On December 2, 2021, the United States, the EU, the UK, and Canada announced a new round of coordinated sanctions in response to their concerns regarding the Belarusian government’s continued undermining of democracy, its violations of human rights, and its alleged orchestration of irregular migration into the EU. The latest sanctions include blocking sanctions and asset freezes, as well as new restrictions on US persons dealing in Belarusian sovereign debt.

For more information on earlier US, UK, and Canadian sanctions related to Belarus, see our August 13, 2021, blog post and April 19, 2021, blog post.

Continue Reading Coordinated Sanctions Further Align Transatlantic Policies on Belarus

The World Bank Group (the Bank) issued its fourth joint Sanctions System Annual Report on October 18, covering the Bank’s fiscal year from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. The report includes updates by the Integrity Vice Presidency (INT), the Office of Suspension and Debarment (OSD), and the Sanctions Board.

Notably, the number of complaints INT received in FY2021 increased significantly compared to FY2020, even though enforcement efforts slightly declined from prior years. INT submitted fewer cases to OSD, and OSD reviewed fewer cases and settlements; meanwhile, the number of cases before the Sanctions Board remained steady.

For more information about the Bank’s report, read the blog post on the Steptoe Investigations & Enforcement Blog.

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On November 15, 2021, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Public Ministry of Nicaragua and nine Nicaraguan government officials as Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 13851 and the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act of 2018 (NHRAA). According to a Treasury Department press release, the designations respond to the Nicaraguan government’s repression of opposition politicians leading up to “sham” elections in November 2021.

Among the designated persons is a senior banking regulatory official in Nicaragua, which underscores the risk to financial institutions in particular seeking to navigate US sanctions risks while operating in Nicaragua.

Continue Reading OFAC Designates Nicaraguan Officials after “Sham Elections”

Recent changes to US immigration policies and interpretations regarding employment eligibility should reduce uncertainties and delays for dependent spouses in the H-4, L-2, and E visa categories. The changes, which arise from a litigation settlement, are important and address two categories: i) employment authorization incident to status; and ii) 180-day automatic Employment Authorization Document (EAD) extensions. Spouses in the L-2 and E categories qualify for both of these changes. Work-authorized H-4 spouses qualify only for the 180-day EAD extension.

Continue Reading US Immigration Announces Employment Eligibility Changes for H-4, L-2 and E Spouses

On November 1, 2021, the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) issued a joint report that, among other things, calls on Congress to adopt legislation to enable federal oversight of stablecoin issuers, custodial wallet providers that hold stablecoins, and others (e.g., certain DeFi products, services, and arrangements related to stablecoins).

Continue Reading FDIC and OCC Join President’s Working Group on Financial Markets in Calling for New Stablecoin Legislation, Oversight

On November 12, 2021, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated the Eritrean Defense Forces, the Eritrean People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), two government-linked commercial entities, the head of the Eritrean National Security Office, and a prominent political advisor as Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 14046 of September 17, 2021, in response to the ongoing military conflict and humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. These are the first designations made under the EO and OFAC’s recently adopted Ethiopia-related sanctions program.

According to a Treasury Department news release, the designations target Eritrean actors that have contributed to the situation in northern Ethiopia and “undermined the stability and integrity of the Ethiopian state.”

Continue Reading US Government Targets Eritrea with Sanctions over Ethiopia Crisis

On October 28, 2021, the House Rules Committee released the latest version of HR 5376, the Build Back Better Act. This draft reflects the most recent attempt to forge compromise among Democratic lawmakers, as Congress moves towards a vote on a comprehensive infrastructure bill. Section 138152 of the Build Back Better Act (the Act) would amend Internal Revenue Code (Code) section 1091, which currently disallows losses for so-called “wash sales” of “stock or securities” (or contracts or options to acquire or sell stock or securities), to apply to a wider range of investment assets and to apply to acquisitions of substantially identical assets by related parties.

While the Code currently has a wash sale loss disallowance provision for stock and securities transactions, passage of this legislation would be a significant development that could affect the entire financial services industry, including proprietary trading, speculative transactions, personal investment activity, and digital currency trading activity. Wash sales could be particularly difficult to track in the context of digital assets, as there are a few cryptocurrencies (e.g., BTC and ETH) that are used to access many other protocols.

For more information about this topic, read the full Client Alert at this link.

On October 18, 2021, the US Treasury Department published a report of its 2021 Sanctions Review of economic and financial sanctions implemented by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) since September 11, 2001. The next day, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo delivered a summary of the report in testimony before the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

The review, which incorporates feedback from public and private stakeholders, together with Adeyemo’s testimony underscores the Treasury Department’s concern that the effectiveness of US sanctions could erode over time as non-US actors seek alternatives to the US financial system, including digital currencies and alternative payment platforms outside of US jurisdiction.  The report observes that not only adversaries but also “some allies” are reducing their use of the US dollar in cross-border transactions, implying that unilateral US actions are contributing to the risk that US sanctions could become less effective.  To counter this trend, the report lays out a five-point plan to “modernize sanctions” by enhancing the Treasury Department’s policy framework and processes for imposing, enforcing, and revising US sanctions.

Continue Reading Changes Ahead? US Treasury Publishes Outcomes of Sanctions Policy Review

They have been almost a decade in the making, but have finally arrived: new U.S. export controls on “cybersecurity items,” including products and technology involving “intrusion software” and IP network communications surveillance.  Published today but effective January 19, 2022, the interim final rule from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) amends the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”) to add these new cybersecurity export controls.  The interim final rule is highly technical and complex, but ultimately contains a mix of good news and bad for the cybersecurity community.  BIS states in its press announcement that the rule is only intended to restrict “malicious cyber activities,” but it nonetheless imposes compliance obligations and costs even when activities ultimately are not restricted.  At least in this sense, the rule will impact the entire cybersecurity sector.

Continue Reading Cybersecurity Community Beware: US Finally Enacts “Intrusion Software” Rule

On October 15, 2021, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued anticipated Sanctions Compliance Guidance for the Virtual Currency Industry and updated two related Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs 559 and 646).  OFAC has published industry-specific guidance for only a handful of other industries in the past two decades; the new guidance demonstrates the agency’s increasing focus on the virtual currency (VC) sector.  It also clarifies US sanctions compliance practices in ways that could lay a foundation for future OFAC enforcement actions.

OFAC’s guidance was announced as part of broader US government enforcement priorities to combat ransomware, money laundering, and other financial crimes in the virtual currency sector, as noted in the Department of Justice’s recent announcement of a National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team.  The OFAC guidance was published in tandem with a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) analysis of ransomware trends in suspicious activity reporting, but the guidance is directed at the VC industry in general and is not specific to ransomware.  A ransomware actor who demands VC may or may not be a target of OFAC sanctions, and sanctioned actors may engage in a wide variety of VC transactions that do not involve ransomware.  The recommended compliance practices in OFAC’s new guidance are focused on the full range of sanctions risks that arise from virtual currencies.

Continue Reading OFAC Issues Compliance Guidance for the Virtual Currency Industry