On November 16, 2018, Matthew D. Lee will moderate a panel at the annual White Collar Practice seminar sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. With the Special Counsel’s high-profile indictments of Paul Manafort as context, Matt’s panel will address the latest developments in tax and money laundering cases, with a particular emphasis on the following:

  • The broadening scope of the international money laundering statute;
  • The Justice Department’s continuing crackdown on offshore tax evasion;
  • The future of tax obstruction prosecutions post-Marinello; and
  • Fifth Amendment issues in the context of income tax returns.

More details are available here.

Breaking from its recent practice of making public announcements about Geographic Targeting Orders, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) last month quietly extended its real estate GTOs for another six months. The new expiration date is September 16, 2018. FinCEN’s move to continue the GTOs a fourth time suggests that the orders are generating meaningful intelligence for law enforcement regarding potential money laundering involving luxury real estate in the United States.

In January 2016, FinCEN announced with significant fanfare the initial issuance of the real estate GTOs, proclaiming in a press release that “FinCEN Takes Aim at Real Estate Secrecy in Manhattan and Miami.” Those initial orders required certain title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind companies used to pay all cash for luxury residential real properties located in the borough of Manhattan and Miami-Dade County. All-cash transactions exceeding $3 million in Manhattan, or exceeding $1 million in Miami-Dade County, were to be reported to FinCEN with an identification of the “beneficial owner” behind the transaction.

On the eve of the expiration of the original Manhattan and Miami-Dade GTOs in August 2016, FinCEN announced a significant expansion of their scope with the issuance of additional GTOs covering the following geographic areas: (1) all boroughs of New York City; (2) Miami-Dade County and the two counties immediately north (Broward and Palm Beach); (3) Los Angeles County, California; (4) three counties comprising part of the San Francisco area (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties); (5) San Diego County, California; and (6) the county that includes San Antonio, Texas (Bexar County). The monetary thresholds for each geographic area varied.

In February 2017, FinCEN announced that its efforts to combat money laundering in the luxury real estate market were being extended for an additional six months. At that time, then-FinCEN Acting Director Jamal El-Hindi said that the real estate GTOs were “producing valuable data that is assisting law enforcement and is serving to inform our future efforts to address money laundering in the real estate sector.” FinCEN also revealed that approximately 30 percent of the transactions covered by the GTOs involved a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previously-filed “suspicious activity report,” thereby corroborating FinCEN’s long-expressed concerns about the use of shell companies to buy luxury real estate in all-cash deals.

Six months later, in August 2017, FinCEN announced the issuance of revised GTOs that require U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind shell companies used to pay for high-end residential real estate in seven metropolitan areas. Following the recent enactment of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, FinCEN revised the GTOs to capture a broader range of transactions and include transactions involving wire transfers. FinCEN also expanded the GTOs to include transactions conducted in the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition, FinCEN published an Advisory to provide financial institutions and the real estate industry with information on the money laundering risks associated with real estate transactions, including those involving luxury property purchased through shell companies, particularly when conducted without traditional financing. Such transactions are vulnerable to abuse by criminals seeking to launder illegal proceeds and mask their identities. The Advisory provided information on how to detect and report these transactions to FinCEN.

The latest iteration of the real estate GTOs was set to expire on March 20, 2018. Without issuance of a press release and nary a public statement, FinCEN quietly extended those orders for another six month period, through September 16, 2018. A Miami Herald article reporting on this development included the following quote from a FinCEN spokesman:

“The GTOs issued to date have provided FinCEN and law enforcement important information about money-laundering vulnerabilities in the real estate sector,” Stephen Hudak, a FinCEN spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday. “GTOs are a valuable tool and FinCEN is extending the current GTOs to continue studying this vulnerability.”

With this fourth extension, the real estate GTOs – which by statute are supposed to be temporary measures – have now been in effect for more than two full years. Although FinCEN has made only a few public statements about whether the GTOs are generating meaningful intelligence and leads, it can be safely assumed that they are working. It remains to be seen whether these enhanced (and temporary) reporting requirements imposed by the real estate GTOs will be made permanent through passage of legislation or regulations.

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BitcoinIn a recent speech, the Under Secretary of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI) warned of the growing threats to the U.S. financial system posed by virtual currencies. Addressing the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s Anti-Money Laundering & Financial Crimes Conference, Sigal Mandelker spoke broadly of the U.S. government’s efforts to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, narcotics trafficking, corruption, and other types of illicit finance and national security threats.

In her speech, Under Secretary Mandelker specifically focused on ways in which criminals and other illicit actors are now using virtual currencies:

Kleptocrats and criminals are also attempting to find new ways around our controls to exploit the financial system. In recent years, we’ve seen terrorist groups, criminal organizations, and even rogue regimes like Venezuela experiment with and use digital and virtual currencies to hide their ill-gotten gains and finance their illicit activities. Recently, for example, Venezuela announced plans to create the “petro” digital currency to try and sidestep our powerful sanctions, which the United States imposed on the regime for its vicious assault on human rights and the rule of law.

Likewise, law enforcement authorities recently arrested a woman in New York who used Bitcoin to launder fraud proceeds before wiring the money to ISIS.

In TFI, we closely track technological innovations involving virtual currency and are aggressively targeting rogue actors attempting to use it for illicit purposes. Critical to our efforts is the regulatory framework and enforcement authorities we have in place that govern the use of virtual currency. Through FinCEN, Treasury regulates virtual currency exchangers as money transmitters and requires them to abide by Bank Secrecy Act obligations. We also use our strong enforcement powers to target those who fail to live up to their responsibilities.

Virtual currency businesses are subject to comprehensive, routine AML/CFT examinations, just like financial institutions in the securities and futures markets. We work in partnership with the IRS to examine virtual currency exchangers under our regulations for money transmitters. We also work in partnership with the SEC and CFTC to ensure that these businesses and those in your sector dealing in virtual currency appropriately address their AML/CFT BSA responsibilities.

We are also encouraging our international partners to strengthen their virtual currency frameworks. The lack of AML/CFT regulation of virtual currency providers worldwide greatly exacerbates virtual currency’s illicit financing risks. Currently, we are one of the only major countries in the world, along with Japan and Australia, that regulate these activities for AML/CFT purposes. But we need many more countries to follow suit, and have made this a priority in our international outreach, including through the Financial Action Task Force.

North Korea, Hizballah, Iran, and emerging technologies used by illicit actors are just a few examples of the many threats we face. They reinforce the importance of the international community coming together to combat bad actors and protect financial systems, markets, and institutions from abuse.

Under Secretary Mandelker also spoke about the critically important role of anti-money laundering compliance in the financial industry, and warned that “companies and individuals who do not adhere to our laws face stiff penalties,” noting that “[a]ggressive enforcement gives teeth to our powerful economic authorities.” She further explained that the financial industry must carefully study, and learn from, the enforcement actions taken by FinCEN and other Treasury departments:

Each of our actions, whether by FinCEN, OFAC, or other departments, provides an opportunity for the private sector to gain better insight into our compliance and enforcement priorities, and each action tells a story about our expectations and where that particular company fell short.

She then described FinCEN’s well-publicized enforcement action against BTC-e, a foreign virtual currency exchanger:

In the last year we have pursued actions against a number of non-U.S. companies and individuals for violating U.S. laws related to economic sanctions and money laundering, sending the very powerful message that we are intent on using our authorities no matter where in the world the illicit activity is taking place.

For example, FinCEN recently assessed a $110 million fine against BTC-e, an Internet-based virtual currency exchanger located outside the United States which did substantial business in our country. BTC-e exchanges fiat currency, as well as convertible currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, at one point serving approximately 700,000 customers across the world and associated with bitcoin wallets that have received over 9.4 million bitcoins.

Customers located within the United States used BTC-e to conduct tens of thousands of transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars in virtual currencies, including between customers located in the U.S.

Yet BTC-e never registered as a money transmitter, even after FinCEN made clear through published advisories and other guidance that such exchangers were legally required to do so.

The company lacked basic controls to prevent the use of its services for illicit purposes.

As a result, they emerged as one of the principal means by which cyber criminals around the world laundered the proceeds of their illicit activity, facilitating crimes such as computer hacking and ransomware, fraud, identity theft, tax refund schemes, public corruption and drug trafficking.

In light of BTC-e’s failure to fulfill its AML obligations, Treasury took action both against the company and Russian national Alexander Vinnik, who directed and supervised BTC-e’s operations and finances.

We imposed a $12 million penalty on Vinnik and the Justice Department indicted him on 21 counts.

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Barely two months after being convicted of running a billion dollar illegal payday lending enterprise, professional racecar driver Scott Tucker was indicted today by a grand jury on federal charges of failing to report millions in income from that business. Also indicted today was Tucker’s accountant, who is charged with aiding in Tucker’s filing of a false tax return. The charges were filed in federal court in Kansas, where Tucker and his accountant reside.

The indictment alleges that in 2008 Tucker orchestrated a sham sale of his company CLK Management to a Native American tribe in Miami for $120,000. In fact, Tucker continued to control CLK and a new entity, AMG Services, Inc. After the sale, other people and entities were listed as owners of Tucker’s payday lending businesses. In fact, Tucker controlled the daily operations of those business, and he was alleged to be the source of funds being lent and he bore the risk of loans not being repaid.

W. Brett Chapin was a Certified Public Accountant who prepared Tucker’s tax returns for 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The indictment alleges that on October 19, 2009, Tucker signed a 2008 tax return prepared by Chapin that failed to report more than $42.5 million in income from Tucker’s payday lending businesses. The indictment also alleges that on October 20, 2011, Tucker signed a 2010 tax return prepared by Chapin that failed to report more than $75 million in income from Tucker’s payday lending businesses.

In October, Tucker and a co-defendant were convicted after a five-week jury trial in federal court in Manhattan on all counts against them for operating a nationwide internet payday lending enterprise that systematically evaded state laws in order to charge illegal interest rates. “Payday loans” refer to small, short-term, high-interest, unsecured consumer loans, often made over the internet. The defendants had claimed that their $3.5 billion payday lending business was actually owned and operated by Native American tribes, and was thereby immune from state usury laws because of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine which generally prevents states from enforcing their laws against Native American tribes. The defendants’ business made loans to more than 4.5 million individuals. Many of these loans were issued in states with laws that expressly forbid lending at the exorbitant interest rates charged.

Today’s indictment of Tucker on tax charges is notable for several reasons. First, based upon his conviction in the New York case on all counts – which include racketeering conspiracy, racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy, money laundering, and violating the Truth in Lending Act – Tucker faces an exorbitantly lengthy sentence. The RICO and money laundering counts provide for 20 year statutory maximum sentences, and given the government’s contention that Tucker ran a $3.5 billion payday lending business, he will likely face a sentence at the statutory cap. While some could argue that the government is “piling on” by bringing additional charges at this point, it is not unheard of for prosecutors to seek to indict defendants on tax charges separate and apart from a larger fraud case. In addition, Tucker will almost certainly appeal his payday lending conviction, and the tax charges (which are presumably easier to prove) will provide the government with additional leverage (and protection) in the event that Tucker’s payday lending conviction is reversed in whole or in part on appeal.  On the tax charges, Tucker similarly faces significant sentencing exposure if convicted:  with over $117 million in unreported income for 2009 and 2010, the tax loss will easily fall within the “greater than $25 million” and “less than $65 million” range in the tax table of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (2T1.1).  With a tax loss in this range, the Sentencing Guidelines conservatively call for a sentence in the range of 78 to 97 months, without taking into account criminal history points and other adjustments which almost certainly will apply and serve to increase the sentencing range.

Second, the indictment in the New York case did not include any tax charges, because venue in tax cases is based upon where the tax return is filed. As a resident of Kansas, Tucker filed his federal income tax returns in that state, and therefore the tax charges had to be brought separately from the New York case in the District of Kansas. The government presumably waited to indict Tucker on tax charges until after the payday lending case was completed.

Third, the Kansas indictment includes charges against Tucker’s accountant pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7206(2), which allows the government to prosecute anyone who willfully aids and assists in the filing of a tax return that is false as a material matter. The indictment alleges that Chapin was aware that Tucker actually controlled the payday lending entities despite the purported sale to the Miami tribe, and that during an audit of Tucker’s tax returns, Chapin repeatedly misled the Internal Revenue Service as to the location of the Tucker’s books and records. The indictment further charges that Chapin prepared Tucker’s 2010 personal income tax return which failed to report a whopping $75 million in income from Tucker’s payday lending business. The indictment also alleges that Chapin prepared Tucker’s 2009 personal income tax return which failed to report $42.5 million in income, but the criminal six-year statute of limitations for this return has expired so neither Tucker nor Chapin were charged with respect to this particular return.

BitcoinIn its recently-published 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that drug trafficking organizations are turning to Bitcoin and other virtual currencies to enable easy transfer of illicit funds internationally. The NDTA is a comprehensive strategic assessment of the threat posed to the United States by domestic and international drug trafficking and the abuse of illicit drugs. The report combines a wide variety of law enforcement reporting and other data to determine which substances and criminal organizations represent the greatest threat to the United States.

The NDTA notes that in order to avoid law enforcement detection and banking regulations, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) employ various strategies to move and launder drug proceeds into, within, and out of the United States. Preferred methods to move and launder illicit proceeds – such as bulk cash smuggling, money value transfer systems, trade-based money laundering, and through the formal banking sector – remain the same as in past years. Emerging as a new money laundering threat, however, are Bitcoin and other virtual currencies because of their “anonymizing nature and ease of use.” Bitcoin is the most common form of payment for drug sales on dark net marketplaces and is emerging as a desirable method to transfer illicit drug proceeds internationally. Bitcoin is the most widely used virtual currency due to its longevity and growing acceptance at legitimate businesses and institutions worldwide.

The NDTA notes that Bitcoin’s widespread popularity in China has now spread to trade-based money launderers operating in that country. Many trade-based money laundering schemes are China-based, and have historically consisted of the purchase by TCOs of large shipments of “made-in-China” goods via wire transfer or bulk cash carrying from the United States to China. The “made-in-China” goods are then shipped to business owners in Mexico and South America, who in turn reimburse the drug trafficking organizations in local currency. Now, many China-based firms manufacturing goods used in such schemes prefer to accept Bitcoin for payment.

The use of Bitcoin in this type of trade-based money laundering scheme no doubt facilitates the money laundering process for TCOs, which currently face scrutiny from U.S. banks whenever they wire money to Chinese manufacturers. In contrast, the NTDA notes that a TCO purchasing Bitcoin through a licensed money service business without raising red flags will face no further scrutiny when transferring the Bitcoin to China. Many TCOs can also buy Bitcoin from individuals selling Bitcoin on the Internet without any MSB license. Many TCOs will thus be able to convert their cash drug proceeds to Bitcoin and buy Chinese goods with no fear of oversight from a formal financial institution.

The NDTA also notes that Bitcoin is increasingly being used by Over-the-Counter (OTC) Bitcoin brokers who conduct high-risk Bitcoin trading consistent with Chinese capital flight and money laundering. These brokers likely use foreign Bitcoin wallet-hosting services and exchanges that do not properly conduct “know your customer” or anti-money laundering monitoring on Bitcoin purchases. OTC Bitcoin brokers primarily attract two types of clients: those who want to use Bitcoin to move their money out of China and those who want to convert large quantities of cash into Bitcoin. Chinese underground banking systems money brokers sell Bitcoin to drug traffickers for cash earned from drug sales in the United States, Australia, and Europe. This drug cash is then sold to Chinese nationals in exchange for Bitcoin the Chinese nationals use to transfer the value of their assets outside of China. The NTDA concludes that the increasing use of OTC Bitcoin brokers, who are capable of transferring millions of dollars in Bitcoin across international borders as part of a capital flight scheme, is expected to continue to intertwine criminal money laundering networks with capital flight.

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.

This article is Part I of a series in which we address the U.S. government’s attempts to combat money laundering in real estate transactions.

This week the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced that it was both extending and broadening its anti-money laundering efforts in the luxury real estate area to capture a broader array of suspicious transactions. In January 2016, FinCEN issued Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs) that required U.S. title insurance companies to report beneficial ownership information on legal entities, including shell companies, used to purchase certain luxury residential real estate in Manhattan and Miami—specifically, luxury residential property purchased by a shell company without a bank loan and made at least in part using a cashier’s check or similar instrument. In July 2016 and February 2017, FinCEN reissued the original GTOs and extended coverage to all boroughs of New York City, two additional counties in the Miami metropolitan area, five counties in California (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego), and the Texas county that includes San Antonio. Confirming that its prior GTOs generated meaningful intelligence for law enforcement, FinCEN has now extended the measures for a third time and also expanded them to include another geographic market – Honolulu, Hawaii – as well as transactions involving wire transfers, a critical payment method not covered by the prior GTOs, which focused instead on all-cash purchases.

Background Regarding Geographic Targeting Orders

A GTO is an administrative order issued by the director of FinCEN requiring all domestic financial institutions or nonfinancial trades or businesses within a designated geographic area to report on transactions any greater than a specified value. Authorized by the Bank Secrecy Act, GTOs were originally only permitted by law to last for 60 days, but that limitation was extended by the USA Patriot Act to 180 days (with renewals permitted). Historically, FinCEN’s issuance of a GTO was not publicized, and generally only those businesses served with a copy of a particular GTO were aware of its existence. Over the course of the last three years, however, FinCEN – the primary agency of the U.S. government focused on anti-money laundering compliance and enforcement – has aggressively exercised its GTO authority frequently throughout the United States in areas of money laundering concern. Recent, publicly-announced GTOs have focused on the fashion district of Los Angeles, exporters of electronics in South Florida, check cashing businesses in South Florida, and most recently, all-cash purchases of luxury residential real estate in high profile U.S. real estate markets. In each of these examples, FinCEN publicly announced the issuance of the GTO and its terms, and expressed concern that the industries or regions in question were vulnerable to money laundering. These GTOs demonstrate an increased attention to trade-based money laundering schemes by FinCEN and confirm that criminals are aggressively using legitimate U.S. businesses to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity.

Enactment of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act

FinCEN’s extension and expansion of the real estate GTOs was prompted, at least in part, by the recent passage of a wide-ranging sanctions law called the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” that was signed by the President on August 2, 2017. While primarily focused on sanctions directed at Iran, Russia, and North Korea, the law made a critical modification to the statute authorizing FinCEN to issue GTOs. Previously, that statute authorized the issuance of a GTO to obtain information regarding transactions in which a financial institution or nonfinancial trade or business is involved “for the payment, receipt, or transfer of United States coins or currency (or such other monetary instruments as the Secretary [of the Treasury] may describe in such order).” As amended, the statute now authorizes the issuance of a GTO to obtain information regarding transactions in which a financial institution or nonfinancial trade or business is involved “for the payment, receipt, or transfer of funds (as the Secretary may describe in such order).”

With the replacement of the limited phrase “United States coins or currency” with the significantly broader term “funds,” FinCEN can now issue significantly more expansive GTOs that are not limited to transactions involving cash and other monetary instruments (like checks and money orders). Indeed, in the press release announcing the GTO expansion, FinCEN Acting Director Jamal El-Hindi acknowledged that this change in the law enabled his agency to capture a broader range of transactions: “FinCEN also thanks Congress for its modification of the Geographic Targeting Order authority, the first use of which will enable FinCEN to collect further information to combat the potential misuse of shell companies to purchase luxury real estate.”

The new sanctions law also directed Treasury to expand the number of real estate geographic targeting orders or other regulatory actions in order to counter money laundering and other illicit financial activity relating to Russia.  We therefore expect to see FinCEN impose significantly more anti-money laundering measures like GTOs in the coming months.

Extension of Previous GTOs

FinCEN’s announcement means that the prior GTOs covering six major metropolitan areas, which are set to expire on September 21, 2017, will be extended for an additional six months. In its press release announcing the extension, FinCEN stated that the GTOs were producing meaningful information that was advancing criminal investigations. (See prior blog coverage here.)  Specifically, FinCEN announced that nearly one-third of the transactions reported pursuant to the GTOs involved a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that was also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report (SAR). An article written by Kevin G. Hall of the Miami Herald contains the following GTO data obtained from FinCEN through a Freedom of Information Act request for the period February 29, 2016, through March 9, 2017.

 County or Borough


Transactions with
Related Suspicious
Percent of
Manhattan 137 30 22
Miami-Dade 32 16 50
Brooklyn 35 13 37
Los Angeles 15 5 33
Bexar (San Antonio) 4 3 75
Queens 8 3 38
Palm Beach 4 2 50
Santa Clara 5 1 20
Bronx 0 0 0
San Diego 1 0 0
San Francisco 1 0 0
San Mateo 1 0 0
Staten Island 1 0 0

Of particular note are the reported transactions in Manhattan, Miami-Dade, and Brooklyn, where both the actual number of transactions and the percentages of reported transactions are significant.

Expansion of GTO Coverage to Hawaii

The revised GTOs, which effective September 22, 2017, now cover seven major geographic markets in the United States, with the addition of Honolulu, Hawaii. The markets now covered by GTOs, and the minimum purchase price thresholds in each market, are as follows:

  • Bexar County, Texas – $500,000
  • Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties, Florida – $1,000,000
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island, New York – $1,500,000
  • Borough of Manhattan, New York – $3,000,000
  • San Diego and Los Angeles Counties, California – $2,000,000
  • San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties, California – $2,000,000
  • Honolulu County, Hawaii – $3,000,000

FinCEN’s announcement is silent as to why the GTOs were extended to cover the Honolulu real estate market. The expansion of coverage to Hawaii is presumably based upon FinCEN’s conclusion that criminals are attempting to launder money through purchases of real estate in that market just as in the six markets already covered by GTOs.

Closing the “Wire Transfer” Loophole

In addition to expanding the geographic scope of the GTOs, the revisions announced yesterday also address a significant perceived weakness in the prior GTOs: they only covered all-cash transactions, and omitted from their scope any real estate transaction where the purchase price was paid by wire transfer. Critics of the prior GTOs contended that criminals could easily exploit this loophole by simply using wire transfers, rather than cash or checks, to pay for real estate purchases. The revised GTOs, which take effective in September, will apply to real estate transactions where the purchase price is paid, at least in part, using cash, check, money order, or funds transfer.

As noted above, before enactment of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, FinCEN’s authority to issue GTOs was limited to transactions involving cash or monetary instruments. With the newly expanded authority granted to it by Congress, FinCEN has the authority to issue GTOs covering transactions involving the payment, receipt, or transfer of “funds.”

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Over at the In The Weeds blog (which explores developments in cannabis law and business), Melissa T. Sanders writes about the recent publication by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of its “Marijuana Banking Update.”  In this publication, FinCEN summarizes the number of depository institutions providing banking services to marijuana-related businesses in the United States as reported by the filing of “suspicious activity reports” (SARs).  Marijuana-related businesses present myriad anti-money laundering compliance challenges, as well as complex federal tax issues as our colleague Jennifer E. Benda has addressed here, here, and here.

T2000px-US-FinancialCrimesEnforcementNetwork-Seal_svghe Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) yesterday announced the assessment of a $7 million civil money penalty against Merchants Bank of California of Carson, California, for willful violations of several provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). (The FinCEN press release is here and assessment is here; the OCC press release is here and consent order is here.) FinCEN and the OCC found that the bank failed to (a) establish and implement an adequate anti-money laundering (AML) program, (b) conduct required due diligence on its foreign correspondent accounts, and (c) detect and report suspicious activity. FinCEN found that “Merchants’ failures allowed billions of dollars to flow through the U.S. financial system without effective monitoring to adequately detect and report suspicious activity. Many of these transactions were conducted on behalf of money services businesses (MSBs) that were owned or managed by Bank insiders who encouraged staff to process these transactions without question or face potential dismissal or retaliation.” In addition, FinCEN determined that bank insiders directly interfered with the BSA staff’s attempts to investigate suspicious activity related to these insider-owned accounts.

Seal_of_the_Office_of_the_Comptroller_of_the_Currency_svgThe OCC (Merchants’ federal functional regulator) previously identified deficiencies in Merchants’ BSA/AML compliance program which resulted in the issuance of consent orders in June 2010 and June 2014. Those consent orders required the bank to correct deficiencies in all four pillars of its BSA program (the system of internal controls, independent testing, a designated individual or individuals responsible for coordinating and monitoring BSA/AML compliance, and training for appropriate personnel). OCC concluded that Merchants violated numerous provisions of those consent orders, which no doubt contributed to the decision by FinCEN and the OCC to impose such a significant civil money penalty against the bank.

Merchants specialized in providing banking services for check-cashers and money transmitters (commonly referred to as “money services businesses” or MSBs). However, FinCEN found that it provided those services without adequately assessing the money laundering risks and without designing an effective AML program. Merchants also provided its high-risk customers with remote deposit capture services without adequate procedures for monitoring their use.

FinCEN’s assessment disclosed that one of Merchants’ MSB customers was the subject of a federal criminal investigation into its anti-money laundering compliance program. That customer, a Los Angeles-based check cashing store, its head manager, and its designated anti-money laundering compliance officer eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges including conspiracy to fail to file currency transactions reports (CTRs) and failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program in connection with over $8 million in transactions. The head manager was sentenced to 5 years in prison, and the AML compliance officer was sentenced to 8 months in prison. FinCEN concluded that even after learning that this customer was under criminal investigation in February 2012, Merchants failed to report the customer and its activity on a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR).

According to FinCEN, Merchants also failed to provide the necessary level of authority, independence, and responsibility to its BSA officer to ensure compliance with the BSA as required, and compliance staff was not empowered with sufficient authority to implement the Bank’s AML program. Merchants’ leadership impeded BSA analysts and other employees from investigating activity on transactions associated with accounts that were affiliated with Bank executives, and the activity in these accounts went unreported for many years. FinCEN found that Merchants’ interest in revenue compromised efforts to effectively manage and mitigate its deficiencies and risks.

In addition, Merchants banked customers located in several jurisdictions considered to be high-risk but did not identify these customers as foreign correspondent customers and therefore did not implement the required customer due diligence program. In a three-month period, Merchants processed a combined $192 million in high-risk wire transfers through some of these accounts.

Merchants consented to imposition of the $7 million civil money penalty and accepted the findings of FinCEN that the bank had willfully violated the BSA’s program, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements. Merchants also consented to imposition of another OCC consent order. Notably, FinCEN’s settlement with Merchants does not preclude consideration of separate enforcement actions that may be warranted with respect to any financial institution or any partner, director, officer, or employee of a financial institution, suggesting the possibility that future criminal or civil enforcement actions may be forthcoming.

The specific findings made by FinCEN and accepted by the bank are outlined in more detail below.

  1. Failure to Establish and Implement an Adequate AML Program

The OCC requires each bank under its supervision to develop and provide for the continued administration of a program reasonably designed to assure and monitor compliance with the BSA’s recordkeeping and reporting requirements. At a minimum, a bank’s AML compliance program must: (a) provide for a system of internal controls to assure ongoing compliance; (b) provide for independent testing for compliance to be conducted by bank personnel or by an outside party; (c) designate an individual or individuals responsible for coordinating and monitoring day-to-day compliance; and (d) provide training for appropriate personnel. FinCEN found that Merchants failed to establish and maintain adequate internal controls to assure ongoing compliance. In particular, Merchants did not conduct a sufficient independent audit commensurate with the institution’s complexity and risk profile; it failed to provide the necessary level of authority, independence, and responsibility to its BSA Officer to ensure day-to-day compliance; and it did not provide adequate training for appropriate personnel.

Merchants provided banking services for as many as 165 check-cashing customers and 44 money transmitters, many of which were located hundreds of miles away from the bank. According to the assessment, Merchants did so without adequately assessing the money laundering risk of these customers and designing an effective AML program to address those risks. Specifically, it did not implement adequate due diligence programs and provided its high-risk customers with remote deposit capture services (RDC) without adequate procedures for monitoring their use. In addition, in several instances, bank insiders directly interfered with the BSA staff’s attempts to investigate suspicious activity related to insider-owned accounts. Insiders owned or managed MSBs, which had accounts at Merchants, and from 2007 to September 2016 certain of these accounts demonstrated highly suspicious transaction patterns including possible layering schemes, transactions not commensurate with the business’s purpose, and commingling of funds between two independent check cashing entities. Merchants’s leadership impeded BSA analysts and other employees investigating activity on transactions associated with accounts that were affiliated with Bank executives, and the activity in these accounts went unreported for many years. Employees who attempted to report suspicious activity in these accounts were threatened with possible dismissal or retaliation. Merchants’s executives weakened the Bank’s AML program by creating a culture that did not sufficiently detect or report on suspicious activity involving the accounts of insiders.

Until 2015, Merchants failed to conduct an independent audit that was commensurate with the Bank’s customer complexity and risk profile. Merchants is required to conduct independent compliance testing commensurate with the BSA/AML risk profile of the Bank to monitor and maintain an adequate program. By not conducting the required independent review, Merchants was unable to identify vulnerabilities in its compliance program and properly monitor the account activity of its customers to detect suspicious activity going through the Bank.

Merchants failed to have proper requirements within the Bank’s AML program to ensure that the audit firm conducted a comprehensive independent audit of its program. Specifically, Merchants failed to adequately review the engagement proposal of the audit firm to confirm it was sufficient in scope to identify weaknesses in the Bank’s program.

Merchants’ independent audit was not commensurate to the risk and complexity of the types of customers Merchants served, including its high-risk MSB customers. Therefore the 2012 independent audit failed to identify internal control deficiencies in Merchants’s AML program. The audit’s scope, procedures, and transaction review of Merchants’s independent testing were inadequate, given the bank’s high-risk customer base. In 2014, a new independent consultant conducted an audit but failed to identify significant gaps in Merchants’s overall BSA compliance program. In 2015, Merchants hired a different independent consultant only to conduct a required SAR look-back review of the bank’s MSB account activity. During this review, the consultant identified a number of AML compliance issues that Merchants’s former auditors failed to identify. The consultant identified issues that were consistent with Merchants’s internal controls violations related to providing banking services to high-risk MSBs without implementing the appropriate risk-based controls required by the BSA or creating an appropriate due diligence program.

2.  Due Diligence Program for Correspondent Accounts

From 2008 to 2014, Merchants failed to maintain a due diligence program for foreign correspondent accounts, which FinCEN refers to as “gateways to the U.S. financial system.” In particular, FinCEN concluded that the bank did not have policies and procedures to elevate foreign correspondent bank customers for enhanced due diligence, as required by the USA PATRIOT Act. For example, Merchants had four banking customers located in several jurisdictions considered to be high-risk including Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, and Romania but did not identify these customers as foreign correspondent customers, and therefore did not implement the required customer due diligence program. These four customers sent and received a combined $192 million in high-risk wire transfers during the period of August 2014 through October 2014. Merchants failed to establish adequate alert parameters for these accounts, resulting in the exclusion of this wire activity from monthly transactional monitoring because the bank failed to establish appropriate alert parameters on the accounts. Merchants also failed to identify suspicious wires and report that activity to FinCEN during this time.

3.  Failure to Report Suspicious Transactions

The BSA and its implementing regulations impose an obligation on banks to report transactions that involve or aggregate to at least $5,000, are conducted by, at, or through the bank, and that the bank “knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect” are suspicious. A transaction is “suspicious” if the transaction: (a) involves funds derived from illegal activities, or is conducted to disguise funds derived from illegal activities; (b) is designed to evade the reporting or recordkeeping requirements of the BSA or regulations under the Act; or (c) has no business or apparent lawful purpose or is not the sort in which the customer normally would be expected to engage, and the bank knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction after examining the available facts, including background and possible purpose of the transaction. From 2012 to 2016, Merchants failed to adequately monitor billions of dollars of transactions for suspicious activity. Because of this failure, Merchants failed to file or file timely on hundreds of millions of dollars of suspicious activity including millions of dollars of transactions of 57 of its customers later identified as part of an independent look-back review.

FinCEN determined that many of Merchants’ failures to file or file timely SARs were related to its higher-risk MSB customers’ activities, which were inconsistent with the anticipated behavior, stated business purpose, or customer profile information of these MSBs. FinCEN’s assessment set forth the following examples:

  • One of the MSB customers was a money transmitter located in the basement of the owner’s private residence in New York. Despite several red flags resulting from Merchants’s account review, including the fact that this MSB was the subject of multiple information requests from law enforcement, had significant increases in its account activity, and its wire transfers were, in two instances, rejected by another bank, Merchants determined that its activities were not suspicious and failed to timely file a SAR.
  • Merchants failed to file a SAR on another MSB customer engaging in suspicious activity. In a six-month period between 2011 and 2012, the MSB conducted approximately $500,000 and $700,000 in deposits and withdrawals, respectively, and received over $1.3 million in wire transfers. Within two to three days of receiving the funds, the MSB wrote large checks, cashing them out at other financial institutions. In January 2012, Merchants conducted a due diligence analysis on the same MSB’s activity and did not consider it suspicious. In February 2012, after learning of a criminal investigation involving the MSB, Merchants again conducted a due diligence analysis and again failed to report the customer and its activity in a SAR. As noted above, on September 19, 2012, the MSB, its manager, and its compliance officer pleaded guilty to eight counts of failing to file currency transaction reports and one count of failing to maintain an effective AML program.
  • Merchants failed to file a SAR on another licensed money transmitter and seller of money orders with physical locations in Nevada and California. This MSB’s customer base was located in Russia, Armenia, the United Kingdom, and Germany, and the MSB sent most of its money transmissions to these regions. Merchants rated this account as high-risk and conducted an account review, which indicated that for several months, the volume of account activity had significantly exceeded the anticipated activity established by the MSB during the account application process. Although the review indicated that Merchants asked the MSB for an explanation of its unexpected account behavior, the customer never provided the requested information and the Bank failed to investigate further. Merchants also failed to identify evidence of structuring flowing through the account.

In 2015, an independent consultant completed a look-back review of a sample of 100 of Merchants’s high-risk MSB accounts for the period of July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2014. The look-back review identified 57 customer accounts with activity that was deemed potentially suspicious and required escalation to management level along with an additional 11 customer accounts requiring further review due to a lack of documentation or a lack of transparency in the customer transactions. As a result of the look-back review, Merchants filed SARs on the activity and transactions identified through the review. The late SAR filings included reports covering structured transactions that were conducted through Merchants for two consecutive years totaling over $400 million. The subjects of one of the SARs engaged in a suspicious pattern of cashing multiple structured checks made to the order of the same individuals in Mexico without providing information concerning source of funds. Also, these subjects engaged in several suspicious wire transfers to the Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned countries. These same subjects were under a U.S. federal law enforcement investigation for fraudulent tax returns. This activity started in 2014 and was reported on a SAR two years later only after Merchants was required to conduct a look-back review. Another late SAR covered transactions worth over $395 million related to customers conducting large wire transfers between multiple foreign financial institutions without validating the source of funds or identifying the ultimate beneficiary. This activity resulted in large payouts to unknown entities in Colombia.