November 12, 2010
Colby Adams

A Florida judge will rule Tuesday whether attorneys can discuss the possible filing of a suspicious activity report that allegedly triggered a wrongful termination lawsuit against a Miami community bank.

In a civil complaint filed on March 19, Niurka Sanchez, formerly of Miami-based Ocean Bank’s wealth management division, claims she was fired in November 2008 for reporting suspicious activity related to a wealthy Venezuelan customer and “intimate friend” of bank president A. Alfonso Macedo.

The complaint makes no explicit reference to the filing of a suspicious activity report (SAR)—a disclosure that would be illegal under U.S. federal statutes. But James S. Bramnick, an attorney representing Ocean Bank, has expressed concern in an Oct.21 letter that Sanchez’s lawyers will attempt to discuss a SAR in court proceedings.

“If you ask any questions at any deposition in this matter regarding the filing of an actual SAR…the contents of a SAR, or the existence of a SAR, I will object and ask you to cease and desist,” wrote Bramnick. “If you do not…I will have no choice but to suspend the deposition and seek a Court order.”

In the letter, Bramnick also said he could seek “sanctions and fees” against Sanchez and her attorneys, and warned that he would also notify the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. of any disclosure.

Rod Hannah, an attorney with Plantation, FL-based Hannah & Jankowski representing Sanchez, described the details surrounding the alleged suspicious activity as “pretty important” to the complaint.

“I understand the necessity to keep the depositions under seal, but I’m not keen on limiting what I can or can’t ask during deposition about the topic of suspicious activity,” he said, adding that depositions won’t be held until the issue was resolved.

Ray Casas, a spokesman for Ocean Bank, called the lawsuit “nonsense in every way” and said that Sanchez, a 25-year veteran of the bank, had been let go as part of company-wide layoffs.

On Oct. 25, lawyers for Sanchez requested that Judge Peter Lopez of the 11th Circuit Judicial Court of Miami-Dade County rule on whether the potential discussion of a SAR would be legal.

Sanchez, who exercised anti-money laundering duties in her role at the bank, alleged in the complaint that she became suspicious about large dollar transfers from another account owned by Ocean Bank’s principals. The funds were then “routinely” transferred to offshore banks “with conflicting information” and no supporting documentation, according to the lawsuit.

The customer, classified by Ocean Bank as a politically exposed person, then evaded questions about the suspicious activity, said Sanchez, who alleges she was reprimanded after disclosing her investigation to Ocean Bank executives in an intra-bank suspicious activity reporting form, or SARF.

After Sanchez told Macedo of her efforts to comply with Bank Secrecy Act regulations, Ocean Bank “removed all evidence of [the] Plaintiff’s reporting compliance to cover up the suspicious and potentially illegal activity and transactions,” the complaint said.

Macedo personally told Sanchez that reporting the transactions was “improper,” and that the customer, “an intimate friend” of Macedo’s family, “would customarily engage in transactions of this sort,” the complaint said.

In the same lawsuit, Sanchez alleged that Macedo, of Venezuelan descent, discriminated against her because of her Cuban heritage.

Federal judges have, in numerous cases, ruled that SARs were protected from plaintiff requests.

During legal proceedings, the “[suspicious] activity can be revealed, but not the SAR or the existence of a SAR,” said Steve Hudak, a FinCEN spokesman. The reports are usually “followed up with conventional investigatory tactics, subpoenas, surveillance and wiretaps” that can be revealed in court.

The judge may also schedule a trial at Tuesday’s hearing, said Hannah.

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