Lawyer for Andorran Bank Owners Sue US Treasury

WASHINGTON (CN) – Trying to repair the damage of money-laundering claims, an attorney for an Andorran bank brought a federal complaint to review U.S. Treasury Department documents.

Banca Privada D’Andorra has been under the control of its own country’s government since 2015 because of several notices released against it by a U.S. Treasury Department outfit called the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

FinCEN labeled the bank a “primary money laundering concern,” saying executives there had helped get clean bills for corrupt foreign officials and members of Russian organized crime.

Located in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain, Andorra is best known for its ski slopes and duty-free shopping. Eric Lewis, an attorney for Cierco family who owns the bank, notes in a May 18 federal complaint that the allegations have had a devastating effect in the tiny country.

On May 10, just a week before Lewis filed suit, he notes, Andorra’s minister of finance was quoted as saying that the Banca Privada D’Andorra matter has brought the country to “the brink of collapse.”

A partner at the Washington firm Lewis Baach, Lewis says he filed a request with FinCEN last year under the Freedom of Information Act, looking for communications between the unit and 15 “former or present representatives of the governments of Spain and Andorra.”

The department took four months to tell Lewis that it found 347 pages of documents related to his request, but that it was withholding them under six different FOIA exemptions.

While Lewis appealed this decision, the agency scrounged up 36 more documents, all of which it withheld without providing information about the search or saying which exemptions applied to which documents, according to the complaint.

“In sum, FinCEN took more than nine months to locate 383 pages of responsive documents and make conclusory determination, without providing any detailed index or specific justification despite requests to do so, that all 383 pages were, in their entirety, subject to FOIA exemptions,” the 9-page complaint states.

Labeling the exemptions unjustified, Lewis says FinCEN’s underlying notices have also been called into question.

“From certain disclosures made by U.S. officials and then denied, it appears that the actions of FinCEN were based on improper considerations and the decision to withhold the documents is meant to continue to shield FinCEN’s actions from proper scrutiny,” the complaint states.

FinCEN did not wait long once the Andorran government took action to withdrew its finding against Banca Privada D’Andorra.

It said the money-laundering designation had already served its purpose, but attorney Lewis say the agency’s actions have had a profound and perhaps misplaced impact.

Today, “many depositors remain without access to more than a billion dollars in deposits, hundreds of people have lost their jobs, and shareholders have lost holdings worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” the complaint states

Lewis’ clients the Ciercos sued the Treasury Department in 2015, but a federal judge in Washington found last year that FinCEN’s withdrawal of the designation mooted the claims.

Lewis filed his FOIA suit in the same court. He is represented by Katherine Toomey, a fellow attorney at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss.

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