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Recently, the DOJ issued its first opinion release of 2014 regarding application of the FCPA. In this instance, an investment bank and securities issuer who was a majority shareholder of a foreign financial services company sought the DOJ’s opinion with regard to the bank’s purchase of the remaining minority interest from a foreign businessman who now serves as a senior foreign official. The DOJ determined that based on the facts and representations described by the requestor, the only purpose of the payment to the official would be consideration for the minority interest. The DOJ explained that although the FCPA generally prohibits an issuer from corruptly giving or offering anything of value to any “foreign official” in order to assist “in obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to” the issuer, it does not “per se prohibit business relationships with, or payments to, foreign officials.” In this situation, the DOJ determined, based on numerous, fact-intensive considerations, that the transfer of value as proposed would not be prohibited under the FCPA. The DOJ found no indications of corrupt intent, citing, among other things, the proffered purpose to sever the parties’ existing financial relationship to avoid a conflict of interest, and the use of a reasonable alternative valuation model. The DOJ also determined the bank demonstrated that the parties would appropriately and meaningfully disclose their relationships before the sale closed, and that the bank would implement strict recusal and conflict-of-interest-avoidance measures to prevent the shareholder/foreign official from assisting the bank in obtaining or retaining business. As with all Opinion Releases under the FCPA, the DOJ cautioned that the opinion has no binding application to any other party.
On March 19, the DOJ announced that Marubeni Corporation, a Japanese trading company, agreed to plead guilty to violating the FCPA by participating in a seven-year scheme to bribe high-ranking government officials in Indonesia to help the company secure a contract for a power project. The DOJ charged that to conceal the bribes, the company and a consortium partner retained two consultants purportedly to provide legitimate consulting services on behalf of the power company and its subsidiaries in connection with the project. The DOJ asserted, however, that the primary purpose for hiring the consultants was to use them to pay bribes to Indonesian officials.The eight-count criminal information against the company included one count of conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and seven counts of violating the FCPA. As part of its plea, the company admitted its criminal conduct and agreed to pay a criminal fine of $88 million, subject to the district court’s approval. Sentencing is scheduled for May 15, 2014. Two years ago, the company entered a deferred prosecution agreement and agreed to pay $54.6 million to resolve allegations it acted as an agent for a joint venture in a scheme to bribe Nigerian officials.
On March 17, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Maxine Waters (D-CA) sent a letter requesting a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder to review the findings of a recent report on the DOJ’s mortgage fraud enforcement efforts. The lawmakers state that the report raises questions about the DOJ’s “commitment to investigate and prosecute crimes such as predatory lending, loan modification scams, and abusive mortgage servicing practices.” They are seeking information from the Attorney General about steps the DOJ will take to ensure that its efforts “to identify and prosecute those responsible for fraudulent mortgage practices are equal to the harms such crimes have caused [the members’] constituents.”
On March 13, the DOJ Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on its audit of the DOJ’s efforts between 2009 and 2011 to pursue alleged mortgage fraud. Of particular note, the report reveals for the first time publicly that as part of a joint effort between HUD and the DOJ related to so-called “high default lenders,” the HUD OIG provided 84 U.S. Attorney Offices (USAOs) with lender default data for potential civil investigations and approximately 40 civil investigations were opened as a result. Much of the report focuses on the DOJ’s limited ability to track its mortgage fraud enforcement efforts. The audit revealed that, as a result of those limitations, the DOJ has repeatedly used inaccurate statistics in public statements about its mortgage enforcement results. Among a series of recommendations, the DOJ OIG suggests that DOJ (i) direct all USAOs to periodically assess any monetary thresholds applied to mortgage fraud cases to ensure they are reasonably based upon the threat within their respective jurisdictions and adequately allow for non-monetary harms that result from mortgage fraud schemes, as well as ensure that law enforcement agencies in their respective districts have a clear understanding of any limiting factors being applied to such cases; (ii) develop a method to capture additional data that will allow DOJ to better understand the results of its efforts in investigating and prosecuting mortgage fraud and to identify the position of mortgage fraud defendants within an organization; and (iii) develop a method to readily identify mortgage fraud criminal and civil enforcement efforts for reporting purposes.
On January 27, SEC Chairman Mary Jo White outlined in remarks to the 41st Annual Securities Regulation Institute her agency’s 2014 agenda, promising “incredibly active enforcement” across “the entire industry spectrum.” Within that enforcement push, the Commission will pay particular attention to financial fraud, including by working to complete its major investigations stemming from the financial crisis while ramping up investigations by its new Financial Reporting and Accounting Task Force. As part of the broader enforcement agenda, the SEC will continue its new stance on seeking admissions from alleged wrongdoers, a policy change that Ms. White first announced publicly last June. Chairman White cited public and media pressure as part of the reason for the change, and explained that “admissions can achieve a greater measure of public accountability.” Outside of the agency’s enforcement plans, Chairman White highlighted numerous other SEC initiatives, including finalizing new disclosure requirements for asset-backed securities. The Commission also will continue to implement the National Examination Program’s new trading data analytics tool—just one example of the “transformative changes at the SEC in 2014” necessary to keep up with evolving market technology.
On January 27, during a speech to certified AML compliance specialists, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, stressed BSA/AML enforcement as a top priority for his office. Mr. Bharara focused on three issues: (i) the importance of holding institutions accountable for misconduct; (ii) the need for law enforcement to stay ahead of rapidly changing markets and technologies; and (iii) organizational changes within his office to bring the needed resources to bear. With regard to enforcement against institutions, the U.S. Attorney rebutted arguments that prosecutors should focus on individuals and described the full spectrum of tools available to hold institutions accountable—ranging from pursuing criminal prosecutions to seeking monetary fines and restitution through civil actions. He stressed the need to employ the full range of tools against institutions, especially in the AML context where many of the anti-money laundering laws and BSA provisions are specifically directed at institutions. The U.S. Attorney also announced that his office’s Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture Unit will be renamed the Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Unit to reflect his office’s commitment to dedicate more physical and human resources to addressing money laundering crimes and BSA violations.
On January 27, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the unsealing of criminal charges against an underground Bitcoin exchanger and the CEO of a Bitcoin exchange company registered as a money services business for allegedly engaging in a scheme to sell over $1 million in Bitcoins to users of “Silk Road,” the website that is said to have enabled its users to buy and sell illegal drugs anonymously and beyond the reach of law enforcement. Each defendant is charged with conspiring to commit money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. The CEO of the exchange company is also charged with willfully failing to file any suspicious activity report regarding the exchanger’s illegal transactions, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act. The U.S. Attorney stated that the charges demonstrate his office’s intention and ability to “aggressively pursue those who would coopt new forms of currency for illicit purposes.” The complaint alleges that over a nearly two-year period, the exchanger ran an underground Bitcoin exchange on the Silk Road website, selling Bitcoins to users seeking to buy illegal drugs on the site. Upon receiving orders for Bitcoins from Silk Road users, he allegedly filled the orders through a company based in New York, which was designed to charge customers for exchanging cash for Bitcoins anonymously. The exchanger allegedly obtained Bitcoins with the company’s assistance, and then sold the Bitcoins to Silk Road users at a markup. The exchange company CEO, who was also its Compliance Officer, allegedly was aware that Silk Road was a drug-trafficking website, and also knew that the exchanger was operating a Bitcoin exchange service for Silk Road users. The government alleges that the CEO knowingly facilitated the exchanger’s business, personally processed orders, gave discounts on high-volume transactions, and failed to file a single suspicious activity report.
On January 17, New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman announced that Gary Fishman will lead a new Criminal Enforcement and Financial Crimes Bureau. The bureau, which expands the Attorney General’s former Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, will focus on combating complex financial crimes in (i) bank and financial institution fraud; (ii) securities and investment fraud; (iii) money laundering; (iv) tax crimes; (v) mortgage fraud; (vi) investment schemes; and (vii) insurance fraud. The bureau also intends to form a Financial Intelligence Section that will review banking, regulatory, law enforcement, and open-source data to identify trends that will enhance the investigation and prosecution of financial crime schemes. Mr. Fishman has served as Senior Investigative Counsel since joining the AG’s office in 2012. Prior to joining the AG’s office, Mr. Fishman was the Managing Director of Investigative Group International and before that served as a New York County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor for more than 15 years, including as the Principal Deputy Chief of the Major Economic Crimes Bureau in the Investigation Division.
On November 18, at an American Bar Association/American Bankers Association conference on the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML), Deputy Attorney General (Deputy AG) James Cole challenged financial institutions’ compliance efforts and outlined the DOJ’s financial crimes enforcement approach. Noting that compliance within financial institutions is of particular concern to the DOJ, based in part on recent cases of “serious criminal conduct by bank employees,” the nation’s second highest ranking law enforcement official detailed DOJ’s approach to investigating and deciding in what manner to pursue potential violations. The Deputy AG included among his examples of serious misconduct recent BSA/AML, RMBS, mortgage False Claims Act, and LIBOR cases. He explained that the DOJ is particularly concerned about incentives that encourage excessive risk taking, and stated that “too many bank employees and supervisors value coming as close to the line as possible, or even crossing the line, as being ‘competitive’ or ‘aggressive.’”
Deputy AG Cole stated that the DOJ’s decisions about bringing criminal prosecutions are informed by the Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations, which include, among other factors: (i) the nature and seriousness of the offense; (ii) the pervasiveness of the wrongdoing within the corporation, including the complicity of corporate management; (iii) the corporation’s history of similar misconduct, including prior criminal, civil, and regulatory actions against it; and (iv) the adequacy of a corporation’s pre-existing compliance program. He added that the DOJ “look[s] hard at the messages that bank management and supervisors are actually giving to employees in the context of their day-to-day work.” Specifically, the DOJ (i) reviews chats, emails, and recorded phone calls; (ii) talks to witnesses to assess management’s compliance message; and (iii) examines the “incentives that banks provide their employees to either cross the line, or to exhibit compliant behavior.”
The Deputy AG stressed that “[i]f a financial institution wants to encourage compliance – if its values are not skewed towards making money at all costs – then that message must be conveyed to employees in a meaningful and effective way if they’d like [the] Department to view it as credible.” He echoed past calls by federal authorities for institutions to create “cultures of compliance” that include “real, effective, and proactive” compliance programs. Any institution that fails to do so, he cautioned, could be subject to prosecution.
On July 14, the SEC moved for leave to file an Amended Complaint in its FCPA enforcement action against three former executives of Magyar Telekom, a Hungarian telecommunications company. The Amended Complaint dropped allegations that the defendants bribed officials in Montenegro, while maintaining allegations of bribery in Macedonia.
While this sort of pre-trial narrowing of the allegations is not unusual, the development is still notable for those willing to litigate FCPA cases against the government. Magyar previously settled with both the SEC and the Department of Justice based on both sets of bribery allegations, even admitting to a detailed statement of facts regarding the alleged bribes in Montenegro in its Deferred Prosecution Agreement. Yet those allegations evidently did not stand up to scrutiny in contested litigation against the individual defendants. As with the SEC’s recent enforcement action against two Noble Corp. executives (one of whom was represented by BuckleySandler LLP), it is often the case that individual defendants may have more success defending FCPA charges even where related corporate entities have already admitted or settled those same charges.
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "BSA program reporting, management and board of directors responsibilities" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Ethical guidance in conducting internal investigations – The intersection of Yates and Upjohn" at the American Bar Association Southeastern White Collar Crime Institute
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Recent developments in fair lending and avoiding the pitfalls" at the Arkansas Community Bankers/Bankers Assurance 2019 Compliance Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Risk management in enforcement actions: Managing risk or micromanaging it" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Valerie L. Hletko to discuss "Banking on guns ‘n drugs: Social policy meets financial services" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Navigating the conflicting federal and state laws for doing business with cannabis companies" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Tim Lange to discuss "Services and value" at the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association Annual Conference
- Katherine L. Halliday to discuss "UDAP, UDAAP & the Map rule compliance basics" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "How to ace your TRID exam" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Data privacy litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Navigating FHA rules and regs" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Washington regulatory overview" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "HMDA data is out, now what?" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "The state’s role in fintech: Providing an industry framework for innovation" at Lend360
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Truth in lending" at the American Bar Association National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions" at the Institute of International Bankers Risk Management and Regulatory Examination/Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fintech regulatory developments, crypto-assets, blockchain and digital banking, and consumer issues" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "How to balance a successful (and stressful) career with greater personal well-being" at the American Bar Association Women in Litigation Joint CLE Conference