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

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

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

Applying Anti-Money Laundering Reporting Obligations on Lawyers: The UK Experience

Anticorruption advocates and reformers have rightly been paying increased attention to the role of “gatekeepers”—bankers, attorneys, and other corporate service providers—in enabling kleptocrats or other bad actors to hide their assets and launder their wealth through the use of anonymous companies. An encouraging development on this front are the bills currently pending in the U.S. Congress that would require corporate formation agents to verify and file the identity of a registered company’s real (or “beneficial”) owners, and also would extend certain anti-money laundering (AML) rules, particularly those requiring the filing of suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the US Treasury, to these corporate formation agents.

Not everyone is thrilled. The organization legal profession, for example, is crying foul. American Bar Association (ABA) President Hilarie Bass wrote to Congress that the proposed expansion of SAR obligations to corporate formation agents, many of whom are attorneys or law firms, would compromise traditional duties of lawyer-client confidentiality and loyalty. As Matthew pointed out in a prior post, it’s not clear that this assertion is correct, as the proposed bills contain express exemptions for lawyers. But even putting that aside, it’s worth recognizing that applying SAR obligations to attorneys wouldn’t be unprecedented. Many European countries have had similar requirements in place since the early 2000s, when the European Commission issued directive 2001/97/EC, which required states to adopt legislation imposing obligations on non-financial professionals, including lawyers, to file suspicious transaction reports (STRs, essentially another term for SARs). As in the US right now, that aspect of the 2001 EC directive was extremely controversial. One EU Commission Staff Working Document went so far as to say it was “the most controversial element of the Directive” because it represented “a radical change to the principle of confidentiality that the legal profession has traditionally observed.” Some EU states and national bar associations launched an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to the requirement that attorneys file STRs, on the grounds that it violated the right of professional secrecy guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Yet in the end, the imposition of the STR obligations on lawyers does not seem to have radically altered the legal profession in Europe. Countries appear to have developed safeguards that preserve the essential aspects of attorney-client confidentiality, even while implementing the EC Directive. Consider, for example, how this all played out in the United Kingdom. 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

Why Does the American Bar Association Oppose Beneficial Ownership Transparency Reform?

Right around the same time that this post appears on the blog, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing on “Beneficial Ownership: Fighting Illicit International Financial Networks Through Transparency.” The main focus of the hearing will be on a pending bill, the True Incorporation for Transparency for Law Enforcement Act (TITLE Act). That bill’s major provisions do two main things:

  • First, subject to certain limited exceptions, the Act would require that every applicant wishing to form a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) in a U.S. State must provide that State with information on the true or “beneficial” owners of the company—that is, the live human beings who actually exercise control over, and/or receive substantial economic benefits from, these entities—and to keep this information updated. This information could then be requested by a law enforcement or other government agency, or by a financial institution conducting due diligence on a customer. Those applicants who don’t have a U.S. passport or driver’s license who want to form a corporation or LLC would have to apply through a U.S.-based “formation agent”; this agent would be responsible for verifying, maintaining, and updating information on the identity of the legal entity’s beneficial owners.
  • Second, the bill would also subject these “formation agents” to certain anti-money laundering (AML) rules applicable to financial institutions, including the requirements for establishing AML programs and filing suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the Treasury Department. However, the TITLE Act expressly exempts attorneys and law firms from this provision—provided that the attorney or law firm uses a separate formation agent in the U.S. when helping a client form a corporation or LLC. (The idea, as I understand it, is that the bill would avoid putting attorneys in the position of potentially having to file SARs on their own clients—but in order to avail themselves of this exemption, an attorney helping a client form a corporation would have to retain a separate formation agent, and it would be this latter agent that would be subject to the AML rules. More on this in a moment.)

Compared to the more aggressive beneficial ownership transparency reforms touted by anticorruption/AML advocates, and adopted in some other countries, the proposed U.S. legislation is fairly mild—but it is still, as prior commentators on this blog have emphasized (here and here), a welcome step in the right direction. After all, while the U.S. record on fighting global corruption and international money laundering is good in some respects (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement and the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative come to mind), when it comes to addressing the facilitators of corruption, such as corporate secrecy, the U.S. is a laggard (as illustrated by poor U.S. score on the Tax Justice Network’s 2018 “Financial Secrecy Index,” released last month). So it’s indeed encouraging that the TITLE Act, and its counterpart in the U.S House of Representatives (the less-cleverly-named “Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act”) have received both bipartisan support and the endorsement of a wide range of interest groups—including not just anticorruption, AML, and tax justice advocacy groups, but also representatives of law enforcement, the finance industry and other business interests (here and here). Many are cautiously optimistic that some version of these bills might actually become law this year.

But some opposition remains. The sources of that opposition are, in some cases, predictable: the Chamber of Commerce, for example, opposes these reforms, as does FreedomWorks, the lobbying group sponsored by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers. One of the major opponents of the legislation, though, was more surprising, at least to me: the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the U.S. legal profession. The ABA has come strongly against this legislation, sending letters to the responsible committees in both the House and Senate expressing strong opposition to even these relatively mild reforms.

What’s the explanation for this uncompromising opposition? Do the objections make sense on the merits? How did the ABA decide to take such a strong stand, despite the fact that I’m sure many ABA members support greater beneficial ownership transparency? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions yet, and I may try to do a few more posts over this month as I try to work through these issues. But for now, let me offer some preliminary thoughts: Continue reading