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On April 15, U.S. regulators announced settlements totaling $1.3 billion with several banking units of a German-headquartered financial institution to resolve allegations by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the DOJ, the Federal Reserve Board, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS), and the New York County District Attorney’s Office of apparent violations of multiple sanctions programs, including those related to Burma, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. According to OFAC’s announcement, between January 2007 and December 2011, the institution’s banking units in Germany, Austria, and Italy processed thousands of payments through U.S. financial institutions on behalf of sanctioned entities “in a manner that did not disclose underlying sanctioned persons or countries to U.S. financial institutions which were acting as financial intermediaries.”
According to the roughly $611 million combined settlement agreements (see here, here, and here), OFAC considered various aggravating factors, and noted, among other things, that the institution’s banking units failed to sufficiently enforce policies addressing OFAC sanctions concerns or restrict the processing of transactions in U.S. dollars involving persons or countries subject to sanctions programs administered by OFAC. Additionally, OFAC asserted that the Austrian banking unit claimed on several occasions that OFAC’s sanctions programs “were not legally binding or relevant to [the bank].” OFAC further stated that while the banking units failed to voluntarily self-disclose the alleged violations, they have each agreed to implement and maintain compliance commitments to minimize the risk of the recurrence of the alleged conduct.
The approximate $611 million penalty will be deemed satisfied by the banking units’ payments to other U.S. regulators, which includes an almost $317 million forfeiture and roughly $468 million fine to the DOJ, $158 million fine to the Federal Reserve, and $405 million fine to the NYDFS.
On April 15, the Iowa governor signed HF 260, which amends the maximum interest rate and charges permitted under Iowa Code 2019. Specifically, for interest-bearing consumer credit transactions up to $30,000 (increased from $10,000), the interest rate may not exceed the lesser of $30 or ten percent of the financed amount. The amendments also specify the minimum charge creditors are allowed to collect or retain when prepayments are made in full, and stipulate that if a service charge has been collected on an interest-bearing consumer credit transaction then a “creditor shall not collect or retain a minimum charge upon prepayment.” HF 260 takes effect July 1.
On April 15, Mark Calabria was sworn in as the new Director of the FHFA and stressed the importance of mortgage finance reform in his first remarks in the role. Calabria warned that the current mortgage finance system remains “vulnerable,” noting that “[a]fter years of strong house price growth, too many remain locked out of housing, while others are dangerously leveraged. We must not let this opportunity for reform pass.” Calabria also acknowledged the March memo released by the White House, outlining the Administration’s plan for federal housing finance reform (covered by InfoBytes here) which, among other things, directs the Secretary of the Treasury to develop a plan to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs). Calabria stated that he looks forward to working with the Administration on such reforms.
On April 12, the DOJ announced that a multinational corporation will pay $1.5 billion in a settlement resolving claims brought under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) that a financial services subsidiary of the corporation misrepresented the quality of loans it originated in connection with the marketing and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). According to the DOJ, between 2005 and 2007, the majority of the mortgage loans sold by the subsidiary for inclusion in RMBS did not comply with the quality representations made about the loans. Specifically, the loan analysts allegedly approved mortgage loans that did not meet criteria outlined in the company’s underwriting guidelines, as they would receive additional compensation based on the number of loans they approved. The DOJ asserts that there were inadequate resources and authority for the subsidiary’s quality control department, resulting in deficiencies in risk management and fraud controls. Additionally, if an investment bank were to reject a loan due to defects in the loan file, the DOJ alleges the subsidiary would attempt to find a new purchaser, without disclosing the previous rejection or identifying the alleged defects. The corporation does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing, but agreed to pay a $1.5 billion civil money penalty to resolve the matter.
On April 15, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against seven individuals and one entity for allegedly providing financial support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operating in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. According to OFAC, six of the designated individuals, as well as the identified entity, belong to a key ISIS financial facilitation group, which uses “money service businesses to circumvent the formal banking sector” and move funds through financial cells around the globe. The seventh designated individual is a financial facilitator in East Africa. As a result, all property and interests in property of the sanctioned entity and individuals, and of any entities owned 50 percent or more by them subject to U.S. jurisdiction, are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. U.S. persons are also generally prohibited from entering into transactions with the sanctioned entity and individuals.
On April 10, NYDFS announced that it denied a company’s applications to engage in virtual currency business and money transmission activity in New York due to the company’s alleged deficiencies in BSA/AML and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) compliance requirements, capital requirements, and token and product launches. According to the denial letter, the company applied for a virtual currency business activity license in August 2015, and had been operating under NYDFS’ virtual currency “safe harbor” ever since. Additionally, in July 2018, the company applied to engage in money transmission activity with the state. According to NYDFS, the state’s licensing law requires an applicant to demonstrate the ability to comply with the provisions of the licensing requirements, including “implementing an effective BSA/AML/OFAC compliance program as well as other measures to protect customers and the integrity of the virtual currency markets.” Based on NYDFS’ four-week on-site review of the company’s operations, NYDFS concluded, among other things, that the company’s BSA/AML/OFAC compliance program lacked (i) adequate internal policies, procedures and controls; (ii) a qualified, effective compliance officer; (iii) adequate employee training; (iv) adequate independent program testing; and (v) adequate customer due diligence. The company is required to immediately cease operating in New York State and doing business with New York residents and has 60 days to wind down or transfer its positions and transactions.
On April 8, the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for a bank, its employees, and the plaintiff’s former husband (collectively, “defendants”), concluding, among other things, that under the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (OCSPA) the defendants could not be considered “suppliers,” transactions with national banks are not covered, and bank employees were not considered “loan officers.” According to the opinion, a homeowner filed a lawsuit alleging the defendants fraudulently opened a home equity line of credit by allowing the plaintiff’s former husband to sign the homeowner’s name with the bank employees’ assistance in notarizing the signature. The homeowner alleged various claims, including that the defendants violated the OCSPA’s provision prohibiting a “supplier” from committing “an unfair or deceptive act or practice in connection with a consumer transaction.” The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The homeowner appealed, arguing that the bank employees were acting as “loan officers” and therefore, they qualified as “suppliers” under the OCSPA. The appellate court noted that while the term “supplier” does include “loan officer,” the statute explicitly states that “loan officer” does not include “an employee of a bank…organized under the laws of this state, another state, or the United States.” Moreover, the OCSPA provides that consumer transactions do not include transactions with financial institutions, except in certain circumstances, which are not applicable to the action. Therefore, the lower court did not err in its summary judgment ruling.
On April 11, acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Russel Vought, sent a memorandum to the heads of all executive agencies announcing that on May 11, agencies will be required to submit all regulatory guidance materials to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review prior to publication. The memo asserts that the Congressional Review Act (CRA) “applies to more than just notice-and-comment rules; it also encompasses a wide range of other regulatory actions, including, inter alia, guidance documents, general statements of policy and interpretive rules” and therefore, agencies should not publish a regulatory action in the Federal Register without first submitting the document to OIRA to determine whether it is considered a “major rule” under the CRA. The CRA defines a “major rule” as one having (i) an annual effect on the economy of at least $100 million; (ii) a major increase in costs or prices for consumers, individual industries, or federal and state governments; or (iii) significant adverse effects on competition, employment, and U.S.-based enterprises. Should OIRA consider the regulatory action to be a “major rule,” the rule will be submitted to Congress with OIRA’s report and will not become effective sooner than 60 days after its submission. The memo instructs agencies to provide OIRA a quantitative analysis, which includes costs, benefits, and transfer impacts relative to a baseline, “when reasonably possible.” Additionally, the agency’s analysis should include whether the regulatory action would impose a disproportionate cost on a particular group or place a significant burden on the economy.
FTC obtains $2.7 million judgment against “free samples” operation; settles deceptive marketing matter
On April 11, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered a New York-based office supply operation to pay $2.7 million to resolve allegations that the defendants targeted consumers, such as small businesses, hotels, municipalities, and charitable organizations, by deceptively misrepresenting the terms of their “free samples.” Specifically, the FTC alleged in 2017 that the defendants violated the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act (Telemarketing Act) and the Unordered Merchandise Statute by calling consumers with offers of free product and then billing the consumers after shipping the samples. In some instances, the FTC stated, consumers refused the offer of the free product, but the defendants sent it anyway. Once the samples were shipped, the FTC claimed the defendants sent follow-up invoices demanding payment for the product, and would then send dunning notices and place collection calls. Under the terms of the order, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of unordered merchandise, or from misrepresenting material facts, and are required to pay $2.7 million to be refunded to affected consumers.
Separately, on April 10, the FTC announced proposed settlements (see here and here) issued against twelve corporate and four individual defendants for allegedly claiming their “cognitive improvement” supplements increase brain power and performance. According to the complaint, the defendants’ deceptive acts and practices included using “sham news” websites to market false and misleading efficacy claims, such as fraudulent celebrity endorsements and fictitious clinical studies. Furthermore, the FTC alleged that, while the defendants claimed to offer a “100% Money Back Guarantee” on their supplements, consumers found it difficult or nearly impossible to get a refund, and that some consumers were allegedly charged for supplements they ordered but never received. The proposed settlements, among other things, prohibits the specified behavior and impose monetary judgments of $14,564,891 and $11,587,117, both of which will be partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
On April 11, the FTC announced that a payment processing company and its owner agreed to a $1.8 million settlement resolving allegations that the company repeatedly violated a 2009 court order. That order found that the payment processer knowingly or consciously avoided knowing that debit card transactions it processed, on behalf of an allegedly fraudulent enterprise, were not authorized by the consumers. The FTC alleged that the company violated the 2009 order by, among other things, (i) failing to engage in a reasonable investigation of prospective clients before processing payments on their behalf; (ii) failing to monitor clients’ transactions to ensure that clients were not engaged in illegal behavior; and (iii) failing to adhere to administrative requirements of the order, including submitting a written compliance report to the agency. In addition to the monetary penalty, the new settlement permanently bans the company from working as a payment processor and subjects the company to reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
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- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "The state of the BSA 2019: What’s working, what’s not, and how to improve it" at the West Coast Anti Money-Laundering Forum
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- Hank Asbill to discuss "Creative character evidence in criminal and civil trials" at the Litigation Counsel of America Spring Conference & Celebration of Fellows
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- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Flood NFIP in the age of extreme weather events" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
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- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Major state law developments" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin K. Olson to discuss "LO compensation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- APPROVED Webcast: State and SAFE Act licensing requirements for banks
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- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Douglas F. Gansler to discuss "Role of state AGs in consumer protection" at a George Mason University Law & Economics Center symposium