Bitfinex was not happy with the New York Attorney General’s April 24 ex parte court order, which demanded that the crypto exchange stop dipping into Tether’s cash reserves and hand over documents that were requested in November 2018. It struck back with a strongly worded motion to vacate, or overturn the order.
On May 3, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) submitted an opposition to that motion. The agency argues that Bitfinex violated the Martin Act, New York’s anti-fraud law, widely considered the most severe blue sky law in the country.
Legally, Tether and Bitfinex are separate entities, but they are managed by the same individuals. To note, the OAG’s order does not prohibit Bitfinex from operating. Nor does it prohibit Tether from issuing or redeeming tethers (USDT) for U.S. dollars.
The order simply prohibits Bitfinex from helping itself to anymore of Tether’s funds. This, of course, poses a problem for Bitfinex, because it desperately needs cash to stay afloat. (It’s latest effort to fill the gap is a token sale, but that is another matter.)
There are currently 2.8 billion USDT in circulation, and each of them is supposed to be backed 1:1 with the dollar, but as of now, they are only 74% backed.
The alleged fraud
The OAG began investigating Bitfinex late last year. If there is any question as to how Bitfinex allegedly committed fraud and misled its customers, the OAG spells that out clearly in its memorandum. I’m paraphrasing some this.
Bitfinex failed to disclose to its clients that it had lost $851 million of “wrongfully commingled” client and corporate funds to Crypto Capital, an overseas entity, which it used as an intermediary to wire US dollars to traders on its platform.
Bitfinex knew in mid-to-late 2018 that Crypto Capital’s inability—or unwillingness—to return the funds meant it would have problems filling out client requests to withdraw cash off the exchange. Nevertheless, it told the public that rumors of insolvency were a “targeted campaign based on nothing but fiction.”
In November 2018, Bitfinex tried to cover up the loss by moving (at least) $625 million from Tether’s legitimate bank account into Bitfinex’s account. In return, Bitfinex “credited” $625 million to Tether’s accounts with Crypto Capital. OAG says the credit was “illusory,” because the money at Crypto Capital was lost or inaccessible.
(In its motion to vacate, the OAG notes that Bitfinex contradicted itself by saying the “credit” Bitfinex gave to Tether was $675 million—a $50 million discrepancy.)
Bitfinex later shifted to a new strategy. It engaged in “an undisclosed and conflicted transaction” to let Bitfinex dip even further into Tether’s reserves. The exchange took out a $900 million loan from Tether, secured by shares of iFinex—the parent company of both Tether and Bitfinex. OAG says there is little reason to believe the iFinex shares have any real value, especially in the event iFinex itself defaults.
In March 2019, $900 million represented almost half Tether’s available reserves at the time, but Bitfinex and Tether did not disclose this to its customers. In fact, up until February 2019, Tether telling its customers that USDT was fully backed. Bitfinex told the OAG that it has already dissipated $750 million of Tether’s funds.
Bitfinex demonstrates “a pattern of undisclosed, conflicted, and deceptive conduct” that its customers would “find material, and indeed, essential to buying tethers and trading assets, like bitcoin, on the Bitfinex platform,” the OAG said.
In its motion to vacate, Bitfinex argues that the Martin Act stands or falls on whether tethers are securities or commodities. It does not, the OAG says. In fact:
“The Bitfinex trading platform transacts in both securities and commodities (like bitcoin) and is of course at the core of the fraudulent conduct set forth in the OAG’s application.”
The OAG points to other events that underscore the need to maintain the status quo.
Since the original order, two individuals, Reginald Fowler and Ravid Yosef, were charged with bank fraud in connection with their operation of a “shadow bank.” Fowler was arrested on April 30, while Yosef is still at large.
The operation processed hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated transactions on behalf of numerous cryptocurrency exchanges and associated entities—“several of which,” the OAG says, are at the center of its own investigation.
This appears to indicate the OAG’s is looking into other exchanges, which makes sense, given it sent out a questionnaire to more than a dozen cryptocurrency exchanges in April 2018, requesting they disclose key information about their operations.
While the OAG does not specifically state that the “shadow bank” is Crypto Capital, it points to the Memorandum in Support of Detention of Fowler, which said that companies associated with Fowler “failed to return $851 million to a client of the Defendant’s shadow bank.”
The OAG’s investigation is still ongoing.
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