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OFAC’s Settlement with Commerzbank AG: Coerced Voluntary Settlements of the Competitively Disadvantaged

Published on March 20, 2015        Author: 

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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 [39]).

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 [44]). Read the rest of this entry…

 
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From Targeted Sanctions to Targeted Settlements: International Law-Making Through Effective Means

Published on July 22, 2014        Author: 

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2014.08.06.Marijanew pictureMarija Đorđeska, LL.M., is a Thomas Buergenthal Scholar and an S.J.D. Candidate at the George Washington University Law School, in Washington D.C.

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Department of Treasury (OFAC) has again shocked the international financial community with a recent settlement with BNP Paribas, France’s largest financial institution. BNP Paribas was accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, Sudan, Burma and Cuba from 2005 to 2012. For $8.9 billion in compensation – the priciest settlement to date – OFAC pardoned BNP Paribas and its subsidiaries from their civil liability under U.S. law. (Settlement Agreement [30], see also Enforcement Information for June 30, 2014).

OFAC is aggressively and effectively applying U.S. sanctions law to foreign institutions incorporated and doing business abroad, without taking into consideration foreign domestic legal regimes or international standards. French President François Hollande expressed his disapproval of the penalty imposed on BNP Paribas. The settlement should also cause concern among European and international lawyers, as BNP Paribas is the ninth European financial institution to be sanctioned since 2006 for processing funds for entities subject to U.S. sanctions. By threatening to cut off foreign financial institutions from the U.S. market, OFAC precludes these financial institutions from publicly and transparently arguing their case in legal proceedings (Settlement Agreement [31]). OFAC is establishing a precedent of a new, efficient, and not yet legal method for asserting U.S. laws abroad, bypassing the traditional territoriality principle of jurisdiction.

In the documents that are publicly available, OFAC does not mention any legal grounds on which it claims jurisdiction, leaving it unclear on what basis the U.S. can sanction transactions initiated abroad by foreign entities or the clearing of US dollars outside the U.S. (Factual Statement [34]) or regulate foreign exchange transactions (Settlement Agreement [12, 13]). Because the settlement negotiations were not made public, and BNP Paribas also waived its right to “any possible legal objection,” (Settlement Agreement [31]) the substantive public debate on the issue is necessarily limited.

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