About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Reforming the US AML System: Some Proposals Inspired by the FinCEN Files

Last week, I did a post with some preliminary (and under-baked) reflections on the so-called “FinCEN Files” reports by BuzzFeed News and the Independent Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These stories relied in substantial part on a couple thousand Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that had been filed with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and leaked to a BuzzFeed journalist in 2018. The documents, and the reporting based on them, highlight the extent to which major Western banks assist suspected kleptocrats, terrorists, and other criminal actors move (and launder) staggering amounts of money all over the world, and highlight the deficiencies of the existing anti-money laundering (AML) system.

What can we do to rectify this depressing state of affairs? Much of the commentary I’ve seen so far (both in the FinCEN Files stories themselves, and commentary on the reporting from other sources) emphasizes the need for more individual criminal liability—putting bankers in jail, not just fining banks. Even when banks are threatened or hit with penalties, the argument goes, this doesn’t really have much of a deterrent effect, partly because even what seem like very large monetary sanctions are dwarfed by the profits banks stand to make from assisting shady clients with shady transactions, and partly because the costs of monetary sanctions are mostly passed on to the bank’s shareholders, and don’t really hurt the individuals responsible (or the managers who tolerate, or turn a blind eye to, misconduct).

I’m quite sympathetic to both of these arguments, though with a couple of important caveats. Caveat number one: The absence of individual prosecutions of bankers is sometimes attributed to the fecklessness—or, worse, the “soft” corruption—of federal prosecutors, but as I noted in my last post, I tend to think that the more significant obstacle is the fact that it is very difficult in most cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the that bankers or other intermediaries had the requisite level of knowledge to support a criminal money laundering conviction. Caveat number two: I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss the idea that levying significant monetary penalties on banks can affect their behavior. After all, these institutions are motivated overwhelmingly by money, so hitting them in the pocketbook is hitting them where it hurts. The problem may be less that monetary sanctions are inherently ineffectual in this context, but rather that they are too low and too uncertain to have a sufficient impact on incentives and behavior.

In that vein, I want to suggest a few legal reforms that might make the U.S. AML system function more effectively. I acknowledge that these are “inside the box” ideas, insofar as they seek to make the existing framework more effective rather than to drastically transform that system. That may make these proposals feel unsatisfying to some, though I suspect the proposals will seem radical, even outlandish, to others. I should also acknowledge that I am not at all an AML expert, so it’s quite possible that the discussion below will contain errors or misunderstandings of the law or the system. But, in the spirit of trying to stimulate further discussion by those who really understand this field, let me throw out a few ideas. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Frederik Obermaier

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke welcome back to the podcast Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, who is also affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Obermaier on the podcast about his work breaking the Panama Papers story, which shed unusual light on how corrupt officials and other criminals use anonymous companies to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity. In the new episode, Mr. Obermaier discusses the so-called FinCEN Files (which I blogged about last week): the leak of over two thousand suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed with the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Mr. Obermaier explains why and how the FinCEN Files reveal how badly broken the international anti-money laundering (AML) system is, the likely reasons for the ineffectiveness of the system, how the ICIJ and its journalistic collaborators handled such a sensitive story, and the possible political implications of the stories based on the FinCEN Files reporting.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

The most significant new additions are primarily due to some very good pieces of investigative reporting.

  • The first, and more widely covered, is the New York Times reporting on several years of President Trump’s federal income tax returns, including the returns from his first two years in office. The returns shed light on many troubling aspects of the President’s finances, including the exceptionally low tax rates he has paid, evidence of multiple instances of possible fraud (still under investigation by the IRS), and his deep personal indebtedness, which plausibly raises security and other risks. The tax returns also provide significant corroborating evidence of the extent to which President Trump and his businesses have continued to earn substantial income from both private firms and foreign governments, giving rise to extraordinary conflict-of-interest concerns, as well as possible (indeed, likely) violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
  • Second, Dan Alexander’s new book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business, covers in much greater depth, and with significant original reporting, the same themes that we’ve been trying to keep track of here, namely the ways that President Trump has sought to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. A terrific and troubling Vanity Fair article summarizes some of the most significant findings, including compelling evidence that the government of Qatar rented office space in a building 30% owned by President Trump for no apparent purpose other than to influence the U.S. government’s Middle East policy.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

FinCEN Is Seeking Public Input on Proposed Amendments to Its AML Regulations. AML Advocates Should Comment!

In my last post, I discussed the so-called “FinCEN Files” (leaked Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by banks with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)), and the reports from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) based on those leaked documents. This reporting highlighted serious weaknesses in the current anti-money laundering (AML) system, both in the United States and globally. Perhaps coincidentally (but perhaps not), just a couple of days before the FinCEN Files stories went public, FinCEN issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), seeking public comment on various proposed changes to its current regulations implementing the AML provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). The comment period will remain open until November 16th, 2020. Of course, it’s never clear how seriously federal agencies will take public comments, but in at least some circumstances sophisticated comments, supported by evidence and analysis, can move the needle, at least somewhat, on agency policy. So, I very much encourage those of you out there in ReaderLand, especially those of you who work at organizations that have expertise in this area and might be well-positioned to submit the sort of detailed, substantive comments that stand a chance of making some practical difference, to submit your comments before that deadline. (Comments can be submitted through the federal government’s e-rulemaking portal, referencing the identification number RIN 1506-AB44, and the docket number FINCEN-2020-0011, in the submission. The link above goes directly to the comment section for this rule, though, so you don’t need to enter that info again if you follow the link.)

The full ANPRM is not that long, but let me provide a very quick summary, highlighting the main proposal under consideration and the specific questions on which FinCEN is seeking public input. Continue reading

The FinCEN Files: Some Scattered Preliminary Thoughts

As most readers of this blog are likely well aware, last week BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a bombshell story about international money laundering through major financial institutions. The collection of stories—more of which are likely in the works—is based on an analysis of a large trove of leaked documents from the U.S Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which the journalists reporting on the case have dubbed the “FinCEN Files.” These files consist of so-called Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), which are documents that, pursuant to a U.S. statute called the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), banks and certain other institutions are legally required to file with FinCEN whenever the bank has reason to suspect that a transaction it’s handling involves money laundering or some other criminal activity, or simply lacks an apparent lawful purpose. The bank does not inform its customer that it’s filing a SAR—indeed, the BSA prohibits banks from doing so. FinCEN can use SARs to detect and investigate financial crime, and may share SARs with other law enforcement agencies in the context of an investigation, but otherwise SARs are supposed to remain strictly confidential. However, in October 2018 a FinCen employee leaked over 2,100 SARs to a BuzzFeed reporter. (While BuzzFeed and ICIJ do not identify their source, it is almost certain that this former employee, who pled guilty last January to illegally leaking the documents, is the source.) Journalists with BuzzFeed and the ICIJ analyzed these documents and have published multiple stories (see, for example, here and here) about what these documents reveal regarding the global anti-money laundering (AML) regime, together with a subset of the actual SARs. (The journalists released only those SARs that support reporting in specific stories, principally SARs that pertain to known criminal figures. They are not publishing a database of all the SARs in their possession due to concerns about privacy of the individuals involved, many of whom are not currently accused of any wrongdoing.)

The picture that these stories paint of the global AML regime is not a pretty one. While the stories are lengthy and detailed, and discuss many different aspects of the overall issue, if I had to try to distill all this reporting into a simple punchline, it would go something like this: The leaked SARs reveal that the major banks repeatedly handled huge and highly suspicious transactions for corrupt kleptocrats, organized crime groups, terrorists, fraudsters, sanctions evaders, and others, and relatively little was done, by the government or the banks, to stop it. As the ICIJ puts it, “The FinCEN Files show trillions in tainted dollars flow freely through major banks, swamping a broken enforcement system.” Or as BuzzFeed puts it, the FinCEN files reveal “how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions,” while “the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”

I’m still working my way through all the FinCEN Files stories, and I’m certainly no expert on money laundering or banking regulation. (I come to this issue sideways, from an interest in anticorruption, rather than any professional expertise in AML as such.) But, in the interest of getting some ideas down in writing and perhaps stimulating some further conversation on what we can learn from the FinCEN Files reporting, let me share a few scattered, somewhat disconnected preliminary observations. Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–September 2020 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring James Wasserstrom

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview James Wasserstrom. Mr. Wasserstrom, currently a private consultant on corruption and transparency issues, began his career with the United Nations, and was posted to the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in 2007. His UN career took an unexpected turn when he uncovered corruption by high-level UNMIK officials. He reported his findings to the UN, but this was leaked to the perpetrators, and he was subjected to an extensive campaign of retaliation. After extensive legal proceedings, it was eventually determined that he had been mistreated, but the UN denied him compensation on dubious procedural grounds. During and after his dispute with the UN, Mr. Wasserstrom has been a leading advocate for institutional reform at the UN and integrity reforms more generally, and from 2009-2014 served as a special advisor on anticorruption at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. In our interview, Mr. Wasserstrom and I discuss his experience as a UN whistleblower, the flaws in the UN’s whistleblower protection system, and what if anything can be done. We also discuss Mr. Wasserstrom’s ideas for providing more international support for whistleblowers in hostile environment, including his new proposal for an “integrity sanctuary” program.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

 

Guest Announcement: The World Bank Office of Suspension and Debarment’s Fifth International Debarment Colloquium

Today’s guest post is from Alexandra Manea, Legal Counsel at the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment.

The World Bank Group (WBG) sanctions system is a critical part of the institution’s multi-faceted anticorruption effort. Comprised of independent decision-makers, the sanctions system investigates allegations of misconduct in WBG-financed projects and, if those allegations are substantiated, can debar culpable companies and individuals from engaging in any WBG -financed activity for a period of time. The impact of a WBG-imposed debarment is amplified through a cross-debarment agreement with other Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), including the African Development Bank Group, the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

With the unprecedented amount of multilateral financing and public spending going toward crisis aid and recovery efforts, governments and aid agencies can use debarment to ensure that they work only with reliable and ethical business partners. In times of crisis, it is crucial to facilitate knowledge-sharing among stakeholders to increase the impact of connected efforts to fight fraud and corruption.

During a series of webinars over five consecutive weeks starting on September 22 (this coming Tuesday), the WBG’s Office of Suspension and Debarment (OSD) will host the fifth edition of its International Debarment Colloquium series, a flagship event that showcases developments in debarment systems worldwide and examines the various uses of debarment in the procurement and anticorruption contexts. Representatives from multilateral organizations, government, private sector, non-governmental organizations, and academia will discuss: Continue reading

Guest Post: Australia Considers New Approaches to Corporate Criminal Liability

Today’s guest post is from Matt Corrigan and Samuel Walpole, respectively General Counsel and Legal Officer at the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC).

The growth of multinational corporations in both size and number has raised concerns in many jurisdictions about the State’s capacity to hold corporations liable for crimes committed in the course of their business activities, including (but not limited to) bribery of foreign officials. One of the challenges of using the criminal law to address corporate misconduct is that the traditional criminal law evolved with “natural persons” (that is, real people) in mind. The law therefore typically focuses on the conduct and states of mind of individuals to determine whether a criminal offense has been committed. Corporations are comprised of, and act through, individuals, but corporations are greater than the sum of their parts. The law developed principles of attribution of responsibility—legal principles for ascribing conduct and states of mind of a particular person or persons to a corporation—in order to hold the corporation liable for ordinary criminal offenses. In practice, however, these do not produce a perfect fit, particularly in the case of large decentralized corporations.

The perceived inadequacy of traditional notions of criminal responsibility when applied to problems like corporate bribery has led some jurisdictions to introduce novel approaches to corporate criminal liability for such crimes. Perhaps most notably, in 2010, the United Kingdom enacted the Bribery Act, which introduced a novel criminal offense, specific to corporate defendants, of failing to prevent foreign bribery. Under this provision, corporations are liable if they fail to prevent their associates—including agents engaged to act on behalf of the corporation to win contracts and expand operations in foreign jurisdictions—from committing bribery, subject to an affirmative defense that the corporation had in place adequate procedures to prevent such bribery. The “failure to prevent bribery” offense, together with the deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) scheme introduced in 2014, have been important steps forward. As Professor Liz Campbell has explained, the “failure to prevent” model involves utilizing the criminal law “as leverage to effect change in corporate behaviour,” rather than an accountability framework that operates only after the fact. In reviewing the operation of the UK Bribery Act in 2019, the House of Lords Bribery Act Committee described the “failure to prevent” reforms as “remarkably successful” in promoting compliance.

Australia is now considering adopting a similar approach to the United Kingdom. In December 2019, the Australian government introduced the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Combating Corporate Crime) Bill. This Bill, which is currently before Australia’s federal Parliament, would introduce an offense of failure to prevent bribery of foreign public officials by a corporation into Australia’s federal Criminal Code, along with a DPA scheme for foreign bribery. More generally, Australia is considering more seriously the limitations of traditional notions of criminal responsibility when applied in the context of corporate crime. The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), on which we serve, recently undertook an extensive inquiry into this issue and published a Final Report that made 20 recommendations for reform of Australia’s corporate criminal liability regime. Among these recommendations, a few seem especially pertinent to the debates over the Crimes Legislation Amendment, and the effective control of corporate bribery more generally: Continue reading

Guest Announcement: OECD Report and Webinar on Corporate Anticorruption Compliance

France Chain, Senior Legal Analyst at the OECD’s Anti-Corruption Division, provides the following announcement regarding next week’s OECD webinar on “What really motivates anti-corruption compliance?”, an event which coincides with the launch of the new OECD Study on Corporate Anti-Corruption Compliance Drivers, Mechanisms and Ideas for Change.

Since the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention came into force in 1999, managing the risk of bribery has been identified as one of the most challenging areas of compliance for multinational businesses. Major foreign bribery scandals have resulted in record-breaking fines, which has seen the field of compliance grow exponentially over the past ten years. The OECD Foreign Bribery Report revealed that over 40% of foreign bribery cases involved management-level employees either paying or authorizing bribes, with CEOs involved in 12% of cases. At the same time, companies have shown that they can play a key role in detecting and responding to corruption. The OECD’s 2017 report on the Detection of Foreign Bribery showed that 23% of foreign bribery cases that resulted in definitive sanctions over the last 20 years were detected via self-reporting by companies.

However, implementing an effective compliance program is no easy task, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further heightened the challenges. With companies under great financial pressure to recover, anticorruption compliance departments and systems are being put to the test as never before.

To help shed light on some of these challenges and show us the way forward, a forthcoming OECD study on Corporate Anti-Corruption Compliance Drivers, Mechanisms and Ideas for Change explores what motivates companies to adopt anticorruption compliance measures, and looks at how companies (including small and medium-sized enterprises) could further be incentivized to do so. The study also underlines some of the main challenges faced by companies looking to implement anticorruption programs and proposes potential solutions, including ways for governments, international organizations, and civil society to better support companies in their anticorruption efforts.

The official launch of this study will take place on September 23 (one week from tomorrow), with a webinar panel discussion on What really motivates anti-corruption compliance?” to take place on September 23 from 15:00 to 16:30 Central European Time (9:00 am to 10:30 am U.S. East Coast time). You can register for the webinar here. The panel will bring together:

  • Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-large, Thomson Reuters (moderator)
  • Anna Hallberg, Minister of Foreign Trade and Nordic Affairs of Sweden (opening remarks)
  • Jeffrey Schlagenhauf, OECD Deputy Secretary-General (opening remarks)
  • France Chain, Senior Legal Analyst, OECD Anti-Corruption Division (presentation of key findings from the Study)
  • Alma Balcázar, Co-founder and Principal of GR Compliance SAS and Member of the International Council of Transparency International
  • Andrew Gentin, Assistant Chief, Fraud Section, Criminal Division, United States Department of Justice
  • Corinne Lagache, Chair, Business at OECDAnti-Corruption Committee, and Senior Vice President, Group Compliance Officer, Safran
  • Caroline Lindgren, Head of Legal and Local Compliance Officer of Sweco Sverige AB

Those attending the webinar will be able to submit questions through the chat during the live discussion on Zoom. The session will be recorded and subsequently posted on the OECD Anti-corruption and Integrity website.