The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury has broad delegated authority to administer and enforce the sanctions laws and related sanctions programs of the United States. As a key component of its enforcement authority, OFAC may investigate “apparent violations” of sanctions laws and assess civil monetary penalties against violators pursuant to five statutes, including the Trading with the Enemy Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.1

An “apparent violation” involves “conduct that constitutes an actual or possible violation of U.S. economic sanctions laws.”2 An OFAC investigation of an “apparent violation” may lead to one or more administrative actions, including a “no action” determination, a request for additional information, the issuance of a cautionary letter or finding of violation, the imposition of a civil monetary penalty and, in extreme cases, a criminal referral.3 Investigations of apparent violations by OFAC often lead to negotiated settlements where a final determination is not made as to whether a sanctions violation has actually occurred.4

Upon the conclusion of a proceeding that “results in the imposition of a civil penalty or an informal settlement” against or with an entity (as opposed to an individual), OFAC is required to make certain basic information available to the public.5 In addition, OFAC may release on a “case-by-case” basis “additional information” concerning the penalty proceeding,6 and it often does. Such additional information will sometimes include informal compliance guidance, cautionary reminders and best practices recommendations. Such information is routinely consumed by corporate compliance officers seeking fresh insight on ever-evolving compliance and enforcement trends, particularly in the context of proceedings relating to industries with which they are involved.

On November 7, 2019, OFAC released enforcement information that has caught the attention of the aircraft leasing community, particularly U.S. aircraft lessors and their owned or controlled Irish lessor subsidiaries.7 The matter involved a settlement by Apollo Aviation Group, LLC8 of its potential civil liability for apparent violations of OFAC’s Sudanese Sanctions Regulations (SSR) that existed in 2014–5.9 Although the amount of the settlement was relatively modest, the enforcement activity by OFAC in the proceeding has attracted scrutiny by aircraft lessors because, for the first time in recent memory, a U.S. aircraft lessor has paid a civil penalty to OFAC for alleged sanctions violations.

At the time of the apparent violations, Apollo was a U.S. aircraft lessor which became involved in two engine leasing transactions that came back to haunt it.

In the first transaction, Apollo leased two jet engines to a UAE lessee which subleased them to a Ukrainian airline with which it was apparently affiliated. The sublessee, in turn, installed both engines on an aircraft that it “wet leased”10 to Sudan Airways, which was on OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons within the meaning of the “Government of Sudan.” Sudan Airways used the engines on flights to and from Sudan for approximately four months before they were returned to Apollo when the lease ended. Meanwhile, in a separate transaction, Apollo leased a third jet engine to the same UAE lessee, which subleased the engine to the same Ukrainian airline, which installed the engine on an aircraft that it also wet leased to Sudan Airways. Sudan Airways used the third engine on flights to and from Sudan until such time as Apollo discovered how it was being used and demanded that the engine be removed from the aircraft.

Both leases between Apollo and its UAE lessee contained restrictive covenants “prohibiting the lessee from maintaining, operating, flying, or transferring the engines to any countries subject to United States or United Nations sanctions.”11 Thus, by allowing the engines to be installed by its sublessee on aircraft that were eventually wetleased to Sudan Airways, and flown to and from Sudan during the country’s embargo, the lessee presumably breached the operating restrictions and covenants imposed by Apollo in the leases. Moreover, once Apollo learned that the first two engines had been used, and the third engine was being used, for the benefit of Sudan Airways, it demanded that the third engine be removed from the aircraft that the sub-lessee had wet-leased to Sudan Airways, and this was done.12

One might reasonably conclude from these facts that Apollo acted like a good corporate citizen. So what did Apollo do wrong from a sanctions compliance standpoint?

OFAC stated that Apollo may have violated section 538.201 of the SSR, which at the time “prohibited U.S. persons from dealing in any property or interests in property of the Government of Sudan,”13 as well as section 538.205 of the SSR, which at the time “prohibited the exportation or re-exportation, directly or indirectly, of goods, technology or services, from the United States or by U.S. persons to Sudan.”14

What are the takeaways and possible lessons to be drawn by aircraft lessors from this settlement based upon these alleged violations and the facts upon which they were based?

First, according to OFAC, Apollo did not “ensure” that the engines “were utilized in a manner that complied with OFAC’s regulations,” notwithstanding lease language that effectively required its lessee to comply.15 OFAC is clearly suggesting here that aircraft lessors have a duty to require sanctions compliance by their lessees. And, in view of the fact that many sanctions programs are enforced on a strict liability basis, OFAC’s comment that Apollo failed to “ensure” compliance by its lessee and sublessees makes sense. Apollo was not in a position to avoid civil liability by hiding behind the well-drafted language of its two leases. If a sanctions violation occurred for which Apollo was strictly liable, the mere fact that its lessee’s breach of the lease was the proximate cause of the violation would not provide a safe harbor.

As an example of Apollo’s alleged failure to “ensure” legal compliance, OFAC observed that Apollo did not obtain “U.S. law export compliance certificates from lessees and sublessees,”16 a comment which is somewhat puzzling. To our knowledge, there is nothing in the law requiring a lessor to obtain export compliance certificates, at least not in circumstances where an export or re-export license is not otherwise required in connection with the underlying lease transaction. Moreover, as a practical matter, it would be difficult, at best, for an aircraft lessor to force the direct delivery of certificates from a sublessee or sub-sub-lessee with whom it lacks privity of contract. In view of the foregoing, one assumes that OFAC was looking for Apollo to install procedures by which its lessee would self-report on a regular basis its own compliance (and compliance by downstream sublessees) with applicable export control laws and the relevant sanctions restrictions contained in the lease.

Second, OFAC found that Apollo “did not periodically monitor or otherwise verify its lessee’s and sublessee’s adherence to the lease provisions requiring compliance with U.S. sanctions laws during the life of the lease.”17 In this regard, OFAC observed that Apollo never learned how and where its engines were being used until after the first two engines were returned following lease expiration and a post-lease review of engine records, including “specific information regarding their use and destinations,” actually conducted.

In view of the foregoing, OFAC stressed the importance of “companies operating in high-risk industries to implement effective, thorough and on-going, risk-based compliance measures, especially when engaging in transactions concerning the aviation industry.”18 OFAC also reminded aircraft and engine lessors of its July 23, 2019, advisory warning of deceptive practices “employed by Iran with respect to aviation matters.”19 While the advisory focused on Iran, OFAC noted that “participants in the civil aviation industry should be aware that other jurisdictions subject to OFAC sanctions may engage in similar deception practices.”20 Thus, according to OFAC, companies operating internationally should implement Know Your Customer screening procedures and “compliance measures that extend beyond the point-of-sale and function throughout the entire business of lease period.21

As a matter of best practices, aircraft lessors should implement risk-based sanctions compliance measures throughout the entirety of a lease period, and most do. Continuous KYC screening by lessors of their lessees and sublessees is a common compliance practice. Periodic reporting by lessees as to the use and destination of leased aircraft and engines appears to be a practice encouraged by OFAC.22 Lessors can also make it a regular internal practice to spot check the movement of their leased aircraft through such web-based platforms as Flight Tracker and Flight Aware. If implemented by lessors, such practices may enable early detection of nascent sanctions risks and violations by their lessees and sublessees.

Finally, OFAC reminded lessors that they “can mitigate sanctions risk by conducting risk assessments and exercising caution when doing business with entities that are affiliated with, or known to transact business with, OFAC-sanctioned persons or jurisdictions, or that otherwise pose high risks due to their joint ventures, affiliates, subsidiaries, customers, suppliers, geographic location, or the products and services they offer.” Such risk assessment is an integral part of the risk-based sanctions compliance program routinely encouraged by OFAC, as outlined in its Framework for OFAC Compliance Commitments on May 2, 2019.23 For aircraft and engine lessors, conducting pre-lease due diligence on the ownership and control of prospective lessees and sublessees, as well as the business they conduct, the markets they serve, the equipment they use and the aviation partners with whom they engage, are key to identifying and understanding the sanctions risks that a prospective business opportunity presents.