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GT Alert

USA PATRIOT Act – Treasury Department Solicits Comment on Possible Anti-Money Laundering Regulations That Might Affect Real Estate Agents, Mortgage Brokers, Escrow Agents, Title insurance Agents, Real estate Appraisers and Real Estate Attorneys

April 2003
By Carl Fornaris and Ileana Gomez, Greenberg Traurig, Miami Office

Click for information on Adobe Acrobat.  View or download the PDF version of this Alert here.


On April 10, 2003, the United States Department of the Treasury ("Treasury") and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued an "advance" notice of proposed rulemaking that – if issued as a final regulation – might result in a requirement that real estate agents, mortgage brokers, real estate escrow agents, real estate attorneys, title agents and appraisers establish their own internal anti-money laundering ("AML") programs. An AML program consists of written policies and procedures, a compliance officer, ongoing employee training, and an audit function to test the AML program.

Carl A. Fornaris
"Treasury solicits comment on the extent to which AML program requirements for persons involved in real estate closing and settlements should be structured."

Comments on the advance notice of proposed rulemaking are due on or before June 9, 2003. The comments Treasury receives will enable it to determine for purposes of drafting a proposed regulation precisely what real estate-related firms and service providers should be subject to an AML program requirement.

Background

Section 352 of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 requires "financial institutions" to establish an AML program. While the Bank Secrecy Act, as amended by the USA PATRIOT Act, defines the term "financial institution" to include "persons involved in real estate closings and settlements," Treasury in April 2002 and again in November 2002 temporarily exempted "persons involved in real estate closings and settlements" from the requirements of the USA PATRIOT Act so it could study the money laundering risks inherent in the industry and suggest which requirements should apply. The recently-issued advance notice of proposed rulemaking is alarming because of the breadth of real estate-related firms and service providers that Treasury conceivably could require to adopt and implement AML programs.

Issues for Comment

First, Treasury solicits public comment on what money laundering risks are inherent in real estate closings and settlements. According to Treasury, "[t]he real estate industry could be vulnerable at all stages of the money laundering process by virtue of dealing with high value products." By way of example, Treasury notes that narcotics traffickers have purchased real estate with monetary instruments that they purchased in structured amounts and by laundering cash proceeds through the exchange of cash for checks from real estate brokerage firms.

Second, and most significant, Treasury solicits comment on how "persons involved in real estate closings and settlements" should be defined. Without question, this is the most troubling portion of the advance notice of proposed rulemaking. Treasury reasons that because the phrase "persons involved in real estate closings and settlements" is broad, the universe of involved persons in a typical residential real estate transaction could be:

  • a real estate broker or brokers;
  • one or more attorneys who represent the buyer or seller of real estate;
  • a mortgage broker or other financing entity;
  • a title insurance company;
  • an escrow agent; and
  • a real estate appraiser.

According to Treasury, the "guiding principle in defining the phrase ‘persons involved in real estate closings and settlements’ is to include those persons whose services rendered or products offered in connection with a real estate closing or settlement can be abused by money launderers. Equally as important is indentifying those persons who are positioned to identify the purpose and nature of the transaction."

Treasury specifically addressed whether real estate attorneys should be subject to an AML program requirement. According to Treasury, "attorneys often play a key role in real estate closings and settlements and thus merit consideration along with all the other professionals involved in the closing and settlement process. * * * When engaging in conduct subject to [AML] regulations, attorneys, like other professionals, should take the basic steps contemplated by Section 352 to ensure that their services are not being abused by money launderers."

Treasury also specifically solicits comment addressing commercial real estate transactions.

Third, Treasury has asked whether any persons involved in real estate closings or settlements should be exempted from coverage under Section 352. Comments regarding possible exemptions should be designed to enable Treasury to evaluate whether money laundering risk through a category of persons is sufficiently small that a proposed AML program rule could be crafted that would exempt the category and also provide adequate protection for the industry from money laundering risk. Treasury has challenged service professionals in the real estate industry to discuss possible exemptions when it stated: "[t]he question of exemption is specifically directed to real estate professionals . . . ."

Last, Treasury solicits comment on the extent to which AML program requirements for persons involved in real estate closing and settlements should be structured. Treasury specifically has asked what types of programs are already in place to prevent and detect fraud and illegal activities, including money laundering.

Conclusion

Treasury has stated publicly that it is moving cautiously in bringing non-bank "financial institutions" under the AML umbrella. Barring sufficient industry pressure or Congressional action, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, real estate attorneys, title insurance agents, and the like very well might be joining insurance companies, unregistered investment companies such as certain REITs, venture capital funds and hedge funds, travel agencies, automobile and boat dealers, casinos and jewelers to the list of non-bank financial institutions that can expect to have some type of AML program requirement in place before the end of 2003 or in 2004.

If you have any questions regarding this alert, or if you would like assistance in preparing a comment letter to Treasury, please contact any of the attorneys on the following page.

A link to the notice may be found on the Treasury Department’s Web site.

 

© 2003 Greenberg Traurig


Additional Information:

For more information, please review our Corporate & Securities Practice description, or feel free to contact one of our attorneys.


This GT ALERT is issued for general purposes only and is not intended to be construed or used as legal advice. Greenberg Traurig attorneys provide practical, result-oriented strategies and solutions tailored to meet our clients’ individual legal needs. The Firm’s responsive approach to client service often cuts across legal subject matter, applying the right experience and resources to provide cost-effective solutions.