Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Money-laundering rules 'a lot of work'

By Steve Johnson
San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Some people may be surprised to learn that one of the linchpins in this nation's war on terrorism is the Bin & Barrel Mini Mart in Fremont, Calif.

Sunny Cheema processes a customer's transaction at the Bin & Barrel Mini Mart in Fremont, Calif. Small stores like Bin & Barrel face several new rules under a federal law to foil money laundering by terrorists.

Gary Reyes • Associated Press

Manager Sonia Cheema certainly was after her dad bought the store in October.

Under federal rules still being fine-tuned, she discovered, the Bin & Barrel — like thousands of other small businesses — must have a written plan for foiling money-laundering terrorists. It also must have a "compliance officer" to ensure the plan is heeded, train its employees to spot shady transactions and regularly audit its own performance.

That's not all.

While not widely known, the Bin & Barrel and every other U.S. business must steer clear of people on the government's 192-page list of "specially designated nationals," which has more than 5,000 names and is updated frequently. Otherwise, business people could face huge fines and a long stay in prison.

"Oh, gosh! Imagine one person coming to cash a check and going through a list," said the 25-year-old Cheema, who has temporarily stopped cashing checks and processing money orders, at least until she understands the federal rules better. "It's going to be a lot of work. ... I don't think it's worth it."

Previously, banks were pretty much the only businesses that had to worry about money launderers. But that changed after the Sept. 11. attacks.

On Sept. 24, 2001, President Bush signed an executive order barring business dealings with anyone on the specially designated list, which includes the names and aliases of suspected terrorists, drug kingpins and their associates. Those failing to comply can be fined $10 million and jailed up to 10 years.

That was followed a month later by enactment of the USA Patriot Act, which forces "financial institutions" — broadly defined to include everything from liquor stores to pawn shops — to have detailed programs for combating money-launderers.

Under its enforcement provisions, business operators face potential $500,000 fines and 10-year prison terms.

The Patriot Act already is in effect for casinos, mutual funds, credit-card firms, banks and "money service businesses" like the Bin & Barrel, which offer such things as check cashing and money transfers. Still others — jewelers, vehicle dealers, travel agents, loan companies, investment firms and people involved in real-estate closings — are waiting for the government to issue their regulations under the act.

As word about the law spreads, many business people don't like what they are hearing.

"A lot of our members are just starting to wake up to all of the things they are required to do," said Karen Penafiel, assistant vice president for advocacy for the Building Owners & Managers Association International. When the group's executive committee held a briefing on the act in November, she said, "there was a sense that, 'you've got to be kidding.' "

Expecting businesses — especially tiny ones — to keep track of terrorists strikes some people as silly. But terrorists are capable of using a wide range of businesses and purchases to hide their assets, according to federal officials, who insist the new rules already are paying off.

They note that from Feb. 18, 2003, through Nov. 9, 2004, they received tips from various financial institutions about suspicious activity in 129 terrorism-related cases. That resulted in 648 grand jury subpoenas, nine arrests and two indictments.

Even so, compliance with the act has been spotty so far.

William Fox, director of the U.S. Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, told Congress in September that only 21,058 of the estimated 200,000 money service businesses nationwide had registered with his agency, as required under the Patriot Act.

Although firms that handle small transactions are exempt under the law, he testified, "we believe there are a significant number of money-services businesses required to register that have failed to do so."

The reason for that isn't clear. But even among companies that have heard of the law, many remain perplexed about its provisions.

"There is mass confusion out in the business world on this," said Christopher Myers, an attorney.