Monday, July 21, 2014
FINCEN locks Cyprus regulated bank out of U.S. financial system for "illicit finance business from the darkest corners of the criminal underworld"
On July 15, 2014 FBME Bank, a $2 billion asset size Tanzanian institution that conducts 90% of its business and holds 90% of its assets in Cyprus, has been named by FINCEN as a foreign financial institution of "primary money laundering concern" pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. FINCEN proposes to prohibit US financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts for or on behalf of FBME, effectively shutting FBME out of the US financial system.
Update of July 22nd: the Central Bank of Cyprus (CBC) announced Monday night, July 21st, that the Resolution Authority issued a Decree, under the powers conferred to it by section 2A of the Resolution of Credit and Other Institutions Law, 2013 - 2014, which places the branch of FBME Bank Ltd in Cyprus under resolution. The Decree’s purpose is to sell the operations of the branch with the aim of protecting FBME depositors. The Cyprus Mail story describing the impact of this order is here.
What is FBME bank?
FBME was established in 1982 in Cyprus as the Federal Bank of the Middle East, Ltd., a subsidiary of the private Lebanese bank, Federal Bank of Lebanon. Both FBME and the Federal Bank of Lebanon are owned by Ayoub-Farid M. Saab and Fadi M. Saab.
Who regulates FBME bank?
FBME, via its Cypriot branches, are licensed and regulated by the Cyprus Central Bank. According to a Wall Street Journal report of March 4, 2013, FBME acquired €240 million of Cypriot government junk bonds at the height of the 2011 Cypriot financial crisis, representing 13% of FBME's balance sheet. In 2012, on the day of Parliament's announcement of the Cyprus financial system bailout WJS noted, FBME coincidently moved its headquarters to Cyprus and applied for a full banking license that would allow it EU wide distribution.
18 months later, in November 2013, the Cyprus Central Bank stated that FBME may be subject to sanctions and a fine of up to €240 million for alleged violations of Cypriot capital controls put in place with the bailout.
On July 18, the Cyprus Central Bank took control of FMBE's Cypriot branch operations. FMBE responded that it welcomed this takeover by its regulator that FBME may clear itself from the allegations of facilitating money laundering. For a detailed look at Cyprus AML controls, see Special Assessment of the Effectiveness of Customer Due Diligence Measures in the Banking Sector in Cyprus of April 24, 2013.
What money laundering activities are FBME accused of facilitating?
FINCEN alleges that in just the year from April 2013 through April 2014, FBME conducted at least $387 million in wire transfers through the U.S. financial system that exhibited indicators of high-risk money laundering typologies, including widespread shell company activity, short-term “surge” wire activity, structuring, and high-risk business customers. FBME was involved in at least 4,500 suspicious wire transfers through U.S. correspondent accounts that totaled at least $875 million between November 2006 and March 2013.
- In 2008, an FBME customer received a deposit of hundreds of thousands of dollars from a financier for Lebanese Hezbollah.
- As of 2008, a financial advisor for a major transnational organized crime figure who banked entirely at FBME in Cyprus maintained a relationship with the owners of FBME.
- FBME facilitated transactions for entities that perpetrate fraud and cybercrime against victims from around the world, including in the United States. For example, in 2009, FBME facilitated the transfer of over $100,000 to an FBME account involved in a High Yield Investment Program (“HYIP”) fraud against a U.S. person.
- In September 5 2010, FBME facilitated the unauthorized transfer of over $100,000 to an FBME account from a Michigan-based company that was the victim of a phishing attack.
- Since at least early 2011, the head of an international narcotics trafficking and money laundering network has used shell companies’ accounts at FBME to engage in financial activity.
- Several FBME accounts have been the recipients of the proceeds of cybercriminal activity against U.S. victims. For example, in October 2012, an FBME account holder operating as a shell company was the intended beneficiary of over $600,000 in wire transfers generated from a fraud scheme, the majority of which came from a victim in California.
- FBME facilitates U.S. sanctions evasion through its extensive customer base of shell companies. For example, at least one FBME customer is a front company for a U.S.-sanctioned Syrian entity, the Scientific Studies and Research Center (“SSRC”), which has been designated as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction
What is FMBE's response to FINCEN's allegations?
FMBE, denying the FINCEN allegations, responded as follows:
FBME Bank commissioned a detailed assessment by the German office of a leading international accountancy firm into its operations and practices, which found that the Bank’s services are indeed in compliance with applicable AML rules of the Central Bank of Cyprus and the European Union.
FBME Bank welcomes the involvement of its regulator, is cooperating fully with it and reiterates its absolute continued commitment to full compliance with applicable laws and regulations.
FBME Bank continues to comply with European Capital Adequacy and Liquidity Standards and other healthy balance sheet ratios.
If FBME makes available its AML "assessment of the leading international accountancy firm", then I will post a follow up to this unfolding story with a link to that assessment.
What did FINCEN announce about FBME?
Director Jennifer Shasky Calvery stated in FINCEN's July 17, 2014 announcement:
“FBME promotes itself on the basis of its weak Anti-Money Laundering (AML) controls in order to attract illicit finance business from the darkest corners of the criminal underworld.” ... “Unfortunately, this business plan has been far too successful. But today’s action, effectively shutting FBME off from the U.S. financial system, is a necessary step to disrupt the bank’s efforts and send the message that the United States will not stand by while financial institutions help those who intend to harm or threaten Americans.”
In its Notice of Finding, FINCEN stated "FBME is used by its customers to facilitate money laundering, terrorist financing, transnational organized crime, fraud, sanctions evasion, and other illicit activity internationally and through the U.S. financial system."
FINCEN Proposes Shutting FBME Out of US Financial System
In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FINCEN states that it intends to impose the fifth, special measure allowed by Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act (“Section 311”). FINCEN's Director has the authority, upon finding that reasonable grounds exist for concluding that a foreign jurisdiction, institution, class of transaction, or type of account is of “primary money laundering concern,” to require domestic financial institutions and financial agencies to take certain “special measures” to address the primary money laundering concern.
The fifth special measure would prohibit covered financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts for or on behalf of FBME Currently, only one U.S. covered financial institution maintains an account for FBME (FBME lists three U.S. correspondent relationships on its website). FINCEN's fifth measure entails as follows:
Covered financial institutions also would be required to take reasonable steps to apply special due diligence .. to all of their correspondent accounts to help ensure that no such account is being used to provide services to FBME. For direct correspondent relationships, this would involve a minimal burden in transmitting a one-time notice to certain foreign correspondent account holders concerning the prohibition on processing transactions involving FBME through the U.S. correspondent account.
U.S. financial institutions generally apply some level of screening and, when required, conduct some level of reporting of their transactions and accounts, often through the use of commercially-available software such as that used for compliance with the economic sanctions programs administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) of the Department of the Treasury and to detect potential suspicious activity. To ensure that U.S. financial institutions are not being used unwittingly to process payments for or on behalf of FBME, directly or indirectly, some additional burden will be incurred by U.S. financial institutions to be vigilant in their suspicious activity monitoring procedures. ...
A covered financial institution may satisfy the notification requirement by transmitting the following notice to its foreign correspondent account holders that it knows or has reason to know provide services to FBME:
Notice: Pursuant to U.S. regulations issued under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, see 31 CFR 1010.661, we are prohibited from establishing, maintaining, administering, or managing a correspondent account for or on behalf of FBME Bank Ltd. The regulations also require us to notify you that you may not provide FBME Bank Ltd. or any of its subsidiaries with access to the correspondent account you hold at our financial institution. If we become aware that the correspondent account you hold at our financial institution has processed any transactions involving FBME Bank Ltd. or any of its subsidiaries, we will be required to take appropriate steps to prevent such access, including terminating your account.
The special due diligence would also include implementing risk-based procedures designed to identify any use of correspondent accounts to process transactions involving FBME. A covered financial institution would be expected to apply an appropriate screening mechanism to identify a funds transfer order that on its face listed FBME as the financial institution of the originator or beneficiary, or otherwise referenced FBME in a manner detectable under the financial institution’s normal screening mechanisms. An appropriate screening mechanism could be the mechanism used by a covered financial institution to comply with various legal requirements, such as the commercially available software programs used to comply with the economic sanctions programs administered by OFAC.
A covered financial institution would also be required to implement risk-based procedures to identify indirect use of its correspondent accounts, including through methods used to hide the beneficial owner of a transaction. Specifically, FinCEN is concerned that FBME may attempt to disguise its transactions by relying on types of payments and accounts that would not explicitly identify FBME as an involved party. A financial institution may develop a suspicion of such misuse based on other information in its possession, patterns of transactions, or any other method available to it based on its existing systems. Under the proposed rule, a covered financial institution that suspects or has reason to suspect use of a correspondent account to process transactions involving FBME must take all appropriate steps to attempt to verify and prevent such use, ...