U.S. court rules against Andorran bank accused of money laundering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court in Washington ruled on Tuesday against owners of the now defunct Banca Privada d’Andorra S.A. who had sought to reverse an order by the U.S. Treasury Department declaring the institution a “primary money laundering concern.”

A three-judge panel rejected calls by Ramon and Higini Cierco, former owners of the Andorran bank known as BPA, to rule the Treasury action illegal, capping a lawsuit that had attacked the Treasury Department’s authority to issue orders against banks based on secret evidence.

The case shows the power U.S. financial regulators can use against banks accused of money laundering. In 2015, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) said BPA had helped organized crime groups from Venezuela to China launder billions of dollars. The next day Andorran authorities moved to seize the bank and liquidate its accounts.

The bank says the order from the Treasury caused it to go out of business.

The Ciercos’ attorney Eric Lewis of Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss PLLC told Reuters that much of the activity described by FinCEN had already been self-reported by the bank, which had worked to root out suspicious activity. The Ciercos sued FinCEN to reverse its order.

But a few months later, FinCEN withdrew its order saying that since the bank was already out of business it no longer posed a money laundering threat.

“It’s like a cop shoots someone in the head and says there’s no point in charging him anymore,” said Manuel Varela, another lawyer for the Ciercos.

A FinCEN spokesman declined to comment.

A U.S. district court in Washington dismissed the case last year ruling that since FinCEN had already withdrawn the order, it was no longer relevant. Lewis said he had hoped that a trial would have cleared the Cierco family name by proving that FinCEN had relied on flimsy evidence provided by Andorran authorities to declare the bank a money laundering concern.

But the appeals court panel upheld the ruling on Tuesday.

Last week, the Ciercos filed a lawsuit against FinCEN in Washington federal court to force the release of correspondence between FinCEN and Andorran authorities, which the family’s attorneys believe will show the United States inappropriately pressured Andorran authorities to seize BPA assets.

“It’s another way to get accountability and to show that the Ciercos were essentially used as sacrificial lambs over a regulatory fight between the U.S. and Andorran authorities,” Lewis said.

Reporting by Joel Schectman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker