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FATF Leader Resigns, Raising Questions Over Independence

The executive secretary of the Financial Action Task Force has resigned his position while raising questions about the ability of the intergovernmental group’s secretariat to operate independently.

In a Sept. 23 letter obtained by ACAMS moneylaundering.com, David Lewis, who has served as the global anti-money laundering standard setter’s most senior official since November 2015, informed staff that he was stepping down after six years in the role despite the unanimous agreement by members to renew his three-year contract for a second time.

“Unfortunately, this last renewal process involved a prolonged period of uncertainty, exasperated by a proposal out of the blue to introduce a new requirement that the role be readvertised, regardless of my performance,” Lewis wrote.

Lewis did not elaborate on the unexpected proposal to readvertise his position as head of FATF’s secretariat or identify who or which party within FATF was involved, but in a potentially troubling development, appeared to suggest towards the end of his letter that improper influence may have played a role.

“I hope my successor will be selected as I was, and all secretariat staff are—on merit, on the basis of fair and open competition,” Lewis wrote in the letter. “I urge you to protect the secretariat and its professional status … so that they can continue to protect and serve you, the FATF, without fear or favor.”

FATF’s secretariat, based at the headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in Paris, consists of dozens of analysts and other staff who develop global anti-money laundering standards, analyze emerging financial-crime threats and oversee the group’s processes for evaluating national anti-money laundering frameworks.

A FATF spokesperson confirmed Lewis’ resignation in an email to moneylaundering.com, but otherwise declined to comment.

“The staff of the FATF secretariat, including the executive secretary, are OECD officials,” the spokesperson said. “This is therefore an internal matter for the FATF and the OECD.”

FATF is publicly represented through a rotating presidency, a position currently held by Marcus Pleyer, deputy director general of the German Finance Ministry.

The group permanently expanded the presidency’s term from one year to two years in April 2019. Germany became the first nation to lead FATF for a two-year term in July of last year.

Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Lewis has openly and regularly engaged with anti-money laundering professionals throughout his tenure.

The letter raises questions as to whether the FATF secretariat is shielded from interference, political or otherwise, at the same time that the organization is considering revising its methodology and schedule for evaluating national efforts against financial crime, Keatinge said.

FATF began evaluating the efficacy with which nations combat money laundering and terrorist financing in 2014, including how often and how successfully they pursue cases against individuals and entities suspected of breaching rules against financial crime.

“The FATF secretariat’s credibility is rooted in its ability to operate independently,” Keatinge told moneylaundering.com. “Obviously FATF is going through a period of introspection, and any organization that faces this kind of turmoil when it’s making fundamental decisions about its future … it’s not a good look.”

Lewis joined FATF from HM Treasury, where he led anti-money laundering policy and the government’s Illicit Finance Unit. He previously worked as a senior investigator at the U.K. Serious Organised Crime Agency, now known as the National Crime Agency.

He established himself as an outspoken official at FATF who often criticized the lack of effective action against illicit finance, and frequently urged governments and financial institutions to take more risks and share more intelligence to tackle the greatest threats.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with protecting the integrity of the financial system,” Lewis said during a typically blunt speech delivered seven months ago in London. “I go to work to help follow the money that fuels crime and terrorism, and to reduce the harm it causes to people and our planet.”

Lewis oversaw several initiatives during his six years at FATF, including the development of new standards for beneficial ownership and cryptocurrency, as well as a campaign to increase awareness of financial crimes associated with wildlife trafficking and far-right extremism.

He more recently led a project to assess the extent to which subpar legal and regulatory frameworks against illicit finance exacerbate financial exclusion and political repression.

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By Koos Couvée, October 1, 2021, published on acams.org

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