On Thursday, the Senate passed legislation to impose additional sanctions on Russia. The bill passed by an overwhelming majority, 98-2, with only Senator Rand Paul and Senator Bernie Sanders voting against it.

In addition to the Russian sanctions, Iran sanctions, and the requirement that Congress review any effort by the Trump administration to loosen sanctions against Russia, the bill also includes a reassertion of the United States’ commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Article 5 charter provision that states that an attack on one member of NATO is considered an attack on all members.

The bill will now go to the House of Representatives, where the fate of the bill is less certain. Although the White House has signaled that it wants to improve relations with Russia, it has not yet said whether President Trump would sign the bill into law.

 

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On Monday, U.S. senators reached an agreement regarding imposing new sanctions against Russia. The agreement will be filed as an amendment to a larger Iran sanctions bill that is nearing passage in the Senate.

The sanctions are meant to punish Russia for several Russian actions. The sanctions will punish Russia for the alleged meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, and its support of, and supplying weapons to, the government of Syria.

The new measure will also codify existing sanctions and place new economic restrictions on Russia. It will allow new sanctions on Russian mining, metals, shipping and railway industries.

The proposed legislation is backed by both Republicans and Democrats, and it is expected to pass the Senate. It could come to a vote as early as later this week. To pass into law, the legislation will also need to be approved by the House of Representatives and be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

In a statement released late Monday, top Republican and Democratic senators on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs said the agreement would “provide for a mandated congressional review” if the White House sought to ease penalties against Russia unilaterally.

Last week, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (“OFAC”) wide latitude to impose Iran sanctions, but it set aside a $4.07 million penalty against car accessory seller Epsilon Electronics (“Epsilon”). The D.C. Circuit found that the agency cut too many corners in its investigation of Epsilon.

In July 2014, OFAC imposed the $4.07 million penalty on Epsilon, alleging that a series of shipments in 2012 by the company to Asra International Corporation, LLC in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (“Dubai Asra”) were destined for end-use in Iran. Sending products to Iran would violate the Iranian Transactions and Regulations. OFAC is authorized to impose civil penalties against individuals or entities who export to a third party who it has reason to know intends to send those goods to Iran.

The case dealt with the initial question of whether OFAC must prove that the goods ended up in Iran in order to hold the company liable for the breach of U.S. sanctions. The court determined that OFAC had enough evidence to support a finding that the first 34 shipments from Epsilon to Dubai Asra violated the sanctions. However, for the final five shipments, the court found that OFAC failed to explain why it discounted certain evidence and why the conclusion about the first 34 shipments applied to the last five, in light of the countervailing evidence presented. The evidence included several email exchanges between Epsilon’s sales team and Dubai Asra’s manager that indicated that the last five shipment were intended for a Dubai retail store and not Iran.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to remand the matter to OFAC for further consideration of the alleged 2012 violations relating to the final five shipments, and calculation of the total monetary penalty imposed for all liability findings. While the court found that the government does not need to show that the goods actually ended up in Iran, the court did conclude that OFAC did not adequately explain its determination that Epsilon had reason to know that the goods would end up in Iran. Because OFAC failed to justify its conclusion that Epsilon should be held liable for the last five shipments as well as the first 34, the final liability determinations were deemed capricious and arbitrary.

The decision establishes key precedents related to trade compliance. The case shows that OFAC does not need to prove that the goods actually reached the sanctioned country in order to impose penalties. Additionally, the case shows that agency enforcement actions from OFAC can be subject to judicial review. This could lead to enhanced transparency between violators and the government imposing sanctions. For more information about the case, read the opinion here.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) leveled one of the largest sanctions actions in OFAC’s history. OFAC sanctioned 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (“SSRC”).

According to OFAC, the SSRC is responsible for developing chemical weapons that were used against civilians by Syrian government forces earlier this month in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. OFAC has stated that these 271 designated individuals are scientists who have expertise in chemistry and related scientific disciplines and have supported the SSRC program since at least 2012. OFAC has stated that these individuals are working on developing chemical weapons for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Because of the sanctions, U.S. persons are now generally prohibited from conducting business with these designated individuals. Any property or interest in property of the 271 individuals in the possession or control of U.S. persons or within the United States must be blocked. Additionally, U.S. banks have been ordered to freeze the assets of any employees that have been named.

The sanctions more than double the number of individuals and entities sanctioned by the United States pursuant to Syria-related Executive Orders.  These sanctions are intended to hold the Assad regime and those who support it accountable for the regime’s violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118.

 

On April 20, 2017 the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) offered new guidance for individuals and entities (and their counsel) who seek to have their names removed from OFAC’s list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN).

The guidance comes in the form of updates to OFAC’s Frequently Asked Questions and sets forth the procedures for petitioning for removal from the SDN list.  The petition itself appears quite simple.  In fact, the only requirements are that it include: (1) the name and contact information of the SDN; (2) the date of the relevant OFAC listing action; and (3) a “detailed description” of the reasons that individual or entity should be removed from the SDN list. Parties may also submit additional evidence or argument as to why the SDN designation is not appropriate.

While OFAC notes that all petitions are unique, OFAC announces a goal to send its first questionnaire within 90 days of receiving a petition.  The time a party takes to respond to the questionnaire (and any subsequent questionnaires) can, of course, significantly draw out the overall petition process.

Although individuals may submit their own petitions, hiring proper counsel is likely a wise decision.  Not only can knowledgeable counsel navigate the grounds on which OFAC is likely to remove a person from the SDN list (i.e., positive change in behavior, change in the basis for the designation, mistaken identity, or death), counsel can help ensure that information disclosures will comport with OFAC’s expectations (ideally limiting the number of follow-up questionnaires).

Counsel should be cautioned not to run afoul of OFAC’s sanctions regimes while representing an SDN.  Although there are general licenses under most of OFAC’s sanctions regimes permitting legal services to aid a person in contesting SDN status, restrictions on the origin of payments may complicate matters.

New clarity on the path off of the sanctions black list is encouraging evidence of OFAC’s commitment to ensuring that the SDN list encourages good behavior and is not a heavy-handed punishment.  While the reality of the petition process may not be as simple as the FAQ suggests, clear guidelines are a great aid to targeted individuals and their counsel.

Today the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) updated its Specially Designated Nationals List (“SDN List”). OFAC frequently updates the SDN List to add or remove names as necessary and appropriate.

The SDN List is a list published by OFAC that includes the names of individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries. It also lists individuals, groups, and entities, such as terrorists and narcotics traffickers designated under programs that are not country-specific.

OFAC implements and imposes sanctions against those companies and individuals on the SDN List. Any US citizen, permanent resident alien, entity organized under the laws of the United States (including foreign branches), or any person (i.e., individual or entity) in the United States (collectively, “U.S. persons”) are generally prohibited from dealing with these companies and individuals, including transactions involving commerce, business, trade or finance. U.S. persons must block any property in their possession or under their control in which a company or individual on the SDN List has an interest.

When doing business with a foreign company or individual, it is important to access the SDN List to ensure that transactions with that foreign party are permissible. U.S. persons are expected to exercise due diligence in determining whether any such persons are involved in a proposed transaction. A failure to review the most up-to-date SDN List and review current sanctions can lead to serious consequences.

For more information on OFAC’s update and to review those added to the SDN List, please visit this page.  To review the current SDN List, click here.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council (the Council) imposed new sanctions on North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) on November 30, 2016 by unanimously approving a resolution imposing new sanctions — UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2321.

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The resolution is a clear response to North Korea carrying out its fifth and largest nuclear test so far in September 2016. The resolution tighten the sanctions adopted by the Council in March 2016 and is aimed at cutting North Korea’s hard currency that it uses to fund its prohibited weapons programs.

The sanctions impose a cap on coal exports, which is North Korea’s chief source of hard currency and constitutes about one third of North Korea’s export revenue. Pursuant to the resolution, North Korea can sell no more than 7.5 million metric tons of coal a year, or bring in no more than $400 million in sales, whichever comes first. In addition to restricting the export of coal, the resolution also bans North Korean copper, nickel, silver and zinc exports.

Two of the five permanent members of the Council, China and the United States, have been working together to pass the resolution. China is North Korea’s principal patron and coal customer. China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, called on North Korea to halt its nuclear tests. He said the resolution demonstrated “the uniform stance of the international community.”

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that “the United States recognizes that China is working closely with us.” Power stated that “[n]o resolution in New York will likely, tomorrow, persuade Pyongyang to cease its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. But this resolution imposes unprecedented costs on the DPRK regime for defying this council’s demands.”

The resolution also requires countries to tell the United Nations how much North Korean coal they are buying and expands the list of banned items for import by North Korea, including luxury goods like rugs and tapestries valued over $500 and porcelain and bone china worth more than $100.

In addition to other export controls, the resolution also imposes banking restrictions and transportation restrictions. The resolution includes an expanded list of individuals and entities that are subject to travel bans and asset freezes, including North Korea’s ambassadors and envoys to Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Myanmar.

On December 2, 2016, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced related sanctions designations of additional individuals and entities with ties to the Government of North Korea or its nuclear and weapons proliferation efforts, and aircrafts blocked as property of a designated entity.

North Korea has been under United Nations sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. For United States businesses the resolution does not significantly change the status quo, as US law already prohibits nearly all activity involving North Korea. The resolution will primarily impact areas where North Korea has a strong international presence, including banking, transportation and commodities trade.

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On September 13, 2016, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced a $4.3 million settlement with international seed producer and exporter PanAmerican Seed Company (“PanAm Seed”). In its official statement regarding the enforcement action, OFAC alleges that PanAm Seed faced statutory and civil penalties in the amount of $12 million for “egregious” violations of US sanctions against Iran.

OFAC alleges that between May 2009 and May 2012, PanAm Seed repeatedly violated US export controls by exporting seeds to two Iranian distributors. As part of the alleged scheme, PanAm Seed made 48 sales to consignees in unrestricted countries who would then reexport the seeds the Iranian distributors. Among the aggravating factors which led this case to be labeled “egregious,” OFAC noted that the Iranian sanctions program permits the export of certain agricultural products (likely including the seeds in question) under a specific license; however, PanAm Seed knowingly chose not apply for a specific license and instead chose to pursue its reexportation scheme. OFAC also cited PanAm Seed’s sophistication and substantial international sales when discussing its reckless disregard for its OFAC compliance responsibilities and knowledge of its mid-level managers of the intent to reexport seeds to Iran. Finally, despite mitigating efforts to implement compliance programs and PanAm Seed’s history of compliance, OFAC repeatedly noted that PanAm Seed did not self-report these violations and initially refused to cooperate in OFAC’s investigation.

It is difficult to understand why PanAm Seed chose not to seek a specific license which would have permitted the exports in question and avoided this significant fall out. Whether it was a lack of clarity regarding the scope of the Iranian sanctions program, a failure of the company’s employees to appreciate the ramifications of violating OFAC sanctions, or some combination of the two, this “egregious” case likely could have been avoided with comprehensive training and compliance structures which could not be evaded by transparent sales to consignees. Ensuring that training and compliance programs are up-to-date and genuinely robust may be the single most important thing a company to do to protect itself against future claims of misconduct, egregious or otherwise.

The Miami Herald is reporting that the Cuban government used the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to create at least 25 corporations registered in the British Virgin Islands, Panama and the Bahamas. Mossack Fonsenca, and its clients, have come under immense scrutiny since the leak of hundreds of thousands of pages of the firm’s files, which have been come known as the “Panama Papers”, revealed elaborate tax shelters used by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals and organizations.

In a June 7, 2016 report, the Miami Herald alleges that at the Cuban government used Mossak Fonseca to set up numerous corporations and then used these off-shore entities to conduct business, including numerous exchanges of oil for Cuban goods, which was prohibited by the US embargo on Cuba. Although the Panamanian firm’s aid or involvement with the Cuban government is likely beyond the jurisdiction of US officials, the potential ramifications for US corporations who may have dealt with the alleged off-shore Cuban entities is uncertain.

Under Cuban Assets Control Regulations (31 C.F.R. Part 515), an entity can potentially avoid penalties if it is able to demonstrate that is did not willfully violate the regulations, had no reason to know or suspect that it was involved in a prohibited transaction, and the entity reported the prohibited transaction to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as soon as it became aware of the violation. (31 C.F.R. 515.203). It is also possible that individual transactions may have been authorized pursuant to specific licenses issued by OFAC. The critical issue, therefore, is whether any US entities knew or should have known that they were dealing with an entity connected to the Cuban government. As investigations of the Panama Papers continue, correspondence contained therein could potentially demonstrate knowledge by US companies about the Cuban connections of the off-shore entities identified in the Miami Herald report.

US companies who may have engaged the Cuban off-shore entities should be proactive and investigate what, if any, contact they may have had with these entities as self-reporting any transactions to OFAC is a necessary first step in cooperation. Depending on the size of the organization, using a third-party investigator, such a law firm, may ensure the preservation of documents and, in turn, the integrity of the investigation should an investigation by OFAC become necessary.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would fully lift a ban on the sale of lethal arms and military equipment to Vietnam. President Obama announced this change in U.S. policy, which has been in place for about fifty years, during his visit to Vietnam on Monday, May 23, 2016. At a joint news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, President Obama said this move would remove a lingering “vestige of the Cold War” and complete what has been a lengthy process towards normalization with Vietnam, which began in 1995.

Despite the complete embargo lift, sales with Vietnam will still need to meet strict trade requirements. The sale of arms will still depend on Vietnam’s human rights commitments and will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Reporters suspect that this measure is a response to the activity of China in the South China Sea. China has claimed several contested reefs in the South China Sea and constructed military capable airfields. Critics claim that the decision to lift the arms ban suggests that the U.S. is more concerned with China’s activity in the South China Sea than it is with Vietnam’s record of improving human rights in Vietnam. However, President Obama said the arms lift was not related to China.

The trip to Vietnam is meant to strengthen the bond between the U.S. and Vietnam. Both imports and exports between the two countries have steadily increased in recent years. Security experts see the U.S. decision to lift the arms embargo as an effort to form a bond with Vietnam as a trade and security partner in that region.