- By Amy Castor and David Gerard
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Shoba Pillay, the examiner in the Celsius bankruptcy, filed her first interim report on Saturday at 11:45 p.m. ET. [Report, PDF]
Appointed by the Office of the US Trustee — an arm of the Department of Justice — Pillay is here to work out precisely what on earth happened here. She is already conducting Rule 2004 investigations, which let her look into almost anything.
This interim report specifically examines Celsius’ crypto holdings, where they were and are stored, and the change from Earn accounts to Custody and Withhold accounts in April 2022, during which time Celsius was feeling the heat.
This investigation revealed that Celsius reacted to the regulatory scrutiny by launching its Custody program without sufficient accounting and operational controls or technical infrastructure … As a result, customers now face uncertainty regarding which assets, if any, belonged to them as of the bankruptcy filing.
This isn’t the bomb under the Celsius bankruptcy that we have been waiting for — it’s just an interim report ordered by Judge Martin Glenn ahead of the Celsius Custody and Withhold hearings on December 7 and 8.
Nevertheless, it’s jam-packed with the sort of hilarity and horrors that you find when anyone looks inside how any crypto firm actually works. All crypto firms are Quadriga. It’s just that some haven’t exploded yet.
The current report is a window into the fraught issue of whose cryptos are in the Custody and Withhold accounts. It will help the court decide whether the depositors will get back 100% of what they put in or whether the cryptos go into the general bankruptcy estate.
The word “Ponzi” does not appear in this report. Whether the Examiner will look into possible Ponzi scheming by Celsius has yet to be determined. The Unsecured Creditors’ Committee — consisting of seven individuals representing the largest Celsius creditors, who are mostly from the crypto industry — wanted to look into this question themselves.
We think the task should be handed to the examiner, a neutral party — and many of the smaller retail investors concur. Also, we’re impressed by what a relentlessly thorough job the examiner did in this interim report.
Celsius hampered the examiner’s investigation as much as they thought they could get away with:
Documents or information responsive to certain requests were not received until days prior to the filing of this Interim Report, and some were not received at all, which may require the Examiner to further supplement the information contained in this Interim Report when she issues her Final Report.
… In addition, Celsius imposed limitations on interviews of its employee witnesses, including by requesting that the Examiner preview any topics to be covered during the interviews and limiting the time of many interviews to two hours. Further, Celsius claimed privilege over communications between Celsius and the regulators, further limiting her ability to obtain the full scope of relevant facts.
On page 19, the examiner cites one of Amy’s 2017 articles for CoinDesk to define what an ERC-20 token is. [CoinDesk]
Earn was Celsius’ main product. You would deposit cryptos and be paid interest on them.
Regulators in multiple states had been lining up to shut down Celsius’ Earn product through 2021 and early 2022 — they thought it was the unregistered security that it obviously was. New Jersey in particular said that since Celsius was selling the product from their state, the New Jersey cease-and-desist order would take effect for the whole US. The SEC was also subpoenaing information from Celsius. BlockFi had already suffered cease-and-desists for its similar product.
Regulatory heat was a major factor in the creation of Custody and Withhold accounts. Yarden Noy, who headed regulation for Celsius, told Pillay: “Given the regulators, we came up with Custody.”
Celsius was working under the gun — they worried about having a month unable to accept fresh customer deposits — but they had to release Custody before the regulatory deadline or stop accepting any cryptos from retail US customers.
A lack of fresh cryptos coming in from new investors to pay out previous investors would be a serious issue if Celsius happened to be Ponzi-ing.
Celsius was short of developers. Celsius Engineering Director Steven Koprivica characterized the procedure as: “go back to blackboard, do the minimum of all minimums, this may be manual for the start, involve less developers, let’s discuss deadlines.” So everything about the Custody accounts ended up a mess.
Celsius was already tracking the company’s cryptos in the most advanced software known to cryptocurrency: a Google Sheets spreadsheet called the “Freeze Report.” This was an improvement over Celsius’ previous system, which was to just look at each blockchain address and check the balances by hand.
It wasn’t even clear precisely what the “Custody” product was. The accounts certainly weren’t “custody” in the sense that every other crypto custody firm uses the word — storing the keys for a customer’s large crypto holding securely. Different groups in Celsius had different understandings of what the accounts were supposed to do.
Celsius Custody launched on April 15, 2022. Celsius didn’t tell anyone about Custody ahead of its launch — they worried that customers would leave the platform, and they worried that regulators would give them a hard time about the Custody product itself.
Custody was run badly. Celsius didn’t have time to do anything properly. Rather than relying on software, Celsius used manual reconciliation and hoped to add a more robust process later.
Employees were told to tell customers: “Celsius continues to safeguard customer assets.” In fact, Celsius did not safeguard customer assets. Celsius represented each customer’s Custody account as separate — but in practice, they aggregated all of the crypto, lumping everything into one big pile and kept track of the amounts … shoddily.
Celsius had to manually reconcile the amount of crypto listed in each Custody account with the actual cryptos in the aggregate Custody wallet. This was entirely ad-hoc. On 16 dates, there were shortfalls; Celsius topped up the Custody wallet from the Main wallet as needed, and vice versa. (The report details every occasion in Schedule 2, and there’s a graph on page 12. This report is thorough.)
But the key point is that “the Custody wallets ran a substantial deficit relative to Celsius’s Custody liabilities.”
Custody had new terms of service that changed conditions in important ways, such as who owned the cryptos — but customers weren’t necessarily required to click their acceptance, or to read the terms before clicking. This has been a point of serious contention in the bankruptcy — many customers didn’t agree to the terms.
Earn customers who were in states where Celsius didn’t feel safe to offer Custody accounts were transferred to a new group, called “Withhold.” This was supposed to just be Celsius holding the coins for customers to then take out later.
Customers didn’t understand this:
Withhold customers expressed confusion about their accounts. For example, one user explained that he “discovered that [he] had a ‘Withhold Account’” only because it “appeared without explanation on the Celsius app.”
But that didn’t stop Celsius from using cryptos in Withhold for revenue generation — loans, rehypothecation, and so on. Also, Celsius didn’t put Withhold funds into separate wallets per customer or even segregate Withhold accounts from their large general pool of cryptos.
The asteroid strikes
The Terra-Luna collapse blew a hole in the Celsius accounts: “In its May 2022 Board Minutes, Celsius reported that its ‘capital sits near zero.’”
Spooked customers withdrew $1.4 billion in crypto between May 9 and May 24, 2022. Cryptos on hand ran so low that Celsius could no longer honor withdrawals — despite CEO Alex Mashinsky’s frequent tweets of reassurance around this time.
Celsius paused all withdrawals on June 12, citing “extreme market conditions” — specifically, that customers wanted their money back.
Custody and Withhold balances increased after withdrawals were cut off — because customers could still deposit, and “customer assets were allocated to Custody when they attempted to withdraw their coins from Earn.”
What happens next?
Pillay’s report outlines the most contentious issues in the bankruptcy in detail — but it doesn’t point to any clear resolutions for them. Judge Glenn is going to have to untangle all of this himself.
The Examiner and the UCC have to resolve who will investigate the “so-called Ponzi schemes” by Celsius. There’s no clear date for this, but the next omnibus hearing is December 5.
The next interim Examiner’s report is due in the first half of December.
Other news in Celsius
Celsius now has an approved bar date. Creditor claims must be in by January 3, 2023. Government claims need to be in by January 10, 2023. [Order, PDF]
Celsius hasn’t put together any plausible business plan as yet. They are asking the court if they can have until March 31, 2023, an extra 141 days to come up with one. [Doc 1317, PDF]