Feds Play Shell Game in Manhattan And Miami

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Title companies obligated to ID true owners behind shell entities.

Will this obligation migrate closer to home?

money launderingSecretly purchasing expensive residential real estate is evidently a popular way for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

The Federal government is seeking to stop this practice.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasury issued orders on January 13 that will require the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

This is a temporary measure (effective March 1 to August 27) and is limited to at this point to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies must disclose to the government the names of buyers who pay cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. FinCEN will require that the natural persons behind legal entities be reported if their ownership in the property is at least 25 percent.

FinCEN’s official mission is to safeguard the financial system of the United States from illicit use, to combat money laundering, and to promote national security through the collection, analysis and dissemination of financial intelligence.

FinancialCrimesEnforcementNetwork-Seal.svgThese orders are a continuation of FinCEN’s focus on anti-money laundering protections for the real estate sector. Previously, the focus was only on transactions involving lending. The new orders expand that focus to include the complex gap of cash purchases.

FinCEN’s Director, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, was quoted in the agency’s press release: “We are seeking to understand the risk that corrupt foreign officials, or transnational criminals, may be using premium U.S. real estate to secretly invest millions in dirty money.”

American Land Title Association officials met with FinCEN to confirm the details of the orders. Michelle Korsmo, Executive Direction of ALTA, indicated that ALTA is supportive of the effort but is concerned that the program must be implemented in order to determine whether it will work. She said it will be difficult for a title insurance company to figure out a transaction involving a major drug kingpin who buys a mansion through a string of shell corporations all over the world.

This phase of the new program is being called temporary and exploratory, meaning that it may or may not work, and if it does work, it may or may not be expanded to other locations. (Query:  why won’t a money launderer who seeks to purchase residential real estate during the initial phase of this program, simply change locations to Chicago, Houston, San Francisco or Los Angeles?)

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program might be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in similar money laundering schemes. Will South Carolina closing attorneys enjoy ferreting out this sort of information for the Government? We will keep a close watch on what occurs in New York and Florida during the first 180 days of this program.

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American Land Title Association is Working for Us

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Letter to CFPB asks for clarity.

mountain climbers helping handAmerican Land Title Association’s January issue of TitleNews reports that ALTA reached out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by letter dated Nov.23, asking for clarity in three areas of the TRID regulations.

The first area of concern is generating a great deal of angst among South Carolina closing attorneys, that is, the attempt by lenders to shift liability to settlement agents for all compliance issues, including compliance with the new federal law.

Here in South Carolina, we are seeing modified closing instructions that explicitly shift this liability to closing attorneys and often include indemnity language. The attorney is being asked to indemnify the lender for the liability the federal law has clearly imposed on lenders.

By the way, I urge South Carolina real estate lawyers to become members of the South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Section. The Real Estate Section provides its members with access to its Listserv, which can be found at realestatelaw@scbar.org. The forum is a great place for South Carolina real estate lawyers to share ideas and frustrations as well as a place to seek information and advice from peers.

The frustration of real estate lawyers regarding this issue is obvious in that forum. It is a great place for lawyers to share their ideas as well as their frustration.

Michelle Korsmo, ALTA’s Executive Director, said in the Nov. 23 letter to the CFPB, “These instructions are in contrast to the clear public policy underpinning this rule, as well as language in the rule stating that lenders bear ultimate liability for errors on the Closing Disclosure form.” According to TitleNews, ALTA provided the CFPB with several examples of the offending closing instructions.

The second area of concern is the disclosure of title insurance premiums on the Closing Disclosure and particularly the very odd negative number that appearing for the cost of owner’s title insurance. The calculation methods of the CFPB seem to be dictating this negative number in many cases, but in what world is that logical? And how does that negative number supply clarity to consumers?

The third and final area of concern expressed ALTA’s Nov. 23 letter is the confusion surrounding seller credits on the Closing Disclosure. Lenders and closing attorneys are struggling with whether to list seller credits as individual line items on the CD or to consolidate them and disclose them under a general “seller credits” heading.

All of us in the industry should be appreciative of ALTA’s efforts to assist in this push for clarity. I urge South Carolina lawyers to join ALTA and to pay attention to and support its efforts in our behalf.

County May Owe Duty to Lot Owners in Failed Subdivision

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Infrastructure regulations were not followed

scales - blue backgroundOn January 6, the S.C. Court of Appeals reversed the Georgetown County Circuit Court’s directed verdict and remanded a case involving failed West Stewart Subdivision.* The developer, Harmony Holdings, LLC, went belly up in 2007, leaving the lot owners without roads and utilities after the County failed to follow its own regulations that provided a safety net for such catastrophes.

The plaintiff owned two lots in the subdivision, and filed a negligence action, arguing that Georgetown County had a “tort-like” duty to lot owners under the plain language of its development regulations. The County denied that it owed a duty to lot owners.

The County attorney explained the administrative issues at trial. He testified that in South Carolina, a developer is generally not allowed to sell lots that do not have infrastructure (roads, water and sewer). County regulations, however, allow the County to accept cash, bonds, financial guarantees or letters of credit to ensure money is available to complete infrastructure in case a developer fails.

Under the regulations in question, the County had discretion to accept a letter of credit equal to 125% of the cost estimate to complete the infrastructure. In this case, the developer posted a letter of credit on May 23, 2006 in the amount of $1,301,705 based on a cost estimate of $1,040,000.

Also under the regulations, the County had the power to approve reductions in the letter of credit upon receipt of an engineer’s certification that a certain amount of the work had been completed and sufficient funds were available for the remaining work. Other technical procedures were also required. The County allowed for a reduction in the letter of credit on July 20, 2006, October 9, 2006 and November 8, 2006, reducing the letter of credit to $553,370. In December of 2006, the County was advised that the estimated cost to complete the infrastructure was $1,153,205, which was higher than the original estimate. Despite this information, the letter of credit was reduced again on March 9, 2007 to $156,704.

The letter of credit expired in May of 2007, and the developer gave the county a check for $140,000. In August of 2007, the developer informed the County that it no longer had the financial means to complete the construction. Then the developer declared bankruptcy.

Repko described his lot as “woods” accessible by a path but inaccessible by a road. He testified that he believes his property is valued at “zero”. He said he pays property taxes on his lot, but the County will not allow him to build because of the absence of basic utilities.

The trial court directed a verdict in favor of the County on the grounds that the regulations do not create a private duty to lot owners. (Other issues were argued that will not be discussed here.) The Court of Appeals agreed with the lot owner that the County owed a special duty to him with respect to the County’s management of the financial guaranty that allowed the developer to sell lots.

inigo montoya memeThe County had relied on a 1993 Hilton Head case.** In that case, the preamble to the development ordinances stated, “The town council finds that the health, safety and welfare of the public is in actual danger….if development is allowed to continue without limitation.” When the development failed, a lot owner sued the Town, claiming it had negligently administered its ordinances. The Supreme Court held that the ordinances did not create a special duty to lot owners because their essential purpose, according to the preamble, was to protect the public from overdevelopment.

The Court of Appeals in the current case held that, unlike the Hilton Head ordinances, the Georgetown County regulations contained no express language declaring their purpose, but reviewing them as a whole, the purpose is to protect lot owners in the event the developer does not complete infrastructure.

I expect we have not seen the end of this case!

* Repko v. County of Georgetown, Opinion 5374, January 6, 2016.

** Brady Development Co. v. Town of Hilton Head Island, 312 S.C. 73, 439 S.E.2d 266 (1993).

Creative Use of Google AdWords Gets SC Lawyer in Hot Water

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Supreme Court is not amused by timeshare attorney’s advertising technique


yellow card - suitThe South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a public reprimand last year against a Hilton Head lawyer for his resourceful use of Google AdWords.*

According to the Court, Google AdWords is an Internet marketing technique in which the advertiser places bids for “keywords”. When a Google search includes the advertiser’s keywords, the search results list may or may not include the advertiser’s ad. The advertiser pays Google for clicks on the ad from the search results.

The lawyer and his partner (the “law firm”) handled timeshare litigation and had filed numerous lawsuits against a particular timeshare company. The law firm bid on key words including the timeshare company’s name and the names of three lawyers who represented that company. The law firm’s ad appeared in some Internet search results when those names were used. The ad read:

“Timeshare Attorney in SC – Ripped off? Lied to? Scammed” Hilton Head Island, SC Free Consult”

Sometimes the law firm’s ad appeared as the first result and other times, it appeared later in the list. The law firm paid for its advertisement each time an Internet searcher clicked on the firm’s ad.

The Court held that the attorney violated the Lawyer’s Civility Oath by using the names of opposing parties and their counsel in this manner. By taking the oath, a lawyer pledges to opposing parties and their counsel fairness, integrity, and civility in all written communications and to employ only such means consistent with trust, honor and principles of professionalism.

Marketing is now virtually a necessity for successful lawyers. Attorneys are exploring many avenues in their marketing efforts, including numerous Internet marketing techniques. But, beware, this one is not a good idea!

 

*In the Matter of Naert, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion No. 27574, September 30, 2015.

2015 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.