Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ninth Circuit Rejects Bank Argument Against FDIC Cease and Desist Order from Failure to File SAR (3/20/18)

I have previously written on the Bank Secrecy Act requirement that financial institutions file Suspicious Activity Reports ("SARs").  31 USC § 5318(g); see IRS Use of Suspicious Activity Reports of Financial Institutions (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 11/23/12; revised 11/24/12), here; and Tidbits from ABA Tax Section May Meeting (Federal Tax Crimes Blog 5/13/15), here.  In California Pacific Bank v. FDIC, ___ F.3d ___, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6047 (9th Cir. 2018), here, the FDIC issued a cease and desist order to the Bank for failure to file an SAR.  The Bank appealed; the Ninth Circuit sustained the FDIC action.  I thought some readers of this blog might appreciate the some of the discussion of the circumstance of the failure to file the SAR.

For introduction, the Ninth Circuit's summary of the opinion is as follows:
The panel denied a petition for review brought by California Pacific Bank, challenging the constitutionality of the Bank Secrecy Act ("BSA") and its implementing regulations, and alleging that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Board of Directors' decision — finding that the Bank violated the BSA and ordering the Bank to implement a plan to bring the Bank into compliance — was not supported by substantial evidence. 
The FDIC Board concluded that the Bank did not comply with the BSA's implementing regulations because it failed to establish and maintain procedures designed to ensure adequate internal controls, independent testing, administration, and training — the "four pillars." 
As a preliminary matter, the panel held that the Bank preserved its constitutional challenges, and they were not waived. 
The panel held that the BSA and its implementing regulations were not unconstitutionally vague, and the FDIC and the administrative law judge did not exhibit unconstitutional bias against the Bank. The panel further held that the FDIC acted in accordance with the law by relying on the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council Manual to clarify its four pillars regulation. The panel also held that substantial evidence supported the FDIC Board's decisions that the Bank failed to comply with the four pillars and that the Bank failed to file a suspicious activity report, where one was needed, and thus, that the Bank did not comply with the BSA.
I focus on the opinion discussion behind the last sentence of the summary.  That discussion is:
The FDIC Board affirmed the ALJ's finding that the Bank failed to file a SAR where one was needed and to document its decision on whether or not to file a SAR. The Bank argues that this decision is not supported by substantial evidence. The Bank argues that it could not have been obligated to file a SAR because the FBI and DOJ told the Bank not to disclose any aspect of an ongoing federal criminal investigation. The Bank further contends that the examiners manufactured a new justification for filing a SAR months after the 2012 examination was complete. 
Pursuant to 12 C.F.R. § 353.1, an insured state nonmember bank must file a SAR whenever it suspects "a known or suspected criminal violation of federal law or a suspicious transaction related to a money laundering activity or a violation of the Bank Secrecy Act." For transactions of $5000 or more that involve potential money laundering or BSA violations, a SAR must be filed with the appropriate federal law enforcement agencies and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, where "[t]he transaction involves funds derived from illegal activities or is intended or conducted in order to hide or disguise funds or assets derived from illegal activities" or "[t]he transaction has no business or apparent lawful purpose or is not the sort of transaction in which the particular customer would normally be expected to engage, and the bank knows of no reasonable explanation for the transaction." Id. § 353.3(a)(4)(i) and (iii). The FFIEC Manual advises banks to review account activity for any customer for whom the bank receives a subpoena and to independently evaluate the need to file a SAR based on the bank's review of those materials. The FFIEC Manual discourages banks from referencing receipt or existence of a grand jury subpoena in the SAR and states that the SAR should only reference any underlying facts supporting the determination that the transaction at issue in the SAR is suspicious. 
During 2011 and 2012, the Bank received grand jury subpoenas seeking documentation and other information regarding certain customer transactions. These customers were part of an FBI investigation into international espionage and misappropriation of trade secrets. The FBI executed a search warrant on the Bank and interviewed Alan Chi and other Bank employees regarding these accounts. In early 2012, some of these customers were indicted for economic espionage and theft of trade secrets. 
It is undisputed that the Bank did not file a SAR or document its decision not to file a SAR. The only issue is whether the Bank's non-action was excused. The FDIC Board found that the Bank was not legally precluded from filing a SAR. On August 10, 2011, the DOJ sent the Bank a letter, directing the Bank to maintain the utmost secrecy with regard to the federal grand jury subpoena. Alan Chi interpreted this to mean that he could not disclose any aspect of the FBI investigation—including providing notice to regulators of customer activity in a SAR, even if that SAR did not include any mention of the FBI investigation. But this interpretation was erroneous. The Federal grand jury subpoena letter advised that "you and employees of California Pacific Bank [are required to] maintain the utmost secrecy with regard to this Federal grand jury subpoena." In recounting his conversation with an FBI agent, when Alan Chi asked if he could file a SAR, he recalled the agent saying, "Don't mention anything about the subpoena . . . just don't mention the subpoena." The FFIEC Manual explicitly contemplates the filing of SARs for customer activity that is also subject to law enforcement investigations and subpoenas, which suggests that investigations and subpoenas should often prompt filing SARs. The Bank's BSA Policy Manual reflected this guidance as well. Nothing prevented the Bank from filing a SAR that only referenced the suspicious activity at a general level without mentioning receipt of the subpoenas. The FDIC Board's finding that the Bank was able to file a SAR is supported by substantial evidence. 
Rawlins' draft 2012 ROE concluded that the Bank should have filed a SAR pursuant to 12 C.F.R. § 353.3(a)(4)(i) after learning of the indictments. Edmund Wong, Rawlins' immediate supervisor, initially disagreed, and concluded after conducting a second-level review of the ROE that an indictment alone was insufficient to support filing a SAR. However, upon receiving additional information on the accounts, Wong determined that the Bank should have filed a SAR. Wong detected several red flags, including "large dollar" and "round dollar" amounts that were much larger than the anticipated activity in the accounts, large wire transfers, and transactions that lacked any information on source of income, purpose of account, or expected activity—all of which he deemed evidence of a "layering scheme." The FDIC Board's findings that the filing of a SAR was warranted and that the examiners did not manufacture a justification for filing a SAR are supported by substantial evidence. 
The FDIC Board's decision that, in failing both to file a SAR and to document its decision not to file a SAR, the Bank violated 12 C.F.R. § 353 and did not comply with the BSA is supported by substantial evidence.

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