly conduct or facilitate significant transactions for any of the designated persons, they may be “subject to U.S. correspondent account or payable-through account sanctions.”
On March 26, the DOJ announced criminal charges against numerous current and former Venezuelan government officials, including “Former President” Nicolás Maduro Moros and two Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) leaders. The charges include allegedly engaging in drug trafficking, laundering drug proceeds using Florida real estate and luxury goods, corruption, and bribery. According to an unsealed four-count superseding indictment filed in the Southern District of New York, Maduro, along with five other high-ranking officials, participated in a “narco-terrorism conspiracy,” conspired to import large-scale cocaine shipments into the U.S., and used—or conspired to use—“machine guns and destructive devices” to further the narco-terrorism conspiracies. The charges also allege that Maduro and the officials negotiated and facilitated FARC-produced cocaine shipments, coordinated “foreign affairs with Honduras and other countries to facilitate large-scale drug trafficking,” and solicited assistance from FARC leadership with respect to militia training.
A separate indictment unsealed in the District of Columbia charges the current Venezuelan Minister of Defense with conspiracy to distribute cocaine on a U.S.-registered aircraft. That individual was previously sanctioned in 2018 by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
A criminal complaint was also filed in the Southern District of Florida charging the current Chief Justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court with accepting “tens of millions of dollars and bribes to illegally fix dozens of civil and criminal cases,” including a case in which the defendant authorized the dismissal of charges brought against a Venezuelan who was “charged in a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme against the Venezuelan state-owned oil company.” According to the complaint, the defendant laundered the proceeds through U.S. bank accounts, and spent approximately $3 million in South Florida on a private aircraft and luxury goods.
Another unsealed indictment in the Southern District of New York charges three additional Venezuelans with evading OFAC sanctions by working “with U.S. persons and U.S.-based entities to provide private flight services for the benefit of Maduro’s 2018 presidential campaign.”
Additional separate indictments accuse various former Venezuelan officials of drug trafficking and military aircraft smuggling. In addition, several individuals were charged with FCPA violations, including: (i) two individuals for allegedly receiving bribes to award business to U.S.-based companies; and (ii) several individuals for allegedly participating in an international money laundering scheme and conspiring to solicit Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) vendors “for bribes and kickbacks in exchange for providing assistance to those vendors in connection with their PDVSA business.” According to the DOJ’s press release, the scheme involved “bribes paid by the owners of U.S.-based companies to Venezuelan government officials to corruptly secure energy contracts and payment priority on outstanding invoices.”
On March 20, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced it extended the expiration dates of two Ukraine-related general licenses (GLs) by issuing GL 13N, which supersedes GL 13M, and GL 15H, which supersedes GL 15G. Both GLs—which now expire July 22—authorize certain transactions necessary to divest or transfer debt, equity, or other holdings, or wind down operations or existing contracts with a Russian manufacturer previously sanctioned by OFAC in April 2018 (covered by InfoBytes here).
Visit here for continuing InfoBytes coverage of actions related to Ukraine.
On March 12, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13850 against a Russian oil brokerage firm for operating in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy. According to OFAC, following the February 18 designation of a Swiss-incorporated, Russian-controlled oil brokerage and its board chairman and president (covered by InfoBytes here), cargoes of Venezuelan oil allocated to the designated company were charged to the newly sanctioned brokerage firm in order to evade U.S. sanctions. In connection with the designation, OFAC issued Venezuela General License 36A, which 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 amended FAQ 817 and FAQ 818 to address the significance of OFAC’s designation of the company, and whether there is a wind-down period. OFAC reiterated that “all property and interests in property of [the brokerage firm] 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 March 19, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13382 against five United Arab Emirates-based companies for facilitating the Iranian regime’s petroleum and petrochemical sales, which helps to finance Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force. According to OFAC, the sanctions follow similar designations of key revenue sources (covered by InfoBytes here and here). As a result, all property and interests in property belonging to the identified entities subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and “U.S. persons are generally prohibited from transacting with them.” Moreover, OFAC warned that “foreign financial institutions that knowingly facilitate significant transactions for, or persons that provide material or certain other support to, the persons designated today risk exposure to sanctions that could sever their access to the U.S. financial system or block their property and interests in property under U.S. jurisdiction.”
Chinese nationals sanctioned and charged with laundering over $100 million in cryptocurrency from hacked exchange
On March 2, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Orders 13694, 13757, and 13722 against two Chinese nationals for allegedly laundering over $100 million in stolen cryptocurrency connected to a North Korean state-sponsored cyber group that hacked cryptocurrency exchanges in 2018. According to OFAC, the two individuals “materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, a malicious cyber-enabled activity” or in support of the North Korean cyber group, which was designated by OFAC last September (covered by InfoBytes here). OFAC stated that it closely coordinated its action with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. As a result of the sanctions, “all property and interests in property of these individuals 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 the United States (including transactions transiting the United States) that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons,” and warned foreign financial institutions that knowingly facilitating significant transactions or providing significant financial services to the designated individuals may subject them to U.S. correspondent account or payable-through sanctions.
On the same day, the DOJ unsealed a two-count indictment against the two individuals, charging them with money laundering conspiracy and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. The indictment claims that the individuals converted virtual currency traceable to the hack of a cryptocurrency exchange into fiat currency or prepaid Apple iTunes gift cards through accounts in various exchanges linked to Chinese banks and then transferred the currency or gift cards to customers for a fee. According to the indictment, neither individual was registered as a money transmitting business with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which is a federal felony offense. The complaint seeks forfeiture of 113 virtual currency accounts belonging to the individuals.
On February 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reduced punitive damages in a class action against a credit reporting agency (CRA) for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by erroneously linking class members to criminals and terrorists with similar names in a database maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). At trial, the jury found that the CRA violated the FCRA by willfully failing to (i) “follow reasonable procedures to assure accuracy of the terrorist alerts”; (ii) “disclose to the class members their entire credit reports by excluding the alerts from the reports”; and (iii) “provide a summary of rights” to class members with each disclosure. Subsequently, the jury awarded $8 million in statutory damages and $52 million in punitive damages to the class.
Upon appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s determinations that all class members—not just the class representative—must have “standing at the final stage of a money damages suit when class members are to be awarded individual monetary damages.” But the appellate court found that all class members did have standing due to, among other things, the CRA’s “reckless handling of information from OFAC,” which subjected class members to “a real risk of harm,” and because “the violation of a statutory right constituted a concrete injury.” In addition, the appellate court rejected the CRA’s request for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial on the basis that the class had failed to provide sufficient evidence of injuries or to support the damages award. Moreover, the appellate court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the class representative’s claims were typical of the class’s claims, nor in certifying the class or denying the CRA’s motion to decertify the class. The appellate court also agreed with the lower court on statutory damages, but it held that the $52 million punitive damages award was “unconstitutionally excessive.” The appellate court explained that although the CRA’s “conduct was reprehensible, it was not so egregious as to justify a punitive award of more than six times an already substantial compensatory award.” Accordingly, the appellate court vacated the jury’s award of punitive damages and remanded, directing that the punitive damages be reduced to four times the statutory damages award.
On February 26, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated three individuals and 12 entities—all based in Lebanon—as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). Pursuant to Executive Order 13224, as amended, OFAC designated two of the individuals as leaders or officials of a Hizballah-related foundation that was previously designated for supporting terrorism in 2007. The entities are also associated with the foundation. One of the entities controlled by the foundation and a number of its subsidiaries reportedly did business with a Lebanon-based bank, which had been designated as an SDGT in August, allowing Hizballah to avoid close examination of its transactions by Lebanese banking authorities.
OFAC reiterated that “all property and interests in property of these targets that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC. OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within the United States (including transactions transiting the United States) that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons. In addition, persons that engage in certain transactions with the individuals and entities designated today may themselves be exposed to sanctions or subject to an enforcement action.”
Foreign financial institutions should conduct enhanced due diligence when facilitating humanitarian trade with Iran
On February 27, the U.S. Treasury Department announced the finalization of terms to the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) between the U.S. and Swiss governments in order to increase the transparency of humanitarian trade with Iran and help safeguard against “the Iranian regime’s diversion of humanitarian trade for malign purposes.” According to Treasury, “the SHTA presents a voluntary option for facilitating payment for exports of agricultural commodities, food, medicine, and medical devices to Iran in a manner that ensures the utmost transparency. Under the SHTA, participating financial institutions commit to conducting enhanced due diligence to ensure that humanitarian goods reach the people of Iran and are not misused by the Iranian regime.” Foreign governments and foreign financial institutions interested in establishing humanitarian mechanisms consistent with guidance published last October (covered by InfoBytes here) are instructed to reach out to Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for additional information or to request evaluation of a proposed framework. Foreign governments and financial institutions are also reminded to carefully consider the due diligence and reporting expectations outlined in the guidance.
In conjunction with the finalization of the SHTA, OFAC issued General License (GL) 8, titled “Authorizing Certain Humanitarian Trade Transactions Involving the Central bank of Iran,” as well as related FAQs. GL 8 authorizes certain transactions and activities otherwise prohibited under the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations or the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations.
On February 26, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a $7.8 million settlement with a Swiss provider of commercial telecommunications and information technology services to the civilian air transportation industry for 9,256 alleged violations of the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations. According to OFAC, between April 2013 and February 2018, the company allegedly provided commercial services and software subject to U.S. jurisdiction that may have benefitted certain airlines designated as specially designated global terrorists (SDGTs) pursuant to Executive Order 13224. These sanctioned airlines, OFAC noted, were member-owners in the company’s organization.
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered various mitigating factors, including (i) OFAC has not issued a violation against the company in the five years preceding the earliest transaction at issue; (ii) the company has undertaken remedial efforts to minimize the risk of similar violations from occurring in the future; (iii) the company cooperated with the investigation and executed multiple tolling agreements; and (iv) the company terminated the membership of the SGDT airlines.
OAC also considered various aggravating favors, including that (i) the company did not voluntarily self-disclose the alleged violations; (ii) the company had actual knowledge that it was providing services and software to SDGTs; (iii) the company’s actions “facilitated the operations of, or otherwise benefitted, airlines that were sanctioned for supporting terrorism”; and (iv) the company is “commercially sophisticated” with operations in every county in the world.
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