U.S. Treasury Department (Photo: Mike Scarcella/ALM)

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.’s  nearly $5.3 million civil settlement quashing allegations that the bank handled dozens of payments benefiting Iranian and Cuban targets of U.S. sanctions in the airline industry suggests the U.S. Treasury Department won’t be lenient with banks that make sanctions-related missteps, several trade law and compliance experts said.

The Oct. 5 enforcement action by the Office of Foreign Assets Control also highlights the importance of following rigorous compliance procedures, they said.

“The Trump administration hasn’t, up to this point, seemed real keen on strict enforcement of the sanctions programs,” said Ron Oleynik, a partner at Holland & Knight’s office in Washington, D.C. He heads the firm’s head of the international trade practice. “But this one, to me, is the administration waking up and saying, ‘Oh, right we’ve gotta make sure people are toeing the line.’”

While the activity in question occurred years ago, Oleynik noted that the government could have “let it die on the vine. They could have kept it quiet. But they’ve pursued it to the end, and they’re publicizing it.”

He added that sanctions programs can be used as “a tool to press foreign policy. But to do that, they need to be taken seriously.”

The enforcement action centered on 87 net-settlement payments totaling more than $1 billion that J.P. Morgan Chase and a foreign bank processed between 2008 and 2013 for two unnamed airline associations with hundreds of members in the U.S. and abroad.

A small percentage of the transactions, about $1.5 million, allegedly benefited several sanctioned airlines, which were not clients of the bank, and ran afoul of Cuban Assets Control Regulations, Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations, according to the federal government.

OFAC held that the bank, which self-reported the alleged violations and has agreed to pay $5,263,171, “appears to have acted with reckless disregard for its sanctions compliance obligations” by failing to screen members of the airline associations.

The bank also “engaged in a pattern of conduct” by missing “red flags and other warning signs on several occasions,” when its clients revealed that sanctioned entities were involved in the settlements, OFAC found.  

Oleynik and two other sources who would not comment on the record because of potential conflict-of-interest issues, said that the big takeaway here is that it’s important to have stringent client-screening procedures in place, regular training for employees and periodic reviews of transactions.

And even then, it’s difficult to catch every potential violation.

“I’m no longer surprised by what slips through the cracks for any company or any bank of any size,” Oleynik said. “Things are complicated. It’s easy to miss something.”

Since the alleged violations came to light, J.P. Morgan Chase has taken several steps to tighten its ship, including ending its relationship with the clients at the center of the case and screening every settlement participant to prevent further violations. The bank also said it increased its compliance staff,  began using new sanctions-screening software and stepped up employee training.

Brian Marchiony, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase, wrote in an email that the bank was “pleased to resolve this issue, which we self-identified and voluntarily disclosed more than six years ago. We have since upgraded our systems and made substantial enhancements to our sanctions compliance program.”

In the same enforcement action, OFAC issued a separate violation finding that the bank had processed 85 transactions totaling more than $46,000 between 2011 and 2014 for six sanctioned customers. J.P. Morgan Chase also reported those alleged violations.

OFAC concluded that the violations were “non-egregious” and the result of the bank’s reliance on a third-party’s flawed screening system. The bank now uses a different system.  

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