WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Congress considers a controversial nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. Treasury agency charged with implementing related financial sanctions is at risk of being overwhelmed by its expanding mission, former employees and lawyers who deal with the office say.
The agency, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, is responsible for enforcing a broad array of sanctions and for licensing American companies wishing to do business with sanctioned countries. Both roles will be especially critical if some restrictions are relaxed under the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.
But a growing reliance on sanctions to address situations as varied as Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, cyber attacks on U.S. businesses, and jihadist financing has increased pressure on the agency, which is being asked to police a bigger beat while staffing and budgets have not kept up.
Dozens of OFAC officials have left the agency in the past four years for better-paying jobs at law offices, consulting firms and banks, which have aggressively built up their compliance departments in response to big fines for sanctions violations.
“OFAC is left in a position where they can only deal with what’s five inches in front of their faces,” said Erich Ferrari, a Washington-based sanctions lawyer.
The agency has prided itself on the firepower of its small and highly specialized staff of about 200, who collectively oversee more than 35 sanctions programs. But the size of the agency has also meant that each departure has an outsized impact, former officials say.
“OFAC is a small organization that is amongst the leanest, most productive I’ve seen anywhere in government,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior advisor at the Treasury Department who left in 2013. “There’s little redundancy.”
The most high-profile recent departures have included Lorraine Lawlor, OFAC’S former chief of compliance programs who left in 2012 for Wells Fargo; Sean Thornton, former chief counsel who joined French bank BNP Paribas in 2014; Eytan Fisch, former assistant director for policy who left this year for law firm Skadden; and Adam Smith, former senior advisor to the director who left in July for law firm Gibson Dunn.
At least 25 other sanctions compliance officers, lawyers, and others have left OFAC since 2011 for companies including HSBC, Bank of America, Western Union, PayPal, and Credit Suisse, according to a review of LinkedIn profiles.
To be sure, the recruitment of regulators by business is a constant in Washington, and there is no indication that the rate of departures at OFAC is greater than at other agencies. But the impact is particularly acute given that the agency’s staff and budget has grown little in recent years, while its workload has increased.
At one point, OFAC staff were holding up to five happy hours each month for departing colleagues, said David Brummond, a former sanctions advisor who left OFAC in 2014 and is now with law firm DLA Piper.
“It just became funny,” Brummond said. “You had to schedule it into your social calendar.”
Treasury did not provide details on the agency’s staffing levels or comment on whether the agency is short-staffed for the work it does.
“OFAC is comprised of a staff of talented individuals, and our sanctions have become an increasingly effective national security and foreign policy instrument thanks in large measure to the careful work of our staff,” the Treasury said in a statement.
In some ways the problems faced by OFAC are born of the U.S. government’s success, in winning high-profile penalties against banks for prohibited transactions with Iran, Sudan and other sanctioned countries.
Banks have responded by beefing up compliance departments and tapping senior OFAC officials to lead them. For example, shortly after BNP Paribas agreed to pay U.S. authorities $8.9 billion in 2014 to resolve claims it violated sanctions, it hired Thornton.
Some of the departed officials had served for decades and took with them considerable institutional knowledge of how sanctions have evolved.
OFAC employees, whose salaries top out at around $160,000 per year, can easily double or triple their pay in the private sector. Senior OFAC officials can command up to $1.2 million per year, said a senior compliance official at a large U.S. bank.
Since 2011, the United States has implemented 29 sanctions-related executive orders, according to a Reuters tally, almost double the number from 2006 to 2010 when there were 16 such orders.
OFAC staff have numbered about 170 to 200 for at least the last five years, former officials say. In fiscal 2013, the last year for which information is public, OFAC had a budget of about $31 million, compared to $29 million in 2009, documents show.
Sanctions have also become increasingly complex. The measures imposed on Russia in 2014, sanctions experts say, are especially intricate and target specific activities rather than broad categories of business. And while sanctions ban most U.S. trade with Iran, they include exceptions that allow humanitarian, medical and other business dealings.
Such business often relies on the granting of licenses, which lawyers said can take up to a year or more to acquire.
Ferrari said a license he requested for an Iranian animal shelter to raise funds in the United States took 18 months and three separate applications before being granted.
Businesses sometimes give up in frustration after long waits for OFAC’s go-ahead or guidance, lawyers say.
That could present a risk for implementation of the Iran deal, experts say. Without clear and quick guidance, businesses and banks will likely pull back from trade with Iran, even in areas permitted if sanctions are eased. In turn, if Iran did not get the relief it expected from eased sanctions, it would have less incentive to abide by the terms of the deal.
Brummond said it is already a challenge to get agency staff on the phone to give guidance on new sanctions language and what direction regulations might take.
“Clients want the answer whether or not OFAC answers the phone. I try to explain to the client that I’ve left my fourth voice mail,” Brummond said. “I know who I’m calling on the other side, and I know how buried they are.”
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; editing by Kevin Krolicki and Sue Horton