5 Year Prison Term for a Lawyer Using his IOLTA Account to Launder Money

The ABA Journal and Law.com have reported the story of a San Diego lawyer who was sentenced to five years in prison for using his IOLTA account to facilitate money-laundering activities.  In his plea agreement, attorney Medina admitted  that he used his IOLTA account for the receipt, transport, and transmission of cash to international destinations and that he  “knew or had reason to know that the cash transactions described [therein] were proceeds of unlawful activity, or were intended to promote unlawful activity.”

This new story can be used in Chapter 2 when teaching Rule 1.2(d), which states that a lawyer “shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent….”   Although PR profs cannot possibly teach the substantive law of all crimes, I think it is important to make sure that our students are familiar with 18 U.S.C. § 1956.  Among other things, § 1956 makes it a felony “to conceal or disguise the nature, the location, the source, the ownership, or the control of the proceeds of specified unlawful activity.”   This means that activity that is perfectly legal in one context (such as forming one or more corporations) may be illegal if the purpose of that otherwise legal conduct is to hide the location or source of the proceeds of crime.  (The 60 Minutes/Global Witness videos and the Panama Papers leak can provide useful hypos for discussion).

The San Diego case shows students that lawyers who assist money laundering activity face criminal law sanctions, as well as disciplinary sanctions under Rule 1.2(d).   I found it noteworthy that the plea agreement with Attorney Medina recited that he knew or had reason to know that the money in his IOLTA account were proceeds of unlawful activity, or were intended to promote unlawful activity.

For additional information about the role of lawyers in preventing money-laundering, see this ABA Task Force webpage and the guidance provided by the ABA and jointly by the IBA, CCBE, and ABA about how to identify money-laundering red flags.  (I give my students a 2-page summary of the ABA’s red flags guidance.)

My other work about lawyers and money-laundering includes these slides about the potential impact on US lawyer regulation of FATF’s 4th Mutual Evaluation of the US; slides that focus on US efforts to educate lawyers about money-laundering; and slides and a 2 page handout that discuss how US lawyer regulation could be affected if US lawyers don’t recognize money laundering situations. My most recent article about this topic is available here.

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