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

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

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

Why Western Accounting and Consulting Firms Are Facilitating Global Corruption, and How To Stop Them

In 2016 the then-president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, appointed his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, as chairwoman of Sonagol, Angola’s struggling state oil company. Ms. dos Santos quickly recruited the management consulting firms Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and McKinsey and Company to help restructure the company. BCG and McKinsey were not paid directly by Sonangol, however, but rather by a holding company controlled by Ms. dos Santos, Wise Intelligence Services. On paper, Wise Intelligence Services oversaw the consulting firms’ work, but in reality this payment plan enabled Ms. dos Santos to embezzle millions of dollars from the Angolan treasury by overcharging for the consultants’ work and then pocketing the difference. The firms, of course, still received enormous fees, and do not appear to have raised any concerns or objections regarding the highly unusual and suspicious payment arrangements. BCG and McKinsey were not the only Western professional services firms to profit from working with Ms. dos Santos. The accounting firms PwC, Deloitte, KPMG, and Ernst and Young all audited some of the companies owned by Ms. dos Santos and signed off on those companies’ contracts with the Angolan government. In January 2020 Angolan prosecutors announced that they would charge Ms. dos Santos—whose personal wealth is estimated at around $2 billion—with embezzlement of state funds in connection with her business relationships with the Angolan government.

This is far from the first corruption scandal that has implicated the same cohort of large professional services firms. McKinsey has received enormous criticism for its partnership with a company connected to the kleptocratic Gupta family in a $700 million contract with the South African government to resuscitate the country’s failing state-owned power company. Deloitte, Bain, and KPMG have also faced scrutiny for their respective roles in facilitating or otherwise enabling South Africa’s myriad corruption scandals. In Mongolia, McKinsey partnered with a firm owned by a top government official in a contract to reshape the country’s rail system; Mongolian officials ultimately levied corruption charges against three different Mongolians involved in brokering that deal.

These and numerous other scandals illustrate that, far too often, professional services firms have either facilitated, or at best been passively complicit in, the theft of massive sums from state coffers. Why have professional services firms been repeatedly implicated in corruption scandals involving their public sector work? Part of the explanation is simply the inherent risk associated with settings in which developing-country governments, where corruption risks are high to begin with, are handing multi-million dollar contracts to Western firms in an effort to modernize their national infrastructure. But in addition, two structural issues help to explain why accounting and management consulting firms are particularly susceptible to these sorts of problems.

Continue reading

Are Legislative Changes to US AML Rules Finally on the Way? Some Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Subcommittee Hearing

Although the United States has been a leader in the fight against global corruption in some respects—particularly in its vigorous enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and, at least until recently, its diplomatic efforts—there is widespread agreement in the anticorruption community that the United States has not done nearly enough to address the flow of dirty money, much of it stolen by kleptocrats and their cronies, to and through the United States. Effectively addressing this problem requires updating the US legislative framework, a task made difficult by the checks and balances built into the federal legislative process, coupled with high levels of political polarization. Yet there are reasons for cautious optimism: Thanks in part to skillful lobbying efforts by several advocacy groups, and aided in part by the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in the most recent mid-term elections, it looks as if there’s a real chance that the current Congress may enact at least some significant reforms.

Three of the reform bills under consideration are the subject of a hearing to be held tomorrow (Wednesday, March 13, 2019) before the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, International Development, and Monetary Policy. That hearing will consider three draft bills: (1) a draft version of the “Corporate Transparency Act” (CTA); (2) the “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Act” (KARRA); and (3) a draft bill that currently bears the unwieldy title “To make reforms of the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” (which I’ll refer to as the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) Amendments). The subcommittee’s memo explaining the three proposals is here, and for those who are interested, you can watch a live stream of the subcommittee hearing tomorrow at 2 pm (US East Coast time) here.

For what it’s worth, a few scattered thoughts on each of these proposals: Continue reading

Proposed US Legislation Can Solve the Art World’s Money Laundering Problem

The plan was simple: a wealthy client wishing to launder the proceeds of a stock manipulation scheme could do so through a Picasso painting. His accomplice would be Matthew Green, the owner of a prominent London art gallery and son of one of London’s most powerful art dealers. The client would purchase the painting using the illegal proceeds, own the painting for some time to avoid suspicion, and then sell the painting back to Green, who would transfer the original payment back to the client through a US bank—to “clean the money.” It was completely foolproof, except that the client turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.

Why a painting to launder the money? Because the art business is impenetrable by outsiders: it’s a world limited to highbrow art connoisseurs, dealers, and wealthy collectors, where the prices are whatever they want them to be. Here, $9.2 million, although the painting failed to sell at a much lower price estimate years before. And as the defendants in the Green case explained to their client, the art business is “the only market that is unregulated” by the government. It seems that the players in the art world make up their own rules, unchecked by any authority, making this elusive quality of the business the perfect “hotbed” for corrupt activity.

In May 2018—possibly in response to the February 2018 indictment in this case—legislation was introduced in US Congress to tackle the money-laundering problem in the art business (previously described on this blog). The Illicit Art and Antiquities Trafficking Prevention Act (Act) would cover art and antiquities dealers under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), which requires financial institutions and other regulated businesses to establish anti-money laundering programs, keep records of cash purchases, and report suspicious activity and transactions exceeding $10,000 to government regulators. This legislation has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been vigorously opposed by the art industry. But the objections to the proposal do not withstand scrutiny:

Continue reading

Will 2019 Be the Year the US Finally Passes Anonymous Company Reform? Not If the ABA Gets Its Way

It’s a new year, a new US Congress, and a new opportunity for the United States to take action to close some of the most glaring loopholes in its anticorruption and anti-money laundering (AML) framework. So far, Washington has been consumed with the government shutdown fight, along with early chatter about who might seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020, such that there hasn’t yet been much coverage of what new legislation we might see emerging from this new Congress over the next two years. And to the extent there has been such discussion, it has tended to focus on initiatives—such as the Democrat-sponsored “anticorruption” bills that focus on lobbying, voting rights, and conflict-of-interest law reform—that, whatever their usefulness in shaping the debate and setting an agenda for the future, have virtually no chance of passing in the current Congress, given Republican control of the Senate and the White House. Indeed, many commenters assume that on a wide range of issues, political gridlock and polarization means that the new Congress is unlikely to accomplish much in the way of new legislation.

That may be true as a general matter, but there are a few areas—including some of particular interest to the anticorruption community—where the opportunity for genuine legislative reform may be quite high. Perhaps the most promising such opportunity is so-called anonymous company reform. Anonymous companies are corporations and other legal entities whose true “beneficial owners” are unknown and often hard to trace. (The registered owner is often another anonymous legal entity registered in another jurisdiction.) It’s no secret that anonymous companies are used to funnel bribes to public officials, to hide stolen assets, and to facilitate a whole range of other crimes, including tax evasion, fraud, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. And although in the popular imagination shady anonymous shell companies are associated (with some justification) with “offshore” jurisdictions, in fact the United States has one of the most lax regulatory regimes in this area, making it ridiculously easy for kleptocrats and others to use anonymous companies registered in the US to shield their assets and their activities from scrutiny.

Of course it’s possible for law enforcement agencies, armed with subpoena power and with the assistance—one hopes—with cooperative foreign partners and sympathetic courts can eventually figure out who really owns a company involved in illicit activity, doing so is arduous, time-consuming, and sometimes simply impossible. It would be much better if there were a central register of beneficial ownership information, with verification of the information the responsibility of those registering the companies and stiff penalties for filing inaccurate information. Indeed, one of the striking things about the debate over anonymous company reform is how little disagreement there seems to be among experts about the benefits of a centralized company ownership register. There’s still significant controversy over whether these ownership registers should be public (see, for example, the extended exchange on this blog here, here, here, here, and here). But even those who object to public registers of the sort the UK has created acknowledge, indeed emphasize, the importance of creating a confidential register that’s accessible to law enforcement agencies and financial institutions conducting due diligence. But the US doesn’t even have that.

There’s a chance this might finally change. Continue reading

The Flawed and Flimsy Basis for the American Bar Association’s Opposition to Anonymous Company Reform

In last week’s post, I raised the question of why the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the U.S. legal profession, so strenuously opposes even relatively modest measures to crack down on the use of anonymous companies for money laundering and other illicit purposes. In particular, the ABA has staked out a strong, uncompromising opposition to the bills on this topic currently under consideration in the U.S. House (the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act) and in the Senate (the TITLE Act). As I noted in my last post, the substance of the ABA’s objections (summarized in its letters here and here) appear, at least on their surface, unpersuasive as a matter of logic, unsupported by evidence, or both. This, coupled with the fact that many ABA members strongly disagree with the ABA’s official position on this issue, made me wonder how the ABA’s President and Government Affairs Office had come to take the position that they had.

After doing a bit more digging, and talking to several knowledgeable people, I have a tentative answer: The ABA’s opposition to the currently-pending anonymous company bills is based on an aggressive over-reading of a 15-year-old policy—a policy that many ABA members and ABA committees oppose but have not yet been able to change, due to the ABA’s cumbersome procedures and the resistance of a few influential factions within the organization.

Why does this matter? It matters because the ABA’s letters to Congress deliberately give the impression that the ABA speaks for its 400,000 members when it objects to these bills as against the interests of the legal profession and contrary to important values. But that impression is misleading. There may be people out there—including, perhaps, members of Congress and their aides—who are instinctively sympathetic to the anonymous company reforms in the pending bills, but who might waver, for substantive or political reasons, if they think that the American legal profession has made a considered, collective judgment that these sorts of reforms are undesirable. The ABA’s lobbying documents deliberately try to create that impression. But it’s not really true. The key document setting the policy—the one on which the ABA’s House of Delegates actually voted—was promulgated in 2003, hasn’t been reconsidered or updated by the House of Delegates since then, and doesn’t really apply to the currently-pending bills if one reads the document or the bills carefully.

I realize that’s a strong claim – one could read it as disputing the ABA President’s assertion, in her letters to Congress, that she speaks “on behalf of” the ABA and its membership in opposing these bills. And I could well be wrong, and remain open to correction and criticism. But here’s why I don’t think the ABA’s current lobbying position should be read as reflecting the collective judgment of the American legal profession on the TITLE Act or its House counterpart: Continue reading