Here’s a visual: Uncle Sam extending his arms around the world, reaching out for his citizens, wherever they may be. He may resemble a candy-striped Gumby, with disproportionately long rubbery arms spanning the globe. The visual is not an endearing one to many Americans abroad. They do not see Uncle Sam’s reach as an embrace, but rather as a stronghold. And a close-up of the visual will show that not only is Uncle Sam holding his citizens, he is also clutching foreign institutions and sovereigns.
This visual describes how many perceive the U.S. following the enactment of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a law that takes effect July 1, 2014, and is purported to increase accountability of U.S. taxpayers who have foreign financial assets. Unlike most countries, the U.S. taxes its citizens on income regardless of where the income was earned. Either through inattention or willful ignorance, many Americans have not fully complied with all U.S. tax laws and have not reported all foreign assets and income earned abroad. Desperate to shore up a massive budget deficit, in 2010 U.S. Congress decided to go after tax revenues on these foreign assets with the passage of FATCA.
FATCA followed on the heels of a 2009 settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and UBS AG in which the bank agreed to pay a hefty $780 million fine to avoid prosecution for allegedly fostering American tax evasion. A savvy Congress may have seen revenue potential both in ferreting out tax evasion and finding reasons to penalize financial institutions that fail to comply with U.S. law. FATCA and its implementing regulations shrewdly address both.
FATCA has two general reporting requirements: (1) U.S. individual taxpayers must attach Form 8938 to their income tax return, reporting information about foreign financial accounts and offshore assets valued over a specified threshold ($50,000 for a single filer, though a higher threshold applies to those living outside the U.S.) and (2) foreign financial institutions (FFIs) must register with the IRS and report information (mainly account balances) about U.S. accounts (including accounts of foreign entities with substantial U.S. owners). The FFIs may be required to withhold 30% on U.S. sourced payments to foreign payees if those payees do not comply with FATCA.
Here’s another visual: a massive splitting headache. FFIs agreeing to comply with FATCA will need to confirm the identity of all account holders, culling U.S. accounts for reporting purposes. In instances where local law conflicts with FATCA, e.g., when accounts are located in countries with bank secrecy laws, FFIs will need to ensure account holders sign waivers to allow reporting of their information. Many FFIs will need to institute a process to withhold 30% of certain payments from recalcitrant account holders and non-compliant FFIs. So not only must these banks track their account holders, they may be required to track payments to those account holders and to other FFIs. They must stay abreast of which of their account holders and which FFIs are not compliant with FATCA. Then for the non-compliant, the FFIs will need to track U.S. payments to those and withhold 30% of the U.S.-sourced payments. Good luck.
The compliance and reporting requirements will be onerous. And the tediousness of compliance with the U.S. laws and regulations is only one piece of the legal framework FFIs must navigate. As mentioned above, they also have the overarching concern of compliance with their own country’s banking and privacy laws. A clash of laws may subject FFIs to class actions in their respective countries. While intergovernmental agreements between the U.S. and FATCA-cooperating countries, as well as local legislative efforts, may attempt to remediate problems of conflicting laws, FFIs must tread carefully.
Why would foreign banks, or foreign sovereigns for that matter, choose to subject themselves to the U.S.’s jurisdictional overreach? Why wouldn’t countries, especially those known for their bank secrecy laws, simply refuse to submit this costly program? The answer is simple. FATCA includes a steep penalty for non-participation. As mentioned above, there is a 30% withholding of any U.S.-sourced payments to FFIs that do not adhere to the law. A simple solution to avoid the penalty and the regulatory nightmare is to no longer hold U.S. accounts. And many Americans abroad are now struggling to find banks that will take their cash. But other FFIs have chosen to work with the U.S. and their local government to ease compliance and implementation.
The financial pressure and regulatory burden to which the U.S. has subjected these foreign banks and sovereigns is the impetus for many intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) between the U.S. and other countries. The carrot for these countries to enter an IGA is that the U.S. will reduce the oversight requirements the law foists upon banks. For instance, an FFI in a country with an IGA may not have to track and withhold payments; they merely need to report on U.S. accounts. This regulatory ease is why many big banks in foreign countries have pressured their local governments to sign an IGA with the U.S. The end result is places known for bank secrecy, like Switzerland and Hong Kong, are buckling. Thanks to FATCA, bank secrecy will be a concept as antiquated as carriage rides.
But FFIs who think they are dodging a bullet by lobbying for an IGA in their country should think again. This merely opens the door to an increasing level of U.S. involvement in their affairs. We can expect the U.S. Justice Department to leverage its increased presence in FFIs to expand its enforcement initiatives.
Employers Seeking to Curb Employee Mobile Phone Use at Work? Don’t Use Illegal Signal Jammer – FCC is “Listening”
Some employers, particularly those in manufacturing, health care, and other situations where mobile phone use could interfere with employee safety, have come up with novel approaches to curbing employees’ uses of mobile phones. While a policy restricting personal phone calls and texting may be acceptable, installation of a signal jammer to prevent employees from accessing the network is unlawful and can subject the employer to significant penalties. R&N (“RNM”) Manufacturing, Ltd. In Houston, Texas learned this lesson the hard way when the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) showed up at its manufacturing facility.
As background, RNM purchased a signal jammer online in February 2013, to prevent employees from placing wireless calls from the factory, by blocking cell phone communications. With very limited exceptions, the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules bar the importation, use, marketing, manufacturing, and sale of jammers. Jammers may be available for sale all over the Internet, but they are prohibited. The reason behind this prohibition is that jammers can interfere with emergency and other communications services, including GPS. Signal jammers typically transmit high-powered radio signals that interfere with authorized communications. The interference can, among other dangers, place first responders and the public at risk if critical communications cannot be transmitted.
AT&T determined that a signal originating from RNM’s Houston facilities was interfering with AT&T’s signal, and reported the interference to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau. FCC field agents in Houston conducted an investigation and found strong signals coming from RNM’s Houston facility. The agents subsequently visited the facility to determine the source of the interference and to notify a corporate officer. RNM’s CFO confirmed the jammer and promised to discontinue the jammer’s use. A formal enforcement action followed.
After analyzing the facts and the agency’s forfeiture guidelines, the FCC imposed a forfeiture on RNM of $29,250 for the 10-day operation (and the voluntary relinquishment of the illegal device). While this is not a huge penalty, the FCC noted that it could have imposed a forfeiture in excess of $337,000 had it imposed a straightforward application of the statutory maximum.
There are a few important points to note here. First, employers seeking to curb employee mobile use should rely on policies and enforcement, rather than “self-help” through installation of their own devices. While jammers are available for purchase online – they are illegal irrespective of what a website might advertise.
Second, while companies might not expect an FCC official to show up at their door for an investigation, the agency (like many other agencies) has field agents and they do conduct on-site investigations – including without notice. All organizations should have a designated officer or senior employee who is trained to interface with investigators. Outside counsel can also be key here to interact with the agents and help guide the company through the audit.
Third, monetary penalties can be steep. A mere 10 days’ use of the signal jammer cost RNM a nearly $30,000 penalty plus likely legal fees and employee time. Had RNM been using the cell jammer over a longer time period, it could have faced a six-figure fine.
Fourth, even though RNM was not an “FCC-regulated” entity such as a broadcast station, telecom company, etc., it understood the need to be responsive and to take the matter seriously. Just because a company is not regularly under an agency’s jurisdiction doesn’t mean it is not subject to the agency’s enforcement powers. Federal agencies such as the FCC and FTC enforce laws with wide-ranging implications and can subject companies in various industries to their jurisdiction.
The FCC’s Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture is available here.
This afternoon at the iGaming North America 2014 conference an interesting panel, “Visionaries’ Perspective—Is i-Gaming the Problem or the Solution?” explored two vastly divergent viewpoints on online gaming in the United States. The panel was moderated by Steve Lipscomb, the Founder of the World Poker Tour, and featured, Mitch Garber, the CEO Caesars Acquisition Co. and Caesars Interactive Entertainment, and Andy Abboud, Vice President of Government Relations, Las Vegas Sands Corp, which is owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Abboud made clear the positions of his Las Vegas Sands from the start stating, “We are not fans of online gaming.” Abboud expressed caution because he felt that there is a strong presence of illegal operators in the industry and that was what the company feared, not the legalized regulated gaming that is currently offered in Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada.
Garber called attention to Abboud’s stance differing from Adelson’s public position, which is that iGaming should not be permitted in any context. Adelson has made it clear publicly that he intends to spend large sums of money to defeat online gaming, and federal legislation to do so may be forthcoming.
Abboud said that the Las Vegas Sands supports legislation to restore the Wire Act and make it clear that the Wire Act prohibits online gaming as well as sports betting. Abboud emphasized that he believes that the industry is dependent on a Wire Act opinion that was issued by Attorney General Eric Holder, but that interpretation of the Wire Act could be overturned by a new administration or a change in perspective from the current administration. Abboud emphasized that he believes the industry needs to be much more cautious in its approach before moving forward, on the law and in terms of consumer protection.
Garber emphasized that he believes that both the federal government and the individual states are capable of regulating online gaming. Garber stated that the consumer protection controls that are in place online are even stronger than in the land-based casinos. Online casinos have the ability to track the money players deposit, view their hand histories, age and ID verify all participants.
The lively exchange highlighted the divergent perspectives on online gaming in the United States. The debate will continue to play out in the future, but we believe that online gaming is here to stay and the companies that believe that it will cannibalize the land-based casino industry will be proven wrong in time as more states join the market.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that Sarbanes–Oxley extends whistleblower protection, not just to employees of public companies, but to employees of private contractors and subcontractors that serve public companies. In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected the First Circuit’s narrow construction of the statute in favor of the Labor Department’s more expansive interpretation. Now more than ever, affected contractors and subcontractors need to ensure they have robust policies in place for addressing whistleblower complaints.
Congress passed the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in 2002, the year after Enron’s collapse. The Act was intended to protect investors in public companies and restore trust in financial markets. It achieved these goals in part by providing whistleblower protection: 18 U.S.C. § 1514A makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees who report suspected fraud. The provision certainly protects employees of publicly traded companies. It was less clear whether § 1514A protects employees of private contractors that service public companies. The plaintiffs in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, claimed it did.
Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Lang were employees of private companies that serviced the Fidelity family of mutual funds. As is often the case with mutual funds, the Fidelity funds were subject to SEC reporting requirements, but had no employees. Private companies contracted with the funds to provide accounting and investment advisory services. In this case, the private companies were Fidelity-related entities referred to collectively as FMR. Lawson was a 14-year veteran and Senior Director of Finance for her employer, Fidelity Brokerage Services. She alleged that she was constructively discharged after raising concerns about cost accounting methods for the funds. Zang was an 8-year veteran of Fidelity Management & Research Co. He alleged that he was fired for raising concerns about misstatements in a draft SEC registration statement related to the funds. Both plaintiffs sued for retaliation under § 1514A.
FMR responded by asking the district court to dismiss the claims on grounds that § 1514A protects employees of public companies, not employees of privately held companies. The trial judge rejected FMR’s argument, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Months later, the Labor Department’s Administrative Review Board issued a decision in another case, making clear that ARB agreed with the trial judge. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the question.
On March 4, the Court issued its opinion that § 1514A shelters employees of private contractors, just as it shelters employees of public companies served by those contractors. Speaking for the majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the Court’s broad construction finds support in the statute’s text and broader context. As relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims, § 1514A provides, “‘No public company . . . , or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company” may take adverse action “against an employee . . . because of [whistleblowing or other protected activity].’” Boiled down to its essence, the phrase in question states that “no . . . contractor . . . may discharge . . . an employee.” In ordinary usage, the phrase means that no contractor (of a public company) may retaliate against its own employees. After all, those are the people contractors have power to retaliate against. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to limit whistleblower protections to employees of publicly traded companies, as FMR argued, Congress would have said “no contractor may discharge an employee of a public company.” The statute doesn’t say that because Congress was not attempting to remedy a nonexistent problem. Enron did not collapse because its private contractors retaliated against Enron employees who tried to report the company’s fraud.
The Lawson Court explained further that its interpretation flows logically from the statute’s purpose to prevent another Enron debacle. Often, the first-hand witnesses of corporate fraud are employees of private companies that service a public company—law firms, accounting firms, and business consulting firms, for example. Without adequate protections against retaliation, contractor employees who come across fraud in their work for public companies will be less likely to report misconduct. The Court’s point was particularly relevant with respect to the Fidelity funds. Like most mutual funds, the Fidelity funds had no employees. A narrow reading of § 1514A would insulate a $14 million industry from retaliation claims. Congress could not have intended that result.
Given the Court’s decision in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, privately held companies that service public companies should consider how best to deal with whistleblower complaints. At a minimum, robust whistleblower policies will (i) safeguard whistleblower anonymity to the extent possible; (ii) encourage whistleblowers to exercise discretion without discouraging them from reporting misconduct; (iii) address the preservation of evidence relating to putative fraud; and (iv) establish procedures for the conduct of internal investigations into suspected fraud.
Are you living the American dream … abroad? If so, you may be considering joining forces with Superman and changing your nationality. You face some unique burdens if you earn a cent while soaking up the sun in Saint Tropez or make a rupee while navigating the marketplace in Mumbai. The most obvious, from a financial perspective, is double taxation. America is one of the few countries to tax its citizens on their global income. That means that Americans must contend with tax liability and report requirements of the country where their income is earned. Also, they then must pay Uncle Sam taxes on that same foreign-based income. (The foreign tax credit offsets some of this burden, but it generally does not eliminate all double taxes.)
Now Americans abroad are facing a new financial challenge: finding places to park their money. Thanks to the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act, which Congress passed in 2010, banks in foreign countries are refusing to hold accounts for American citizens. FATCA aims at enforcing American tax law on its citizens and ensuring those citizens are disclosing all income and assets to Uncle Sam. To confirm full disclosure, the law imposes reporting requirements on the foreign financial institutions that do business with Americans. Many of these banks have decided that the regulatory burden and penalties for non-compliance are too onerous so they have opted to refuse Americans’ money. The problem Americans face banking abroad has become big enough that members of Congress have called hearings on the matter. [Of course, unless Congress repeals the reporting mandates that FATCA imposes on foreign financial institutions, what impact could hearings have? Congressional members could acknowledge the problem, but there is really only one solution. Superman, where are you when we need you?]
Of the many concerns Americans have over FATCA, the law is seen as too intrusive, especially to bi-nationals who identify culturally with another nationality. The law requires individuals to file – in addition to FBARs – the already-notorious Form 8938, which demands details on foreign assets such as life insurance contracts, loans, and holdings in non-U.S. companies. Additionally there are the hefty civil and criminal penalties of $50,000 or one-half the value of accounts for individuals who have not complied with all reporting requirements (many Americans abroad, apparently have struggled with compliance).
So as FATCA takes hold (the U.S. is actively negotiating intergovernmental agreements with foreign jurisdictions to ensure enforceability of its laws), Americans abroad increasingly face the question: are the benefits of American citizenship worth the cost? More people are answering “no” and choosing to renounce their American citizenship. In fact, so many are answering “no” that we are breaking renunciation records. In 2011, more than 1,800 Americans renounced their citizenship, which was more than 2007, 2008, and 2009 combined. In 2013, that number jumped to almost 3,000, which is an all-time record. The number of American citizens wanting to renounce their citizenship is so high in Switzerland there is a waiting list (reported as 18-months long).
Some may think that 3,000 people renouncing their citizenship is a drop in the bucket, nothing to sneeze at, and small potatoes. The number of renouncers doesn’t compare to the 1 million who are legally immigrating to the U.S. every year. “Goodbye and good riddance,” some have commented.
But the trend is more troubling than it may appear. By raw numbers, the U.S. may be averaging a 997,000 surplus in immigrants versus emigrants, but Uncle Sam’s tax roll will not reflect the same surplus. The people who are renouncing their citizenship tend to be on the wealthier side. Not all are Eduardo Saverins (the Facebook co-founder who emigrated to Singapore “for business reasons” i.e. to reduce his tax liability). But expatriates are undergoing the pains of renunciation because they have greater than average networths and they see the writing on the U.S. budget deficit’s wall (many surmise that FATCA is an attempt to curb the deficit). The people who are immigrating to the U.S. tend to be those who are looking for opportunity, education, etc. They are bringing wallets full of hope, not gold. And when you recognize that the top 1 percent of American earners pay about 37 percent of all the federal taxes, a few thousand on the wealthier side become statistically significant.
A very popular phrase bandied about by politicians is that you can tell the health of the nation by the number of people who want to come and stay. That immigration reform is an issue, to many, means we have a good thing going here in the U.S. that others want to be a part of. But when the nation’s wealthy start opting out of the American dream, when they start thinking our borders as made of kryptonite, it’s time to pause and reflect.
 See Action Comics No. 900 in which Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship after a clash with the federal government.
We have previously reported on the arrangements being made by the Garden City Group for remittance of money to the former customers of Full Tilt Poker. Since that time, there has been a lengthy process for the submission of claims to the group for administration.
It appears that players’ waiting has not been all for naught.
The Garden City Group reports that, on February 28, 2014, it issued more than 27,500 payments totaling approximately $76 million to former Full Tilt Poker players who timely confirmed the balance of their Full Tilt Poker accounts. GCG reports that petitioners will receive ACH transfers of the funds anywhere from the day it was issued until several business days later, depending on the practices of their banks.
These payments are only the first round of anticipated payments. The deadline for affiliates to submit a petition for remission is this Sunday, March 2.
A recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit limiting the reach of the False Claims Act demonstrates how relators who pursue cases in which the government declines to intervene can end up making law that is unfavorable to the government’s enforcement of that statute.
United States ex rel. Rostholder v. Omnicare, Inc., et al., No. 12-2431, a qui tam case alleging violations of the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729, arose from a whistleblower’s claim that defendants violated certain Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety regulations requiring that penicillin and non-penicillin drugs be packaged in complete isolation from one another. The violation of these regulations resulted in a legal presumption of penicillin cross-contamination. The relator asserted that the contaminated drugs were not eligible for reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid and, therefore, claims presented to the government for reimbursement of these drugs were false under the FCA.
In affirming the district court’s grant of Omnicare’s motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals focused on the specific requirement of the FCA that there be a claim that is, indeed, false. The Court noted that the statutes providing for reimbursement require that the drug in question be approved by the FDA but these statutes do not require compliance with FDA safety regulations as a precondition for reimbursement.
The Court therefore held that, while the cross-contamination might be a violation of safety regulations, it did not transform Omnicare’s requests for reimbursement into false claims. The Court observed statements in its own earlier cases that “the correction of regulatory problems is a worthy goal, but is ‘not actionable under the FCA in the absence of actual fraudulent conduct.’” (citing Mann v. Heckler & Koch. Def., Inc., 630 F.3d 338, 346 (4th Cir. 2010)). If it were “to accept relator’s theory of liability based merely on a regulatory violation,” the Court noted, “we would sanction use of the FCA as a sweeping mechanism to promote regulatory compliance, rather than a set of statutes aimed at protecting the financial resources of the government from the consequences of fraudulent conduct.” Given the FDA’s “broad powers to enforce its own regulations,” to permit the FCA to be used in this manner “could ‘short-circuit the very remedial process the Government has established to address non-compliance with those regulations.’” (citing U.S. ex rel. Wilkins v. United Health Grp., Inc., 659 F.3d 295, 310 3d Cir. 2011)).
Based on these principles, the Court of Appeals found that the relator had failed adequately to allege the existence of a false statute or fraudulent conduct, and that he could not plausibly allege that Omnicare acted with the requisite scienter when submitting the claims in question to the government.
This Court of Appeals decision could offer support for companies in highly regulated industries that face qui tam cases under the False Claims Act that arise from violations of safety regulations. In industries such as pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging in which payment reimbursements are not expressly tied to compliance with safety rules, those companies may face regulatory enforcement for those violations, but will not also face assertions that they have also violated the False Claims Act.
Jeff Ifrah Presents on the Future of Online Gaming at J.P. Morgan Global High Yield & Leveraged Finance Conference
Yesterday, at the annual J. P. Morgan Global High Yield & Leveraged Finance Conference in Miami Beach, Florida, Ifrah Law Founding Member Jeff Ifrah shared his predictions for the growing online gaming industry in the U.S. and in Europe. Susan Berliner, an analyst with J.P. Morgan who covers gaming and lodging, moderated the panel, which also included Marc Falcone, CFO of Fertitta Entertainment/Station Casinos, and Eamonn Toland, President of Paddy Power. The panelists addressed the potential for online gaming’s additional expansion in the states as well as payment and logistical issues.
J.P. Morgan’s conference attracted a crowd of over 1,000 CEOs, CFOs and other C-Suite executives from high-growth companies across an array of industries, including gaming, entertainment, energy, and transportation and institutional investors. Questions from attendees at Tuesday’s panel indicated that investors were most interested in the rollout of online gaming in the three states that presently permit it: Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey.
Ifrah noted that one study predicts online gaming revenues in the U.S. to reach approximately $670 million. According to Ifrah, how online gaming grows depends on what the states do to permit gaming and their licensing processes and what other states come online in the near future. Ifrah shared that just a couple hours before, Delaware and Nevada announced an historic agreement to pool their liquidity to increase their prize pool, allowing poker players in those states (and any other states which may subsequently sign on to the agreement) to play online poker offered by operators in either state, and to play against players in the other state. Governor Sandoval of Nevada and Governor Markell of Delaware met in Wilmington yesterday to announce this exciting development. The State of Delaware, an Ifrah Law client, launched online gaming in November.
Marc Falone of Station Casinos observed that run rate revenues for online gaming are estimated at $150 million in 2014. While online gaming is still in the early stages, it has the potential to be a much larger business with significant long-term growth potential. Falcone pointed out five challenges to online gaming growth, about which the panel generally agreed:
* General awareness – many consumers still do not understand that online gaming is legal in Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey, which hinders participation and growth.
* Payments – despite online poker’s legality in the three states, Mastercard, Visa and other payment processors nevertheless decline to make deposits on online gaming sites.
* Geolocation – the states utilize geolocation technology to confirm that only residents in those states play. Many individuals have found the geolocation confirmation process unwieldy and difficult with which to interact, causing them to choose another activity. Falcone, Ifrah and the other panelists agreed geolocation technology and ease would improve over time.
* Security – in the age of high profile data breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus and elsewhere, and a reported breach on the Sands website, consumers’ interest in online gaming may be chilled. New Jersey requires a player enter a social security number. Consumers are understandably reluctant to provide that type of sensitive personal information in a website form. Industry needs to continue to work on secure procedures that will boost consumer confidence.
* Offshore gaming – licensed operators in the three states still compete with offshore gaming sites.
Eamonn Toland of Paddy Power stressed that online gaming revenues are currently as anticipated; growth takes time as consumers become more aware and some of the “wrinkles” identified above are ironed out. He sees a significant revenue growth of 28% month-to-month. As to whether online gaming “cannibalizes” land-based casinos, Toland and the other panelists concurred that the online gaming player is an entirely different demographic and they did not see the cannibalism effect. Toland believes online gaming will grow significantly as states contract with each other like Delaware and Nevada just announced.
As to other states that may authorize online gaming, Ifrah and the other panelists mentioned California, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania as potential markets. The panel participants cautioned that while these are exciting developments at the state level, the federal government would be monitoring online gaming operations to see if there are any significant issues, such as consumer protection issues. However, at least one panelist believes that online gaming has extensive protections – such as age verification, protections for problem gamblers – that result in fewer losses for consumers than in land-based casinos.
Last Friday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Treasury, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen), both published new guidance in connection with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado. Because marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, the banking industry is prohibited from servicing any marijuana-related bank accounts. This forces the recreational marijuana industry to operate on an all-cash basis, which increases public safety risks (both to retailers and to customers) and is a great inconvenience to the industry (which is required to take extreme measures such as hiring armed guards, installing very high tech security measures, and the businesses are unable to obtain bank loans or credit).
In response, FinCen’s guidance, along with the DOJ memo, was supposed to enable marijuana-related banking and eliminate the public safety concerns, as it clearly stated: “This FinCEN guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.” Although the guidance pursued an admirable goal, it fell remarkably short.
The DOJ memo states:
“The provisions of the money laundering statutes, the unlicensed money remitter statute, and the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) remain in effect with respect to marijuana-related conduct. Financial transactions involving proceeds generated by marijuana-related conduct can form the basis for prosecution under the money laundering statutes (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957), the unlicensed money transmitter statute (18 U.S.C. § 1960), and the BSA. … Notably for these purposes, prosecution under these offenses based on transactions involving marijuana proceeds does not require an underlying marijuana-related conviction under federal or state law.”
Simply stated, the DOJ memo confirms that recreational marijuana use remains illegal under federal law and could serve as the basis of prosecution against banks (or individuals), but that the DOJ will probably not enforce the applicable federal statutes against banks for processing marijuana-related accounts, provided that the banks follow certain guidelines that are outlined in the DOJ memo.
These wishy-washy “promises” of non-enforcement are extremely unlikely to sway banks from their decision not to permit marijuana-related accounts. Banks are naturally conservative and also have a huge self-interest to be 100% compliant with federal law because of the highly regulated banking industry; therefore, banks are only likely to permit marijuana-related accounts if it was legal under federal law, or if there were some form of safe harbor for the banks. However, there is clearly no safe harbor with the recent regulations and guidance.
For instance, the DOJ memo explicitly states: “Neither the guidance herein nor any state or local law provides a legal defense to a violation of federal law, including any civil or criminal violation of the CSA, the money laundering and unlicensed money transmitter statutes, or the BSA, including the obligation of financial institutions to conduct customer due diligence.”. The FinCen memo also repeats “that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime…” Thus, although the guidance issued by DOJ and FinCen on the surface appear to be helpful, they are ultimately toothless.
Further, the ultimate decision (and the inherent risk and liability) remains with the banks, as also noted in the FinCen memo: “In general, the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on a number of factors specific to that institution.” Therefore, in the absence of any safe harbor and the illegal status of marijuana under federal law, banks will likely pursue the safe option of refusing to process marijuana-related accounts.
This scenario is quite similar to the recent aftermath in New Jersey when it legalized online gaming for intrastate users. Although New Jersey declared online gaming legal under New Jersey state law, banks generally refused and continue to refuse to process online gaming accounts. Banks deemed these accounts too risky because their internal regulations dictate that they would not process payments for accounts related to online gaming for real money when it was still prohibited in other states and would be an unwanted burden on their compliance checks. Similarly, the ultimate conclusion of banks considering marijuana-related accounts is likely to refuse to allow such accounts because they are still illegal under federal law and permitting those accounts presents an unwelcome risk for the banks.
Another significant hurdle that may cause banks to refuse marijuana-related accounts is the significant disclosure requirements applicable to the banking industry that are mandated by federal agencies like the FDIC and Federal Reserve. Banks, particularly banks that are publicly traded entities, have many filings and disclosures that they are required to make on a consistent basis. Therefore, the banks would presumably have to disclose that they are currently violating federal law by processing marijuana-related transactions and permitting marijuana-related accounts (and anticipate continuing to violate the federal laws). Regarding disclosure requirements, it should make no difference whether the DOJ presently anticipates prosecuting those crimes or how much of a priority they are in accordance with the DOJ memo – the fact remains that the bank is violating the federal law and that must be disclosed. Indeed, the DOJ could decide to prosecute these crimes at any time in the future. Furthermore, that disclosure (i.e. that they are currently violating the law) would likely trigger a host of regulatory issues that require banks to comply with all federal laws.
Yet, the banking market for marijuana-related accounts remains lucrative and underserved. The million dollar question is which bank will take the leap of faith to enter the marijuana industry?
One possibility is a Colorado bank that only has Colorado branches may be willing to permit marijuana-related accounts. Obviously, the potential reward is great because of the lucrative and underserved marijuana industry market. More importantly, the risk to Colorado banks is lower because they only operate in Colorado and can legitimately claim they are complying with all laws because Colorado state law permits recreational marijuana use, so they can be more confident that the DOJ will not prosecute them. More importantly, even if the DOJ decides to prosecute them, the state of Colorado will likely defend them and throw their weight behind the local bank, because if Colorado did not, then the whole recreational marijuana law and industry would quickly collapse.
Consequently, the risk-reward equation for a local Colorado bank is tilted more favorably toward permitting marijuana-related accounts because there is less risk to a Colorado-only bank, and the reward would be given more weight because the value of the marijuana accounts would mean much more to a smaller Colorado bank than to a larger national one. In the meantime, one would hope that the federal agencies would issue guidance that provides more clarity and real solutions to this issue, rather than just discouraging banks from this industry by issuing vague guidance.
The beginning of 2014 has brought many new laws into effect and we have written on a number of them. But few laws have received more mainstream media exposure than Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana. Of more importance to us, the legalization of recreational marijuana has posed some interesting problems for regulators.
The most obvious effect of the law was to allow the recreational use of marijuana, but there has also been a significant side effect: Colorado has seen an explosion of food products with marijuana additives (known as “marijuana edibles”). A big reason for the wide variety of marijuana infused products is because it is relatively simple to manufacture them. The regular food manufacturing process is used and then cannabis oil is added to the recipe, which adds THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) the main psychoactive substance in marijuana, to the food. Marijuana edibles range from candies and sweets (e.g. chai mints, truffles) to sodas to cake (e.g. cookies, brownies), and even peanut butter. These products are especially attractive to people who want to avoid the coughing and inhaling of pot smoke, or, to partake of marijuana in a place where smoking is not permitted.
We are not generally in favor of more regulation, but we do think that there is a need for more robust regulation of marijuana edibles. These are standard food products with all the associated risks (e.g. going rancid, food poisoning like salmonella). Also, THC is not particularly stable as a good additive. Yet, despite these characteristics that pose risks associated with food products, marijuana edibles are not being monitored by the experienced federal food regulators (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration). Moreover, Colorado Department of Public Health also cannot provide oversight because part of their funding comes from the federal government. And while Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division may monitor these products, its original purpose was to regulate the medical marijuana industry and it is therefore ill equipped to regulate the entire recreational marijuana industry from the perspective of experience and resources. The Marijuana Enforcement Division has taken some significant steps to ensure marijuana edibles’ safety – such as requiring laboratory certification of edibles and implementing a tracking program that would be able to trace any food poisoning outbreaks directly back to the plant – but the absence of experienced food regulators from this process is worrisome.
Like many new laws, the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in Colorado is creating unforeseen challenges for regulators necessary to ensure the health and safety of the public. We are confident that, even in the continued absence of federal agency involvement, Colorado state authorities will find new and effective ways to meet these challenges.