February 01, 2016

ABA President Paulette Brown responds to "60 Minutes" segment

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2016 - The American Bar Association and its policies were referenced in a Jan. 31, 2016 “60 Minutes” segment on money laundering.  The ABA was not informed in advance about the show and importantly, not given an opportunity to comment or respond to any of the statements made.

The ABA’s positions were grossly misrepresented in the segment.  The association is committed to the elimination of money laundering and has worked diligently with federal and state governments, international law enforcement agencies, and state and local bars to find the best ways to achieve this goal.

The ABA insists that lawyers at all times must act with integrity and uphold the rule of law. The ABA does oppose legislation that could erode the attorney-client privilege.  This confidentiality does not enrich the lawyer; rather, it protects clients’ legitimate interests and allows the attorney to represent them with full loyalty.

The statement below clarifies the ABA’s position and its extensive actions related to this subject.

Paulette Brown
President of the American Bar Association

Statement of Paulette Brown, president, American Bar Association

  • On January 31, “60 Minutes” aired a segment titled “Anonymous, Inc.” In it, the American Bar Association was mentioned and its policies misrepresented.  The ABA was not approached for comment nor given the opportunity to explain its position on topics addressed in the segment.

  • Had we been contacted, we would have pointed out that the ABA, as well as state and local bar associations, has a longstanding commitment to supporting the highest ethical standards for lawyers as well as for protecting the sanctity of the client-lawyer relationship.  We would have vigorously noted our commitment to the rule of law. We clearly do not condone money laundering or any other illegal activities and support reasonable and necessary domestic and international efforts to combat money laundering. 

  • The ABA has been working closely with state governments, the Treasury Department, and international bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force to develop approaches and policies whereby the legal profession can assist in the fight against money laundering without violating attorney-client privilege, client confidentiality, and the traditional state regulation of the legal profession.

  • In 2002 the ABA created a Task Force on Gatekeeper Regulation and the Profession, to specifically look at money laundering, enforcement and the attorney-client relationship; to review association policy and the relevant Model Rules of Professional Conduct; and make recommendations regarding new policy and programs. This remains an active Task Force.

  • The ABA has issued voluntary good practice guidelines to detect and combat money laundering that allows lawyers to assess the money laundering risk posed by each client and then take prudent steps that are appropriate under the circumstances. The ABA can issue guidelines, but cannot enforce mandates.

  • The Conference of Chief Justices adopted a resolution in support of the guidance, and the national educational efforts underway designed to attune lawyers to signs that may indicate the presence of money laundering.

  • The ABA issued the nation’s first legal ethics opinion on whether the voluntary good practices guidance is consistent with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded that the guidance is consistent with the Model Rules and that lawyers should be “conversant with the risk-based measures and controls for clients and legal matters with an identified risk profile and use them for guidance as they develop their own client intake and ongoing client monitoring processes.” Formal Opinion 463, May 23, 2013.

  • For more than a decade the ABA, with the help of state and local bars, has taken a leadership role in educating U.S. lawyers about certain indications that may suggest a client wants to use the lawyer’s services to unwittingly facilitate money laundering.  This robust educational effort involves CLE programs; articles; the widespread dissemination of the voluntary good practices to state and local bar associations, specialty bar associations, and other interested stakeholders; and educational programs as part of the law school curriculum.  The ABA has worked closely with the United States Treasury Department in this regard.

  • The ABA opposes any law or regulation that would compel lawyers to  compromise the attorney-client privilege The attorney-client privilege does not exist for the lawyer’s advantage, but is there as a safeguard for clients and their interests.

    • Numerous state ethics rules require lawyers to maintain confidentiality of client information and to provide their clients with competent representation and undivided loyalty. 

    • Lawyers should continue to be regulated primarily by state supreme courts (and any state bar agencies that have been delegated any authority to act by the court) that license lawyers.

    • Lawyers should take reasonable steps to combat money laundering, and must fully comply with applicable laws, but these actions should be conducted in a manner that is consistent with applicable state ethics rules and standards.

  • The legal profession is using existing ethical obligations – and voluntary guidance designed for lawyers by the ABA – to more effectively address the legitimate concerns of U.S. government officials in combating money laundering.

  • While bar associations around the world play a key role in educating the legal profession, the onus remains on individual lawyers and on law firms to ensure that they are aware of and comply with their anti-money laundering obligations. Client due diligence must be performed to ensure the legality of a transaction.

  • The “60 Minutes” segment showed only initial meetings, the first stage of a process.  It did not even involve the potential client’s name or country of origin.

  • The meeting secretly recorded in the “60 Minutes” segment was not related to former ABA president Jim Silkenat’s position with the ABA in any manner.  And we note that both “60 Minutes” and Global Witness confirm Silkenat acted legally and ethically during the brief 2014 introductory meeting requested by an individual with Global Witness, who misrepresented himself as a lawyer.  Neither the ABA nor Silkenat had further contact with the imposter from Global Witness.