Are the FinCEN Files a Leak Too Far?
An Unpopular Perspective
First a disclosure – I used to be a Nominated Officer at a big bank, and so was ‘nominated’ to receive internal suspicious activity reports (SARs) under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) and the Terrorism Act 2000. I discharged these responsibilities by conducting investigations into the substance of the suspicions reported to me (my team dealt with ‘complex’ cases only).
Referrals came to us from inside the business, by way of internal SARs, or via colleagues in legal teams, or in the form of intelligence provided by law enforcement and other external agencies (or following a large data leak or money laundering scandal hitting the press). I was then responsible for determining whether there was an obligation to file a SAR with the UK’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), within the National Crime Agency (the UK’s equivalent to FinCEN). In this capacity, we investigated complex high-end money laundering and conducted proactive investigations into a range of threats. We also engaged with law enforcement in relation to financial crime disruption activities.
What are the ‘FinCEN files’?
The FinCEN files’ is the name given to an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), resulting from a ‘whistleblower’ obtaining and sharing ‘secret’ SARs submitted to FinCEN by financial institutions with Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed then shared the data with the ICIJ, and ultimately over 400 investigative journalists in 100 countries worked on the associated investigation for nearly two years.
The total data set includes 12 million SARs filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017, but the exposé relates to 2,100 SARs or 0.02% of the total SARs filed in the period. As I will come to, we don’t know what criteria were used to pick the smaller population of SARs, or what the whistle-blower’s motivations were.