It’s Time for the United States to Mandate Enhanced Scrutiny of Domestic Politically Exposed Persons

In February, former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh became the latest in the long line of Maryland politicians sentenced to prison for corruption-related crimes. According to the Department of Justice, Pugh sold copies of a self-published children’s book series to a variety of local organizations that already had or were attempting to win contracts with the city and state governments. Over eight years, Pugh and her longtime aide failed to deliver, re-sold, and double-counted the orders, squirrelling away nearly $800,000 into bank accounts belonging to two shell corporations registered to Pugh’s home address. Pugh, who did not maintain a personal bank account, used the funds to purchase and renovate a private home as well as fund her re-election campaign, among other activities.

These facts are classic red flags in the anti-money laundering (AML) world. Pugh would have had more difficulty executing this corrupt scheme, and might have been brought to justice much earlier, if the banks handling her illicit revenues had conducted the sort of enhanced customer due diligence and monitoring that financial institutions are required to perform on so-called “politically exposed persons” (PEPs), as well as their immediate family and close associates. While there is no uniform definition, PEPs are typically understood to be someone who holds a powerful government position, one that provides greater opportunities for engaging in embezzlement, bribe-taking, and other illicit activity. (Defining a PEP’s “close associates” is more challenging, but the category is generally thought to include someone like Pugh’s aide, who has the requisite status and access to carry out transactions on behalf of the PEP.) But U.S. financial institutions were not required to subject Pugh or her aide to enhanced scrutiny, because under the U.S. AML framework, such scrutiny is only obligatory for foreign PEPs, not domestic PEPs.

For many years, that was the standard approach internationally. But a new consensus is emerging that financial institutions should subject all PEPs, both domestic and foreign, to enhanced scrutiny. This position has been embraced by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international body which sets standards for combating corruption in the international financial system, by the Wolfsberg Group, an association of the world’s largest banks, and by the European Union’s Fourth AML Directive. But far from joining the growing tide of domestic PEP screening, the United States seems to be swimming against it. The United States is one of the few OECD countries that does not require domestic PEP screening, and this past August, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the primary U.S. agency tasked with investigating financial crimes, reiterated that it “do[es] not interpret the term ‘politically exposed persons’ to include U.S. public officials[.]”

This is a mistake. It’s time that the United States joined the international consensus by formally requiring enhanced scrutiny of domestic PEPs as well as foreign PEPs. Continue reading

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.

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

Australian Lawyers and Real Estate Agents: Kleptocrats’ Best Friends?

Government officials who steal “vast quantities” of their citizens’ money need help hiding the loot.  The first generation of kleptocrats — the Ferdinand Marcoses, Mobutu Sese Sekos, and Sani Abachas of the world – showed that the preferred way is to retain someone to surreptitiously move the money into a safe haven abroad and then invest it in assets that cannot be traced back to them.  The anticorruption community calls these accomplices to grand corruption “enablers,” for they enable corrupt officials to hide their money.

The international community has begun cracking down on this professional class of crooks.  The primary means has been through making them subject to domestic anti-money laws.  Just as the laws of virtually all countries require banks and other financial institutions to take particular care (“enhanced due diligence”) before accepting as a customer current or former senior government officials or their family members or close associates and to report any suspicious transaction these “politically exposed persons” conduct, the Financial Action Task Force recommendations 22, 23, and 28 require the same from lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and others with the professional skills required to hide stolen assets. FATF has no power to compel countries to transpose these recommendations into domestic law.  It relies instead on the peer pressure generated by regular, highly publicized reports on individual nation’s compliance with them.

That system has now ground to a halt. According to the Financial Review, the reason is fierce opposition from Australian lawyers and real estate agents to what a FATF review of Australian compliance with the anti-money laundering recommendations would reveal. For 13 years the two have blocked the extension of the Australian anti-money laundering rules to their activities; last November a scheduled FATF review was about to finally call them out.  It was then suddenly cancelled. The only explanation given was that FATF had decided “to temporarily pause the start of all scheduled follow-up assessments pending the outcomes of the strategic review of FATF currently underway.”  Although FATF acknowledged discussing the review at its February 2020 meeting, no details about what the review would cover or when it would be completed was provided.  In the meantime, professions in the United States, Canada, and other nations (here, here, and here) who oppose extending anti-money laundering rules to their activities can breathe easier.  So can kleptocrats wanting to tap their expertise in hiding money.

The Art World is Rife with Corruption, But Suspicious Activity Reporting Requirements Aren’t the Answer

Customs officials at JFK airport didn’t have a reason to be suspicious. After all, the package wasn’t anything special—just a regular shipping carton with an unnamed $100 painting inside. Only later did it emerge that the $100 unnamed painting was, in fact, Hannibal, a 1981 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat valued at $8 million. Authorities across three different continents had spent years trying to track down Hannibal, along with other famous works by Roy Lichtenstein and Serge Poliakoff, that Brazilian banker Edemar Cid Ferreira had used to launder millions of funds he illegally obtained from a Brazilian bank. It wasn’t until 2015, nearly ten years after Edemar’s conviction for money laundering, that US authorities managed to return Hannibal to its rightful owner, the Brazilian government. Meanwhile, thousands of other paintings move across borders with few questions asked about who owns them, who’s buying them, and for what end.

The art world is readymade for corruption. Paintings—unlike real estate—are readily portable. Their true value, as Hannibal illustrates, is readily disguisable. And the law does not require disclosure of the buyer or seller’s true identity. Unlike real estate, where ownership can be traced to a deed, the only available chain of title for most artwork is its “provenance”—which is commonly vague, falsified, or not readily verified. Recognizing that money laundering in the art world is a big (and growing) problem, there’s been a flurry of recent proposals to address that problem. In the United States, Congressman Luke Messer proposed a new law called the Illicit Art and Antiquities Act, which, if enacted, would amend the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) to require art and antiquities dealers to develop an internal compliance system, report cash payments of more than $10,000, and file the same sorts of “suspicious activity reports” (SARs) with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) that the BSA currently requires of financial institutions and money service businesses. And in Europe, the EU’s Fifth Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Directive dramatically expanded suspicious transaction reporting requirements for art dealers.

These developments show that legislators on both sides of the Atlantic are taking the challenge of art corruption seriously, which is an encouraging development. Unfortunately, expanding SAR requirements, while appropriate in other contexts, is misguided when it comes to the art world, for two reasons:

Continue reading

The Continuing Struggle Over Brazil’s Financial Intelligence Unit and Its Contribution to the Anticorruption Fight

The successful investigation and prosecution of high-level corruption crimes often requires access to detailed financial intelligence, which in turn requires close cooperation and information-sharing between law enforcement officials and financial intelligence units. This has certainly been the case in Brazil, where the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation—considered the most successful anticorruption operation in Brazilian history—has been made possible in large measure by the reports supplied to federal prosecutors by Brazil’s financial intelligence unit,  known as the Counsel of Control of Financial Activities (COAF). COAF, created in 1998, has provided Brazilian federal prosecutors with suspicious activity reports on potential targets of the Lava Jato investigation, including politicians, high-level public officials, corporations, and business executives. And in the early days of the administration of President Bolsonaro, who positioned himself as an anticorruption champion during the election, there were some signs that COAF’s role in supporting law enforcement efforts would be strengthened. President Bolsonaro, for example, proposed transferring COAF from the Ministry of Economy to the Ministry of Justice—a signal that COAF would continue to work in the support of law enforcement activities—though the Congress rejected this proposal. President Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, also nominated an auditor of the Brazilian Internal Revenue Service who worked in Lava Jato to be the new COAF chief.

But over the course of the last year, the ability of COAF to support anticorruption investigations has been jeopardized, partly by a judicial ruling, but also by other less visible efforts by the administration to undermine the unit’s autonomy.

Continue Reading

The Global Community Must Take Further Steps to Combat Trade-Based Money Laundering

Global trade has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and with this growth has come the increased risk of trade-based money laundering. Criminals often use the legitimate flow of goods across borders—and the accompanying movement of funds—to relocate value from one jurisdiction to another without attracting the attention of law enforcement. As an example, imagine a criminal organization that wants to move dirty money from China to Canada, while disguising the illicit origins of that money. The organization colludes with (or sets up) an exporter in Canada and an importer in China. The exporter then contracts to ship $2 million worth of goods to China and bills the importer for the full $2 million, but, crucially, only ships goods worth $1 million. Once the bill is paid, $1 million has been transferred across borders and a paper trail makes the money seem legitimate. The process works in reverse as well: the Canadian exporter might ship $1 million worth of goods to the Chinese importer but only bill the importer $500,000. When those goods are sold on the open market, the additional $500,000 is deposited in an account in China for the benefit of the criminal organization. Besides these classic over- and under-invoicing techniques, there are other forms of trade-based money laundering, including invoicing the same shipment multiple times, shipping goods other than those invoiced, simply shipping nothing at all while issuing a fake invoice, or even more complicated schemes (see here and here for examples).

As governments have cracked down on traditional money-laundering schemes—such as cash smuggling and financial system manipulation—trade-based money laundering has become increasingly common. Indeed, the NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing has become “the primary means for illicitly shifting funds between developing and advanced countries.” Unfortunately, trade-based money laundering is notoriously difficult to detect, in part because of the scale of global trade: it’s easy to hide millions of dollars in global trading flows worth trillions. (Catching trade-based money laundering has been likened to searching for a bad needle in a stack of needles.) Furthermore, the deceptions involved in trade-based money laundering can be quite subtle: shipping paperwork may be consistent with sales contracts and with the actual shipped goods, so the illicit value transfer will remain hidden unless investigators have a good idea of the true market value of the goods. Using hard-to-value goods, such as fashionable clothes or used cars, can make detection nearly impossible. Moreover, sophisticated criminals render these schemes even more slippery by commingling illicit and legitimate business ventures, shipping goods through third countries, routing payments through intermediaries, and taking advantage of lax customs regulations in certain jurisdictions, especially free trade zones (see here and here). In a world where few shipping containers are physically inspected (see here, here, and here), total failure to detect trade-based money laundering is “just a decimal point away.”

The international community can and should be doing more to combat trade-based money laundering, starting with the following steps:

Continue reading

The Case for Governments Maintaining PEP Registries

Financial institutions are obliged to apply enhanced client due diligence to politically exposed persons (PEPs) in order to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) and other regulations. Yet there are no official, government-sponsored or government-endorsed sources for identifying PEPs. As a result, financial institutions typically rely on private firms to identify PEPs across the globe. But this reliance is problematic. With barely any independent oversight into how these firms compile their lists, there is no way to ensure the lists are accurate, and there’s at least some evidence that they aren’t: Many of the vendors on which financial institutions rely were found to have “incomplete and unreliable PEP lists” in the past and these commercial databases also produce thousands of false positives due to people with identical names. Given these problems, very few AML officers rely solely on those external databases; they are forced to supplement the private vendor lists with ad hoc internet searches on Google, Linkedin, and other sources, often relying on Google-translations of foreign media articles. This does not seem very reliable. Some civil society groups have sought to contribute to the identification of PEPs by creating online registries, drawing on publicly accessible data on the international level and the national level. But none of these attempts has been comprehensive enough for AML purposes, and civil society organizations probably would not have the resources to compile PEP lists that would be suitable for financial institutions to use for screening clients on a sustainable, ongoing basis.

It is time to change how we approach the task of identifying PEPs for AML and related purposes. A couple of years ago, Professor Stephenson asked on this blog whether there should be a public registry of PEPs, sponsored and maintained by national governments or by an inter-governmental body such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Such an idea is not entirely revolutionary. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) hints at something along these lines in Article 52(b)(2), which instructs each state party “in accordance with its domestic law … [and] where appropriate, [to] notify financial institutions within its jurisdiction … of the identity of particular natural or legal persons to whose accounts such institutions will be expected to apply enhanced scrutiny,” though the “where appropriate” and “in accordance with domestic law” qualifiers mean that there’s no concrete obligation here. Some countries, such as Australia, have undertaken to circulate lists of PEPs to financial institutions. And the European Union, in its Fifth AML Directive, required Member States to compile a list of government positions that are considered “politically exposed,” though the Directive does not require governments to name the actual persons holding those positions at any given time.

Yet these measures all fall well short of the possibility that Professor Stephenson raised in his post: official PEP lists compiled and maintained by governments. Professor Stephenson framed his post as merely posing the question whether this would be a good idea. I want to argue for what I believe is the correct answer to that question: Not only should governments maintain PEP registries, but the international community, through bodies such as the FATF and the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, ought to require governments to create and maintain such registries, using an internationally-standardized set of functional criteria to identify which public positions should be considered to be politically exposed.  Continue reading