The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has issued an advisory to alert financial institutions of widespread public corruption in Venezuela and the methods Venezuelan senior political figures and their associates may use to move and hide proceeds of their corruption through the U.S. financial system. The advisory also describes a number of financial red flags to assist financial institutions in identifying and reporting suspicious activity that may be indicative of corruption.
“In recent years, financial institutions have reported to FinCEN their suspicions regarding many transactions suspected of being linked to Venezuelan public corruption, including government contracts,” said Acting FinCEN Director Jamal El-Hindi in a press release. “Not all transactions involving Venezuela involve corruption, but, particularly now, during a period of turmoil in that country, financial institutions need to continue their vigilance to help identify and stop the flow of corrupt proceeds and guard against money laundering and other illicit financial activity.”
Background Regarding Venezuela
In its advisory, FinCEN notes that Venezuela faces severe economic and political circumstances due to the rupture of democratic and constitutional order by the government and policy choices. In recent years, financial institutions have reported to FinCEN their suspicions regarding many transactions suspected of being linked to Venezuelan public corruption, including government contracts. Based on this reporting and other information, all Venezuelan government agencies and bodies, including state-owned enterprises (SOEs), appear vulnerable to public corruption and money laundering. The Venezuelan government appears to use its control over large parts of the economy to generate significant wealth for government officials and SOE executives, their families, and associates. In this regard, there is a high risk of corruption involving Venezuelan government officials and employees at all levels, including those managing or working at Venezuelan SOEs.
FinCEN Recommends Risk-Based Approach
According to FinCEN, financial institutions should take risk-based steps to identify and limit any exposure they may have to funds and other assets associated with Venezuelan public corruption. Awareness of money laundering schemes used by corrupt Venezuelan officials may help financial institutions (1) differentiate between illicit and legitimate transactions, and (2) identify and report transactions involving suspected corruption proceeds being held or moved by their customers, including through their private and correspondent banking relationships. Consistent with a risk-based approach, however, financial institutions should be aware that normal business and other transactions involving Venezuelan nationals and businesses do not necessarily represent the same risk as transactions and relationships identified as being connected to the Venezuelan government, Venezuelan officials, and Venezuelan SOEs involved in public corruption that exhibit the red flags below or other similar indicia.
Recent OFAC Sanctions
On February 13, 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. On the same day, OFAC also designated his front man, Samark Lopez Bello, for materially assisting El Aissami and acting on his behalf. OFAC further designated or identified as blocked property 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello or other designated parties that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela. Five U.S. companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello were also blocked as well as significant real property and other assets in the Miami, Florida area tied to Lopez Bello. As a result of this action, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions or otherwise dealing with these individuals and entities, and any assets the individuals and entities may have under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen. FinCEN believes that these OFAC designations increase the likelihood that other non-designated Venezuelan senior political figures may seek to protect their assets, including those that are likely to be associated with political corruption, to avoid potential future blocking actions.
Venezuela Government Corruption Red Flags
In its advisory, FinCEN states that transactions involving Venezuelan government agencies and SOEs, particularly those involving government contracts, can potentially be used as vehicles to move, launder, and conceal embezzled corruption proceeds. SOEs (as well as their officials) may also try to use the U.S. financial system to move or hide proceeds of public corruption. Among the SOEs referenced in OFAC’s recent designations related to Venezuela are the National Center for Foreign Commerce (CENCOEX), Suministros Venezolanos Industriales, CA (SUVINCA), the Foreign Trade Bank (BANCOEX), the National Telephone Company (CANTV), the National Electric Corporation (CORPELEC), Venezuelan Economic and Social Bank (BANDES), and similar state-controlled entities. As law enforcement and financial institutions increase scrutiny of transactions involving Venezuelan SOEs, corrupt officials may try to channel illicit proceeds through lesser-known or newly-created SOEs or affiliated enterprises.
The red flags noted below, which are derived from information available to FinCEN (including suspicious activity reporting), published information associated with OFAC designations, and other public reporting, may help financial institutions identify suspected schemes by corrupt officials, their family members, and associates to channel corruption proceeds, often involving government contracts or resources, through transactions involving Venezuelan SOEs and subsidiaries:
FinCEN believes that corrupt officials may use contracts with the Venezuelan government as vehicles to embezzle funds and receive bribes. In this regard, some financial red flags can include:
- Transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts that are directed to personal accounts.
- Transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts that are directed to companies that operate in an unrelated line of business (e.g., payments for construction projects directed to textile merchants).
- Transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate with, or are directed to, entities that are shell corporations, general “trading companies,” or companies that lack a general business purpose.
- Documentation corroborating transactions involving Venezuelan government contracts (e.g., invoices) that include charges at substantially higher prices than market rates or that include overly simple documentation or lack traditional details (e.g., valuations for goods and services). Venezuelan officials who receive preferential access to U.S. dollars at the more favorable, official exchange rate may exploit this multi-tier exchange rate system for profit.
- Payments involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate from non-official Venezuelan accounts, particularly accounts located in jurisdictions outside of Venezuela (e.g., Panama or the Caribbean).
- Payments involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate from third parties that are not official Venezuelan government entities (e.g., shell companies). Public reports indicate that the use of third parties, or brokers, to deal with government entities is common in Venezuela and is a significant source of risk. Brokers, particularly when colluding with corrupt government officials, can facilitate overseas transactions in a way that circumvents currency controls and masks payments from SOEs.
- Cash deposits instead of wire transfers in the accounts of companies with Venezuelan government contracts.
In addition, FinCEN identifies these other financial red flags observed in transactions suspected of involving Venezuelan government corruption include:
- Transactions for the purchase of real estate – primarily in the South Florida and Houston, Texas regions – involving current or former Venezuelan government officials, family members or associates that is not commensurate with their official salaries.
- Corrupt Venezuelan government officials seeking to abuse a U.S. or foreign bank’s wealth management units by using complex financial transactions to move and hide corruption proceeds.
Overlap with Geographic Targeting Orders
It is noteworthy that two of the “red flags” identified by FinCEN its advisory directly relate to recent Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs) issued by FinCEN. A GTO is an administrative anti-money laundering device, authorized by the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA Patriot Act, which is issued by the director of FinCEN requiring all domestic financial institutions or nonfinancial trades or businesses that exist within a geographic area to report on transactions any greater than a specified value.
One of the red flags identified by FinCEN are “[p]ayments involving Venezuelan government contracts that originate from non-official Venezuelan accounts, particular accounts located in jurisdictions outside of Venezuela (e.g., Panama or the Caribbean).” In its advisory, FinCEN noted that “[e]xport businesses in South Florida that specialize in sending goods to Venezuela are particularly vulnerable to trade-based money laundering (TBML) schemes. These include businesses that send heavy equipment, auto parts, and electronics (cell phones and other appliances) from Florida to Venezuela.” In April 2015, FinCEN issued a GTO focused on trade-based money laundering schemes used by drug cartels to launder illicit proceeds through electronics exporters in South Florida. At that time, FinCEN disclosed that an ongoing criminal investigation conducted jointly by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force revealed that many electronics exporters are exploited as part of sophisticated trade-based money laundering schemes in which drug proceeds in the United States are converted into goods that are shipped to South America and sold for local currency, which is ultimately transferred to drug cartels.
Another “red flag” involves “[t]ransactions for the purchase of real estate – primarily in the South Floria and Houston, Texas regions – involving current or former Venezuelan government officials, family members or associates that is not commensurate with their official salaries.” The purchase of high-end real estate in the United States – particularly in an all-cash transaction – is a common money laundering vehicle, and FinCEN has taken aim at this practice by issuing a series of GTOs focused on cash purchases of luxury residential real estate in seven major metropolitan markets, including South Florida. In an advisory to the real estate industry issued a few weeks ago, FinCEN warned that “real estate transactions involving luxury property purchased through shell companies – particularly when conducted with cash and no financing – can be an attractive avenue for criminals to launder illegal proceeds while masking their identities.” In that same advisory, FinCEN specifically identified Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and his frontman Samark Lopez Bello as a prime example of this practice:
An example of abuse of the luxury real estate sector involves current Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and his frontman Samark Lopez Bello. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated El Aissami under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. Lopez Bello was designated for providing material assistance, financial support, or goods or services in support of the international narcotics trafficking activities of, and acting for or on behalf of, El Aissami. In addition, OFAC designated shell companies tied to Lopez Bello that were used to hold real estate. Lopez Bello is tied to significant property and other assets, which were also blocked as a result of OFAC’s action.
While FinCEN’s advisory mentions real estate transactions taking place in South Florida and Houston, Texas, FinCEN does not presently have a GTO covering the real estate market in Houston. This may suggest that an additional GTO may be issued by FinCEN to cover that particular geographic market.
FinCEN stated that it is providing this advisory to assist U.S. financial institutions in meeting their due diligence obligations that may apply to activity involving certain Venezuelan persons. To best meet these obligations, financial institutions should generally be aware of public reports of high-level corruption associated with senior Venezuelan foreign political figures, their family members, associates, or associated legal entities or arrangements. Financial institutions should assess the risk for laundering of the proceeds of public corruption associated with specific particular customers and transactions. Financial institutions also should be aware that OFAC has designated (and provided related guidance on) several Venezuelan persons and entities located in or related to Venezuela.