In a recent enforcement action, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), took what appears to be an unprecedented step in finding that a Taiwanese shipping company had violated the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 560 (ITSR).

Copyright: 1971yes / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: 1971yes / 123RF Stock Photo

The alleged violation surrounds a ship-to-ship transfer of oil between a vessel owned by B Whale Corp. (BWC), a subsidiary of TMT Group (TMT), and a vessel owned by the National Iranian Tanker Co., which is listed as a specially designated national (SDN).  BWC and TMT maintain that the transaction involved oil originating in the United Arab Emirates and was conducted by subcontractors who were contractually prohibited from dealing with SDNs.  Nevertheless, OFAC determined that by turning off vessel identification systems and using circuitous routes, the BWC vessel had taken efforts to conceal its actions and the origin of the oil.

The novel issue here, is how OFAC came to assert jurisdiction over BWC and TMT to make its finding.  In 2013, TMT brought a voluntary bankruptcy proceeding in the Southern District of Texas, seeking protection from US creditors.  The allegedly improper oil transfer occurred after the bankruptcy proceeding had commenced.  During that proceeding, there was a motion by TMT’s creditors to remove TMT’s management due to “fraud or dishonesty” under the Bankruptcy Code.  Shortly thereafter,  OFAC conducted its investigation and asserted that it had jurisdiction,  because “BWC was a U.S. person within the scope of the ITSR because it was present in the United States for the bankruptcy proceedings when the transaction occurred.” Further OFAC determined that the vessel “was subject to U.S. sanctions regulations because it was property under the jurisdiction of a U.S. bankruptcy court, and therefore the oil transferred to the vessel was an importation from Iran to the United States as defined in the ITSR.”

With the issuance of an enforcement action against a non-US company, there is concern among foreign companies that OFAC is pushing the bounds of its jurisdiction.  OFAC’s two statements regarding the basis for jurisdiction, however, permit contrasting views of OFAC’s intent and the what this decision means for the future of sanctions enforcement. On one hand, the first statement, that BWC was a US person “because it was present in the United States for the bankruptcy proceeding,” rightfully gives reason for pause as mere presence in the United States as a basis for jurisdiction would signal a massive expansion of OFAC’s understanding of its jurisdiction.  On the other hand, the second statement, that the vessel came under the jurisdiction of the bankruptcy court, may, however, circumscribe the impact of this enforcement action.  With this qualification, it is not the mere presence of the foreign company before a US Court which conferred jurisdiction, but the well established principal that assets of the debtor — regardless of location — fall under the jurisdiction of the bankruptcy court.  While any expansion of jurisdiction is concerning to foreign companies and the US companies who transact with them, this assertion of jurisdiction may well be limited to a foreign company that availed itself of US bankruptcy protection and then used its assets for an unlawful purpose.   Should OFAC find other means of extending its jurisdictional reach, however, a new era of enforcement may be beginning.