Legalized casino gambling and sports wagering are approaching the finish line in Virginia following the recent passage of two bills by the Virginia General Assembly. Senate Bill 36 and House Bill 896, both awaiting the signature of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, would permit five land-based casinos, online sports betting and up to 2,000 additional historical horse racing machines.
On August 13, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) Director Kenneth Blanco addressed the 12th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and provided insights on his agency’s expectations for the ever-evolving gaming industry.
The following are some key takeaways:
Cost Cutting Poses National Security Threat. Director Blanco stressed that reports of compliance budget cuts by casinos looking to trim costs and retain gamblers is seen by FinCEN as a national security issue and not something the agency takes lightly. Further, despite FinCEN not publicizing any enforcement actions against a casino during the last year, it is continually looking at compliance across all financial institutions and will not hesitate to act if it identifies violations of the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”). It is also important to note that not all enforcement actions are public—FinCEN often closes cases with warning letters sent to financial institutions or refers cases to our delegated examiners for additional review.
Casino Industry Trends. In terms of suspicious activity being reported in 2019, Minimal Gaming with Large Transactions is the highest reported activity with more than 5,000 Suspicious Activity Reports (“SAR”) reflecting this activity. Reports of Chip Walking have dramatically increased since this was added to the SAR form in the summer of 2018. Chip Walking is now the second most selected suspicious activity on the SAR form, with more than 4,400 reports being cited this year to date.
The other frequently cited suspicious activities include:
- Transactions below CTR Threshold
- Unknown Source of Chips
- Two or More Individuals Working Together
- Alteration or Cancelation of Transactions to Avoid CTR Requirement
- Suspicion Concerns on the Source of Funds
Additional analysis of trends reported by casinos checking the “other” box on the SAR form includes reports of suspicious activity involving sports betting, abandoned jackpot, and bill stuffing.
Sports Betting and Mobile Gaming. Casinos and card clubs must integrate sports betting and mobile gaming products into their existing AML programs. FinCEN expects casinos and card clubs to collect cyber-related indicators through their mobile gaming or betting applications in order to monitor and report potentially suspicious activity. Examples of such cyber-indicators include: source and destination information, file information, subject user names, system modifications, and account information.
Relevance of Convertible Virtual Currency (CVC) Advisory to Casinos. There are generally two areas where CVC will intersect with casinos and card clubs: so-called CVC casinos on the internet, and physical casinos and card clubs that accept CVC for gaming.
As FinCEN’s CVC guidance points out, internet gaming sites that operate online without licensure from a state or tribal gaming regulator are not “casinos” for purposes of regulations implementing the BSA. However, they are likely operating as money transmitters. Money transmitters have their own obligations under the BSA and its implementing regulations, which includes a formal registration with FinCEN.
Casinos and card clubs that accept CVC from customers either on location or through mobile applications, need to ensure that CVCs are accounted for in policies, procedures, internal controls and risk assessments. This includes developing processes for reviewing and conducting due diligence on transactions in CVC, for conducting blockchain analytics to determine the source of the CVC, and incorporating CVC-related indicators into SAR filings.
Culture of Compliance. Critical to fostering a culture of compliance is utilizing enterprise-wide information and ensuring such information gets into the hands of compliance personnel. For example, information developed by casinos for business and marketing, as wells as information developed by casino security departments for combating and preventing fraud should be used by casino compliance personnel to monitor customers for suspicious activity. Similarly, a casino’s legal department should alert compliance personnel when a subpoena is received as it could trigger reviews of customer risk ratings and account activity. Moreover, larger casinos may have multiple affiliated casinos that could benefit from the sharing of information across the organization.
Innovation and BSA Value. In January 2019, FinCEN began an ambitious project to catalogue the value of BSA reporting across the entire value chain of its creation and use. The project will result in a comprehensive and quantitative understanding of the broad value of BSA reporting and other BSA information to all types of consumers of that information.
As an example, given the current state of the opioid epidemic, something a minor as the mobile phone number of a suspect from a casino SAR could be vitally important to a DEA agent since the suspect would provide a real phone number to ensure he is called when his winnings are wired out to a bank account. Using that mobile number, the agent can build out a communication tree and identify new individuals, entities, addresses or accounts. A DEA agent can also use this information to seek legal approval to wiretap or track the movement of the phone, identify potential informants, and build out a network of associates.
On May 29, 2019, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approved a Change of Control petition for the sale of Sands Bethlehem Casino Resort. Two days later, on May 31, 2019, Wind Creek Hospitality officially acquired the casino from Las Vegas Sands Corporation for $1.3 billion, as the transaction closed on Friday. The casino resort facility, which is located in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, will operate as Wind Creek Bethlehem, and will include amenities such as a 282-room AAA Four Diamond hotel, a 183,000 square foot casino floor featuring slots, table games, and electronic table games, numerous food and beverage outlets, a retail mail, and a multi-purpose event center.
The closing of the transaction comes after approximately fourteen months of regulatory review and, most recently, the PGCB’s approval of the transaction. Duane Morris represented Las Vegas Sands in the transaction, providing gaming regulatory and real estate guidance and assistance in other areas, including serving as co-counsel before the Board for Wind Creek Hospitality. Duane Morris attorneys who assisted on this matter include J. Scott Kramer, Greg Duffy, Frank DiGiacomo, Chris Soriano, and Adam Berger.
On May 29, 2019, at a special hearing convened for this purpose, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approved a Change of Control Petition authorizing the transfer of the entirety of Las Vegas Sands Corporation’s interest in Sands Bethworks Gaming LLC’s to Wind Creek Hospitality, an instrumentality of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The Board’s Order, beyond approving the change in control, allows the casino facility to change its name to Wind Creek Bethlehem, reflecting the casino’s new ownership.
Subject to the Board’s conditions, Wind Creek Hospitality is able to acquire all of the interest in Sands, including its licenses, which include a Category 2 License, a Table Games Certificate, and Interactive Gaming Certificates. The Board’s decision comes after over a year of regulatory review.
Scott Kramer, Duane Morris, appeared for joint petitioner, Sands Bethworks Gaming LLC. Also, Duane Morris served as co-counsel before the Board for Wind Creek Hospitality.
Last week, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Jeffrey Schmehl, granted the Motions to Dismiss of Sands Bethlehem Casino Resort and other Pennsylvania casinos, which were alleged to have engaged in a retaliatory boycott impacting a mixed martial arts (MMA) promoter’s events. Sands Bethlehem was alleged to have engaged in a boycott of plaintiff’s events as a retaliation for a prior lawsuit promoter Ryan Kerwin filed against Valley Forge Casino and Harrah’s in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Sands, Parx and Sugarhouse Casinos and their respective event directors faced allegations that certain emails cited in the Complaint established a conspiracy. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants’ “horizontal group boycott” would put the plaintiff promoter out-of-business. The Court found the emails, at best, demonstrated nothing more than unilateral action by the individual casinos. There was no “plus factor” in the complaint’s allegation that would have shown a motive, actions that were against the individual casinos’ economic interests or, evidence that implied a traditional conspiracy. In the Sands instance, it was alleged that Sands actually emailed with plaintiff offering to contract for MMA events but plaintiff would not agree to Sands’ “inflated terms”.
Judge Schmehl found that nowhere in the Amended Complaint did there appear evidence of “a conspiracy that supports an inference of collusion.” The Court’s holding that plaintiff failed to plead an unlawful agreement precluded an analysis of the other elements of the Section I Sherman Act claim.
The Court also dismissed claims that the defendant casinos (and Harrah’s and Valley Forge) were collective monopolists by keeping essential facilities from the MMA promoter. The plaintiff’s own pleadings that MMA events were staged elsewhere in Pennsylvania, other than the casinos’ event centers, convinced the Court that defendants’ properties were not “essential facilities”.
Sands was represented by Duane Morris lawyers – Manly Parks and Sarah O’Laughlin Kulik.
On January 14, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice published a legal opinion that may restrict online gambling. The opinion, dated November 2, 2018, (although only now published) reconsidered the DOJ’s 2011 opinion that declared the Wire Act (18 U.S.C. § 1084) only applied to sports gambling. After the release of the 2011 opinion, several states, including New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, launched or moved forward with intrastate online lottery, casino gaming and poker. The new opinion, however, somewhat clouds the landscape regarding these operations. Online gaming businesses would be well advised to quickly determine whether their operations comply with the DOJ’s new reading.
The reconsideration stems from one phrase in the Wire Act: “on any sporting event or contest.” In 2011, the DOJ opined that the Wire Act was ambiguous and “that the more logical result” was that the phrase “on any sporting event or contest” applied to the entirety of the Wire Act, thereby prohibiting only the transmission of “bets or wagers” or “information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers” across state lines, if the bet or wager were on a sporting event. This logic follows in part from the Act’s legislative history, which reveals that Congress’ overriding goal in passing the Wire Act was to stop the use of wire communications by organized crime for illegal sports gambling. In 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Murphy v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n—a decision that paved the way for states to authorize sports betting, in dicta—noted Congress’ original intent in characterizing a general federal approach to gambling: Operating a gambling business violates federal law only if that conduct is illegal under state or local law.
As a result of the previously reported reimposition of United States nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, on October 11, 2018, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released an Advisory that provides casinos, and other financial institutions, updated guidance for identifying possible Iranian related criminal transactions.
Just as the growth of fantasy sports, sweepstakes and online poker were curtailed by the reach of gambling laws, the latest trends in the $138 billion video gaming industry are attracting an increasing level of unsolicited attention from gambling regulators across the globe. Much of this attention is focused on “loot boxes”.