The Director of the Office of National Drug and Money Laundering Control Policy (ONDCP) has explained the need to examine the records of law firms that are conducting financial activity as a business in the fight against money laundering and to enforce the current law which, he added, will be enforced following consultations with all stakeholders.
Under the Money Laundering Prevention Act, an attorney-at-law who conducts financial activity as a business is deemed a financial institution.
That same law gives the ONDCP the right to examine the records of financial institutions to access their compliance, to which some law firms are opposing. They are also expressing concerns about attorney-client privilege which the law overrides.
Director of the ONDCP Edward Croft sought to address the matter during an interview yesterday, he also clarified the timing of the agency’s intervention.
According to the retired Lieutenant Colonel Croft, the aim of the exercise is to ensure that there is a proper legal framework as it relates to anti-money laundering and counter-financing threats, and he pointed out that conducting business in an area presents a risk and a vulnerability.
“We need to understand those vulnerabilities, what are the issues that are involved and our attorneys are one of the gatekeepers for business in Antigua and Barbuda.
“What we want to do is to work with all Antigua and Barbuda to ensure that we can mitigate any risks that are associated with the conduct of business that is a threat to the financial environment,” he said.
He stated further that the law enforcement agency wanted to make sure that attorneys were aware of the information and accountants and other stakeholders would be next in line.
“We have limited resources so, we continue to do it in a systematic way to reach out to all our partners. And, I say all because we want to do it in an embracing way, for me, it is not a confrontational approach. It is an approach that we as a country have to demonstrate that we are not a threat to the rest of the global financial network,” Croft said.
In late May, at least one law firm wrote to the ONDCP, saying that it would not allow the agency to inspect its clients’ records.
The firm, Daniel, Phillips and Associates, stated that its position was based on the fact that the ONDCP is a law enforcement body with the power to investigate and is doing so with some of the same clients.
The firm also stated that the contents of clients’ files and advice are protected by legal privilege and that any inspection would give the impression that lawyers are collaborating with law enforcement agencies.
Attorney-at-law Leon Chaku Symister supported the firm in its decision in an interview on Wednesday, saying while it does not directly affect his practice, he is monitoring the development closely.
Meanwhile, the lead official at the ONDCP said the examination goes beyond accessing client information.
“This is about looking at the systems and also engage in a process where we will verify that those processes are being done properly. So, we may do random sampling to ensure that information that ought to be kept is being kept, that proper customer due diligence is being done, proper record keeping and that the entire process is being managed properly,” Croft said.