Second Circuit Overturns Conviction for Violation of Iranian Transactions Regulations and Operation of an Unlicensed Money-Transmitting Business

Nov 02, 2011   

On October 24, 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued its decision in United States v. Banki overturning the conviction of Mahmoud Reza Banki for violating trade sanctions with Iran and operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business. In this case, authorities alleged that Banki violated the ITR and 18 U.S.C. § 1960, which prohibits the operation of unlicensed money-transmission businesses, for his role in 56 money transfers to Iran through the informal money transmission system known as “hawala” which is widely used throughout the Middle East and South Asia. In the hawala system funds are transferred from one country to another through a network of hawala brokers known as “hawaladars.”

As previously reported, the ITR, which are found at 31 C.F.R. part 560, were promulgated pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and are administered by OFAC.  31 C.F.R. § 560.204 prohibits the exportation, reexportation, sale, or supply, directly or indirectly, from the United States, or by a United States persons, of any goods, technology, or services to Iran unless “otherwise authorized” in 31 C.F.R. part 560. Pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 1705, persons who willfully violate the ITR are subject to criminal penalties.

There are numerous forms of hawala but the two discussed by the Court were the “paradigmatic” system and the “match” system. The “paradigmatic” system works as follows: person 1 located in country A who wants to send money, for example $100, to person 2 in country B would contact a hawaladar located in country A and would pay the country A hawaladar the $100. Next the country A hawaladar would contact a country B hawaladar and ask the country B hawaladar to pay $100 in country Bs currency, minus any fees, to person 2. In the future, when country B hawaladar needs to send money to country A, he will then contact the country A hawaladar, with whom he now has a credit because of the previous transaction, and the country A hawaladar will complete the transaction. Normally, a number of transactions must be completed in order to balance the books between the two hawaladars and periodic settlement of the imbalances occurs via wire transfers or more formal money transmission methods. In this way, people can remit money to others without any actual money crossing the border between country A and country B.

The “match” system works on a similar premise. Under the match system, country As hawaladar seeks out a country B hawaladar looking to transmit money to a third party in country A. Once a “match” occurs, country Bs hawaladar would pay person 2 and then, upon knowledge of payment to person 2, country As hawaladar would pay the third party. Hawaladars derive their profits from the difference in the “buy” and “sell” exchange rates on completed transactions.

The use of the hawala system in the United States to remit funds to and from Iran is problematic for several reasons. First, transferring funds through a hawala qualifies as “money transmitting” under 18 U.S.C. § 1960. Therefore, hawaladars, which typically operate without licenses, are operating illegal money transmitting businesses and are thus in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1960. As such, U.S. patrons of hawaladars may also be charged for using hawala in the U.S. Second, because money transmission is considered a “service” under the ITR, it is a violation of the Iranian sanctions to transfer money to Iran unless the transfer arises as part of an underlying transaction that is not prohibited.

In Bankis case, authorities alleged that Bankis family members in Iran engaged in 56 money transfers using a match hawaladar to transfer assets to Banki in the United States. Authorities further alleged that for each deposit made into Bankis U.S. bank account, a corresponding payment was sent to Iran for a third party. Additionally, although the funds being transferred into Iran were not Bankis, authorities alleged that Banki knew that for each deposit he received there was a corresponding payout in Iran. Thus, based on this knowledge, authorities alleged that Banki facilitated an American hawaladar in violating the IRT and in operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business.

Authorities charged Mr. Banki with: 1) conspiring to violate the ITR and operate an unlicensed money-transmitting business; 2) violating or aiding and abetting the violation of the IRT; 3) conducting or aiding and abetting the conduct of an unlicensed money-transmitting business; and 4) two counts of making materially false representations in response to an OFAC administrative subpoena. In May of 2010, Banki was found guilty of all counts and was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment and ordered to forfeit $3.4 million.

On appeal, Banki argued his conviction should be overturned for several reasons. First, Banki argued that executing money transfer to Iran on behalf of others only violates the ITR if undertaken for a fee. Second, he argued that even if hawala transfers are considered a service, non-commerical remittances, including family remittances like the ones in this case, are exempt from the service ban. Third, Banki argued his aiding and abetting of an unlicensed money transmitting business should be overturned because the trial court failed to instruct the jury that participation in a single, isolated transmission of money does not constitute a money transmission business.

In its decision, the Second Circuit provided a detailed analysis of Bankis arguments which will guide future IRT and 18 U.S.C. § 1960 cases. First, the Court found that because the IRT was designed to be a broad and overinclusive sanctions scheme designed to isolate Iran, “the transfer of funds on behalf of another constitutes a Ëœservice even if not performed for a fee.”

Although money transmittal for no fee is still considered a “service” under the ITR, the Court went on to find that 31 C.F.R. § 560.516, which provides that non-commercial remittances, such as family remittances, are exempt from the services ban, is ambiguous as to whether it applies to all instances of non-commercial remittances or only those which take place in depository institutions. In so holding, the Court found that the governments argument that U.S. depository institutions have exclusive authority to process family remittances is inconsistent with the language of the regulation. However, the Court also found that, based on the statutory and regulatory sanctions scheme in place, Bankis argument that anyone, including hawalas, could process a non-commercial remittance is inconsistent with the ITR scheme as a whole. Thus, based on the ambiguity of the breadth of the non-commercial remittance exemption, the Court overturned Bankis convictions for conspiracy and violations of the ITR.

The Court also vacated Bankis conspiracy and aiding and abetting of an unlicensed money transmitting business and remanded for a new trial. In so ruling, the Court agreed with Banki and stated that “to find a defendant liable for operating [or aiding and abetting] an unlicensed money transmitting business, a jury must find that he participated in more than a Ëœsingle, isolated transmission of money.” The Court found that because the evidence presented at trial only showed Bankis knowledge of “match” funds moving to Iran in one transaction, a jury instruction stating that participation in a single, isolated transmission of money does not constitute a money transmission business was appropriate. The trial courts failure to provide the jury with such an instruction was reversible error.

The Second Circuit further held that the lower court also erred in instructing the jury that hawala is both an informal money transfer system and a money transmitting business. The Court found that by so instructing the jury, the district court relieved the government of its burden of proving that Banki had knowledge that more than one transmission had occurred. As explained by the Court, “by later instructing the jury that Ëœa hawala is a money transmission business, the district court arguably was instructing the jury that if it found that Banki operated a hawala, then he necessarily operated a money transmitting business, thereby taking the latter issue away from the jury.” Thus, the Second Circuits opinion distinguishes between the use of a system of money transmission and the operation of a money transmission business.

Although the Court overturned Bankis convictions for conspiracy and aiding and abetting, it disagreed with Bankis argument that he was entitled to an “mere customer or beneficiary” instruction. In his appeal, Banki argued that he should not be held liable for conspiracy or adding and abetting because he was “mere customer or beneficiary” and thus exempt from criminal liability. However, the Court found that Banki was charged with aiding and abetting the facilitation of funds to Iran and not with receiving funds from Iran. Thus, because Banki was charged as the facilitator of the transfer he was an intermediary, not a customer, and thus the instruction would be inappropriate. As explained by the Court, “put simply, where the crime charged is transmitting money to Iran without a license, the Ëœcustomer is the wire originator and/or the intended recipient” not the intermediary.

The opinion is noteworthy not only because it is illustrative of the potential criminal charges Iranian sanction violators may face, but also because of the Courts detailed analysis of the Iranian Transactions Regulations (“ITR”) and the federal money transmitting laws. If you have questions pertaining to the OFAC sanctions on trade with Cuba and Iran, the BSA, anti-money laundering compliance, or how to ensure that your business maintains regulatory compliance at both the state and federal levels, please contact us at contact@fidjlaw.com.