Nine months after the Office of Foreign Asset Control’s largest ever settlement with French BNP Paribas (see my previous post), OFAC is striking again. On March 11, OFAC settled for the first time with a German financial institution, Commerzbank AG, for alleged violations of the U.S. sanctions regulations. Commerzbank is the thirteenth foreign financial institution (and eleventh European one) to settle with U.S. authorities (see e.g. OFAC’s Selected Settlement Agreements) for processing electronic funds on behalf of its Cuban, Iranian, Burmese and Sudanese customers, among others. (Settlement Agreement [26-30]). In exchange for Commerzbank’s agreement to pay OFAC $258 million (less than a third of what BNPP agreed to pay OFAC alone), OFAC pardoned the bank of all civil liability in government-initiated cases for its alleged wrongful conduct, thought to have started in 2002. (See Settlement Agreement ).
The total amount paid to all relevant U.S. authorities (United States Department of Justice, New York County District Attorney’s Office, Federal Reserve Boards of Governors and the Department of Financial Services of the State of New York) is $1.45 billion. This post considers only OFAC’s actions toward Commerzbank and calls into question OFAC’s jurisdiction to enforce its sanctions regulations and penalties abroad.
Allegations against Commerzbank
Commerzbank allegedly violated the U.S. sanctions regulations by routing non-transparent payment messages for states, entities and individuals subject to U.S. sanctions through the U.S. financial system between 2002 and 2010. By removing or omitting references to U.S.-designated entities from SWIFT’s MT103 and MT202 payment messages, Commerzbank also allegedly caused U.S. financial institutions to violate U.S. law. (Settlement Agreement [3-5, 1-9, 11, 20]). The first question we must ask is why Commerzbank, a German entity, would have to follow U.S. sanctions regulations?
OFAC’s main argument is that the alleged wrongful transactions went through the U.S. financial system, and, therefore, under the territoriality principle, U.S. law applies. Without repeating myself (see my previous post), I would like to stress that Commerzbank, incorporated in Germany and initiating its transactions in Germany, has a much stronger jurisdictional link to German than to U.S. law. In the settlement, OFAC acknowledges that Commerzbank agrees to OFAC’s requests only to the extent permitted by local law. (Settlement Agreement ). Read the rest of this entry…