Reginald Fowler, the Arizona businessman tied to hundreds of millions of dollars of Tether and Bitfinex’s missing money, appears to have conned his own defense team.
As I explained in a previous post, Fowler’s lawyers are seeking to withdraw from his case due to nonpayment. (The US government is accusing Fowler of operating a shadow banking operation for cryptocurrency exchanges.) But the details are privileged and confidential, so the judge overseeing the case agreed to allow them to file an ex parte sealed letter.
Judge Andrew Carter has now received the letter—from Hogan Lovells on behalf of itself and Rosenblum Schwartz—reviewed it, and filed a response. As I had suspected, Fowler appears to have hoodwinked his own defense team. Here is the eight-page opinion and order.
“Money isn’t everything,” the SDNY district judge writes. “But in this case, it is the only thing.” [Emphasis mine.]
According to Carter, Fowler’s jilted defense team recounted several conversations with their client in which Fowler promises to pay, but does not, effectively stringing them along.
“Mr. Fowler assured his attorneys he could pay, referring to planned business transactions, real property and bank accounts,” the judge said.
The defense counsel apparently understood that many of Fowler’s assets were frozen, but the hope was that Fowler could unfreeze certain assets by demonstrating that the assets had no connection to case.
However, during the time Fowler’s lawyers had been pressing him for payment and Fowler telling them he did not have the available funds, the lawyers learned that Fowler had plenty to pay his other lawyers—a large international law firm (name withheld) and an unnamed lawyer.
I’m not sure what exactly this means (a tip-off that Fowler had funds hidden away somewhere?) but Carter said: “The anonymous lawyer gave defense lawyer advice regarding Fowler’s ability to pay legal fees from funds that might not be related to criminal activity.”
So why did Fowler’s lawyers wait this long before asking the court if they could dump their client when the troubles with getting paid started back in February?
According to Carter’s retelling, they thought the case would have been resolved with a guilty plea in January. However, the plea bargain blew up when Fowler learned it would require him to forfeit $371 million.
Recall that after that, federal prosecutors responded with a superseding indictment that added a fifth charge, which would have required a lot of additional (unpaid) work from the defense team.
Fowler’s defense team “decided they would continue representing him even though they had been owed a great deal of money for several months,” Carter said. “But largess shrinks when confronted by the prospect of additional, unpaid hours dedicated to trial preparation.”
There is still the issue of whether Fowler’s defense team should be allowed to withdraw from the case. But federal prosecutors needs to know more about their reasons for seeking withdrawal, so they can respond.
Some information in Hogan Lovells’ sealed ex parte needs to be made public and some needs to remain sealed, Carter said. Certain information about Fowler’s assets should remain sealed. Any information about plea negotiations needs to remain sealed as well.
However, details about the amount and timing of Fowler’s payments to the defense counsel is “highly relevant and should be made public.”
The name of the large international law firm should also be made public, Carter said, stating that “the size and nature of the firm is relevant to the fact that Mr. Fowler paid something to that firm—but did not fully pay Hogan and Rosenblum—and whether Hogan’s and Rosenblum’s acceptance of relatively low retainers was reasonable.”
Low retainers? This may be a sticky point, and something federal prosecutors make a big issue with in their next response.
The judge ordered Fowler’s defense team to file three versions of their letter—a public version redacting what should not be revealed to the government or the public; a sealed version, redacting what must not be disclosed to the government; and a third ex parte sealed version with no redactions.
All filings need to be completed by Dec. 1; the government has until Dec. 8 to respond. Replies are due by Dec. 11.
Nov. 24: Updated to clarify a few details, like what Fowler is being accused of and to emphasize that the retainer issue will likely come up again in the government’s response.
If you like my writing, please consider supporting my work by subscribing to my Patreon account for as little as $5 a month.
Are the pixie fairies sprinkling gold dust on bitcoin’s market again? By the looks of things, you might think so.
Like in the bubble days of 2017, the price of bitcoin is headed ever upward. On Wednesday morning, it surpassed $18,000 — a number not seen since December 2017 when bitcoin, at its all-time peak, scratched $20,000.
Of course, the market crashed spectacularly the following year, and retailers lost their shirts. But here we are once again, trying to unravel the mysteries of bitcoin’s latest price movements.
Several factors may explain it — Tether, PayPal, and China’s crackdown on over-the-counter desks — but before we get into that, let me reiterate how critical it is for bitcoin’s price to stay at or above a certain magic number.
Bitcoin miners — those responsible for securing the bitcoin network by “mining” the next block of transactions on the blockchain — need to sell their newly minted bitcoins for real money, so they can pay their massive energy bills.
Roughly $8 million to $10 million in cash gets sucked out of the bitcoin ecosystem this way every day. So, in order for the miners — the majority of whom are in China — to turn a profit, bitcoin needs to be priced accordingly. Otherwise, if too many miners were to decide to call it quits and unplug from the network all at once, that would leave bitcoin vulnerable to attacks. The entire system, and its current $345 billion market cap, literally depends on keeping the miners happy.
Now let’s jump to May 11, an important day for bitcoin. That was the day of the “halvening,” an event hardwired into bitcoin’s code where the block reward gets slashed in half. A halvening occurs once every four years.
Before May 11, miners received 1,800 bitcoin a day in the form of block rewards, which meant they needed to cash in each bitcoin for $5,000. But after the halvening, the network would produce only 900 bitcoins per day, so miners knew they needed to sell each precious bitcoin for at least $10,000.
But trouble loomed. Just months before the halvening, the price of bitcoin went into free fall. Between February and March, when the world was first gripped by the COVID crisis, bitcoin lost half its value, sliding to $5,000 — barely enough to pay the system’s energy costs post-halvening. Miners were likely pacing, wringing their hands, wondering how they would stay in business. Who would guarantee their profits?
That is when Tether — a company that produces a dollar-pegged stablecoin of the same name — sprung into action and started issuing tethers in amounts far greater than it ever had before in its five years of existence.
Tethers, for the uninitiated, are the main source of liquidity for unbanked crypto exchanges, which account for most of bitcoin’s trading volume. Currently, there are $18 billion (notional value) worth of tethers sloshing around in the crypto markets. And nobody is quite sure what’s backing them.
Due to Tether’s lack of transparency, its failure to provide a long promised audit, and the fact that the New York Attorney General is currently probing the firm along with Tether’s sister company, crypto exchange Bitfinex, for fraud, a good guess is nothing. Tethers, many suspect, are being minted out of thin air.
(Tethers were initially promised as an IOU where one tether was supposed to represent a redeemable dollar. But that was long before the British Virgin Island-registered firm began issuing tethers in massive quantities. And no tethers, to anyone’s knowledge, have ever been redeemed—except for when Tether burned 500 million tethers in October 2018, following the seizure of $850 million from its payment processor Crypto Capital.)
According to data from Nomics, at the beginning of 2020, there were only $4.3 billion worth of tethers in circulation. That number remained stable through January and February and into March. But starting on March 18, just five days after bitcoin dipped below $5,000, the tether printer kicked in.
Tether minted $1.9 billion worth of tethers in March, and another $1.5 billion worth in April — crypto’s own version of an economic stimulus package. The price of bitcoin rose in tandem back up to $10,000, just in time for the halvening. Yet the Tether printer kept printing, pushing the price of bitcoin ever skyward and giving bag holders an opportunity to cash out.
In May, June and July, Tether issued a combined total of $6 billion in tethers. In August, when the price of bitcoin reached $12,000, it spun out $2.5 billion in tethers. And in September, when BTC slid to $10,000, Tether infused the markets with another $2 billion in tethers, although, even that couldn’t lift bitcoin up to $12,000 again. It just hovered in the $10,000 range.
And then in October — just after US prosecutors charged the founders of BitMEX, a Seychelles-registered, Hong Kong-based bitcoin derivatives exchange, for failing to maintain an adequate anti-money laundering program — the price of BTC started to soar. What happened?
Tether’s frenzied pumping
One theory is that Tether just kept issuing tethers, billions and billions of them, and those tethers were used to buy up bitcoin. A high demand drives up the price — even if it’s fake money.
Only unlike in 2017, the effort to drive up bitcoin’s price is requiring a lot more tethers than ever before. (At the end of 2017, before the last bitcoin bubble popped, there were only $1.3 billion worth of tethers in circulation, a fraction of what there are today.)
Nicholas Weaver, a bitcoin skeptic and a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, is convinced bitcoin’s latest price moves are 100% synthetic.
“The amount of tether flooding into the system is more than enough explanation for the price as it is well more than the amount needed to buy up all the newly minted bitcoin,” he told me. “If it was organic, there would at least be some significant increase in the outstanding amount of non-fraudulent stablecoins.”
What he means is, if real money was behind tether, we’d be seeing a similar demand for regulated stablecoins. But that is not the case. Only one regulated stablecoin has seen substantial growth — Circle’s USDC — but that growth is far overshadowed by Tether, and mainly a result of the growing decentralized finance (DeFi) market — a topic for another time.
Jorge Stolfi, a professor of computer science at the State University of Campinas in Brazil, who in 2016 wrote a letter to the SEC advising about the risks of a bitcoin ETF, which the SEC published, agrees.
“As long as fake money can be used to buy BTC, the price can be pumped to whatever levels to keep the miners happy,” he told me. He went on to explain in a Twitter thread that the higher the bitcoin price, the faster real money flows out of the system — assuming miners sell all their bitcoin for cash. Multiply bitcoin’s current price of $18,600 times 900, and that’s nearly $17 million a day. Investors will never get that money back, he said.
Klyith (not his real name) from Something Awful, a predecessor site to 4Chan, explains Tether this way:
“A bunch of pixies show up and start flooding the parchment market with fairy gold, driving prices to amazing new heights. But when any of the player characters try to spend the fairy gold in other towns or to pay tithes to the king, it turns into worthless rocks.
“If you denounce the pixies to the peasants or start using dispel magic to reveal that fairy gold is rocks, the price of parchments will collapse and the peasants may stop using them altogether. But if you ignore the pixies and keep the parchment economy going, you will end up with more and more worthless rocks instead of gold. The pixies can of course tell the difference between fairy gold and real gold at a glance. So they will quickly drain all the real gold from the whole township if you don’t act. What do you do?”
Still, it is hard to imagine that outside events don’t have some impact on bitcoin’s price. Two other events are being talked about right now as reasons behind bitcoin’s price gains—and they are getting a lot more media attention than Tether.
One of the biggest companies in the world is now promoting crypto, giving retail buyers the impression that bitcoin is a safe investment. After all, if bitcoin were a Ponzi or a scam, why would such a well-known, respectable company embrace it? I should add that MicroStrategy, Square, Fidelity Investment and Mexico’s third-richest person, Ricardo Salinas Pliego, are also currently shilling bitcoin on the internet.
If you are a PayPal user, you have already gone through the process of proving you are who you say you are. And that removes the hassle of having to sign up with an crypto exchange, like Coinbase in the U.S., and take selfies of yourself holding up your driver’s license or passport.
Of course, there are limitations. You can’t transfer crypto into or out of your wallet, like you can on a centralized exchange. But you can pay PayPal’s 26 million merchants with crypto — although, not really, because what they receive on their end is cash. And the transaction is subject to high fees, like 2.3% for anything under $100, so what is the point? All you are doing is taking out a bet against PayPal that the price of bitcoin is going to rise.
Stolfi describes PayPal on Twitter as “a meta-casino where you can choose to use special in-house chips with a randomly variable value.”
The broader point is that PayPal makes it easy to buy crypto for people who are less likely to understand how crypto really works or know about Tether and the risk it imposes on the crypto markets. (If authorities were to arrest Tether’s operators and freeze its assets, similar to what happened to Liberty Reserve in 2013, that could lead to a huge plummet in bitcoin’s price.)
If you think Tether doesn’t have that big of an impact on bitcoin’s price, recall that Tether/Bitfinex CFO Giancarlo Devasini (going by “Merlin”) is recorded in the NYAG’s 2019 complaint as having reached out to Crypto Capital to plead for missing funds: “Please understand all this could be extremely dangerous for everybody, the entire crypto community,” said Merlin, indicating what could happen if Tether failed to exist. “BTC could tank to below 1k if we don’t act quickly.”
PayPal this month reached 85% of the volume of Binance.US, the U.S. branch of major crypto exchange Binance. Granted the volume of Binance.US is small in comparison with Binance’s main crypto exchange, but you can see where this is going.
One thought is that PayPal’s move into crypto is a “death sentence” for bitcoin, and that Tether and the exchanges who depend on tethers are working together to pump up the price of bitcoin to lure as much cash into the system as possible while the going is good.
China’s crackdown on OTC desks
According to news coming out of the country, China’s bitcoin miners may be encountering difficulty selling their bitcoin on over-the counter exchanges.
Since China banned crypto exchanges three years ago, OTC exchanges — where buyers and sellers go to trade directly — have become the most convenient way for the country’s citizens to on-ramp and off-ramp into and out of the crypto world. It’s also the main way bitcoin miners sell their bitcoin for yuan.
Recently, as part of a move to curtail internet gambling and contain capital outflows, Chinese authorities have been targeting OTC desks. If authorities determine that your counterpart (the person on the other end of your trade) is trying to launder illicit funds, you risk getting your bank account frozen. As a result, miners may be having to take more precautions and cash out less frequently, according to The Block (paywalled).
There is some speculation that this is making it harder for bitcoin miners to offload their bitcoins, leading to a liquidity crisis. In other words, fewer bitcoin are available to buyers, thus driving up demand similar to if hoards of bitcoin were being bought up by Tether.
But ICSI’s Weaver cautions there is no way to think rationally about bitcoin’s price. “The market is completely loony,” he said.
In a rational world, he believes shutting down OTC desks would have no effect on the price of bitcoin — if the rest of the markets were efficient and honest. OTC desks are really about miners’ paying power and Chinese who want to evade capital controls by trading cash for bitcoin and moving that bitcoin overseas, he said. He added that he could envision China’s crackdown on OTC desks driving up the price of bitcoin if it resulted in fewer OTC purchasers selling their bitcoin on banked exchanges. “But really, that doesn’t make sense either,” he said. “How many banked exchanges are left?”
Bitcoin broke $16,000 on Thursday. That’s up from $10,000 in early September. And yet, with all the media outlets rabidly covering the latest “Bitcoin bull run,” the only one mentioning the billions and billions of dollars worth of tether (USDT) entering the market was Cointelegraph.
In particular, none of the mainstream press has bothered to mention tether in their writings about BTC’s recent price rise. This is worrisome because retail folks — the ones most vulnerable to risky investments — have little understanding of tether and the risk it imposes on Bitcoin’s price.
Instead, most media pointed to the election, PayPal’s recent embrace of crypto and huge BTC investments by MicroStrategy and Square as the reasons for BTC’s moon. Mainstream adoption! Institutional money! The truth is, crypto markets are easy to manipulate. And when BTC goes up in value like this, the main benefit is so early investors can cash out.
In other words, BTC gets passed on to the next bright-eyed, bushy-tailed dupe who hopes the price will continue skyward. History has shown, however, these bubbles are generally followed by a crash, and a lot of people getting hurt, which is exactly what happened in 2018.
Trolly McTrollface (not his real name, obvs) points out in a tweet thread that Tether went into hyperdrive in March to stop BTC from crashing. BTC had dropped to $5,000, losing half its value from two months prior. In fact, March is when BTC entered its current bull run phase.
Remember, if the price of BTC falls too low, the network’s miners — who are responsible for Bitcoin’s security — can’t make a profit, and that puts the entire network in danger.
Trolly believes the current price pump is a coordinated effort between Tether — which has now issued a jaw-dropping $18 billion worth of dollar-pegged tethers — and the exchanges.
Let’s talk about some of those exchanges.
OKEx withdrawals still frozen
Withdrawals from OKEx, one of the biggest crypto exchanges, have been frozen ever since the news came out that founder “Star” Xu was hauled away for questioning by Shanghai authorities more than a month ago.
Xu’s interrogation appears to be part of a broader crackdown on money laundering in China, though OKEx denies any AML violations.
OKEx is registered in Malta, but retains offices in Shanghai and Beijing, where it facilitates peer-to-peer—or “over-the-counter”—trades. The exchange acts as an escrow to reduce counter-party risk in fiat-to-crypto trades, so you don’t have to worry about someone disappearing with your cash before they hand over the BTC you just bought from them.
As Wolfie Zhao explains for the Block, these OTC trades are the only fiat on/off ramp for Chinese crypto traders—and have been ever since September 2017 when the country banned crypto trading on exchanges.
Effectively, the government made it so the exchanges could no longer get access to banking in the country.
P2P allows two people to transact directly, thus bypassing the Chinese ban, as long as the trades are small in scale. All Chinese crypto-to-fiat is OTC, while crypto-to-crypto trades are still done via a matching order book. (A Chinese citizen simply needs to use a VPN to access Binance, for instance.)
Currently, the OTC desk is the only trading desk that remains open at OKEx All of its exchange trading activity has been ground to a halt. The exchange claims Xu has access to the private keys needed to access its funds, and until he is free, all that crypto sits locked in a virtual vault.
As a result, according to blockchain analytics firm Glassnode, there are currently 200,000 bitcoin stuck on OKEx. The exchange insists all funds are safe, and says, essentially, that everything will be fine as soon as Xu returns. But its customers remain anxious. Did I mention OKEx is a tether exchange?
Huobi, another exchange in peril?
Like OKEx, Huobi is another exchange that moved its main offices out of China following the country’s 2017 crackdown on crypto exchanges.
Huobi, now based in Singapore, continues to facilitate fiat-to-bitcoin and fiat-to-tether trades in China behind an OTC front. (Dovey Wan does a nice job explaining how this works in her August 2019 story for Coindesk.)
Since earlier this month, rumors have circulated that Robin Zhu, Huobi’s chief operating officer, was also dragged in for questioning by Chinese authorities. Huobi denies the rumors.
Meanwhile, since Nov. 2—the day Zhu was said to have gone missing —$300 million worth of BTC has flowed from Huobi to Binance, according to a report in Coindesk. (I still don’t have a good explanation as to why Huobi is doing this. If anyone can fill in the gaps, please DM me on Twitter.)
What’s up with Binance?
If you follow Whale Alert on Twitter, like I do, it’s hard to ignore the enormous influx of tether going into Binance multiple times a day.
Here’s an example: On Friday, in four separate transactions, Tether sent Binance a total of $101 million worth of tethers. The day prior to that, Tether sent Binance $118 million in tethers, and the exchange also received $90 million worth of tethers from an unknown wallet. And on Wednesday, Tether sent Binance $104 million in tethers.
That’s over $400 million worth of dubiously backed tethers—in three days.
Reggie Fowler, the Arizona businessman in the midst of the Crypto Capital scandal, is running low on cash. His lawyers have decided they don’t do pro bono work, so now they want to drop him as a client.
Last month, Fowler’s legal team asked the court to change his bond conditions to free up credit. But apparently, that isn’t working. Unfortunately, all this is happening just when there was a possibility of negotiating another plea deal. (Read my blog posts here and here.)
Quadriga Trustee releases report #7
EY, the trustee handling the bankruptcy for failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, released its 7th Report of the Monitor on Nov. 5.
According to the report, EY has received 17,053 claims totaling somewhere between CA$224 million and CA$290 million—depending on what exchange rate EY ends up using to convert the USD and crypto claims to Canadian dollars for disbursement.
EY has CA$39 million ready to distribute to affected Quadriga users, who submitted claims. But none of that money is going anywhere until the Canadian Revenue Agency finishes its audit of the exchange. (Ready my blog post for more details.)
Gensler goes to Washington
Gary Gensler has been picked to lead President-elect Joe Biden’s financial reform transition team. As Foreign Policy notes, Gensler, who was the head of the CFTC during the Obama years, is an aggressive regulator.
He is also well familiar with the world of crypto. He taught a course on blockchain at MIT Sloan. He suspects Ripple is a noncompliant security, and he told me in an interview for Decrypt that the SAFT construct—a once-popular idea for launching an initial coin offering—will not spare a token from securities laws. (He also thinks 99% of all ICOs are securities.)
Libra Shrugged author David Gerard said in a tweet that Gensler was excellent in the Libra hearing last July. Gensler also “helped clean up the 2008 financial crisis, he knows literally all the possible nonsense,” said Gerard.
Clearly, this is good news for bitcoin.
Nov. 15 — Before I said that OKEx offered the only fiat-to-crypto on/off ramp in China. That is inaccurate. P2P OTC exchanges *in general* are the only fiat on/off ramps for crypto traders in China and have been since Sept. 2017.
Nov. 16 — Previously, this story stated that Quadriga’s trustee has CA$30 million available to distribute to claimants. It’s been updated to correctly reflect that EY has CA$39 million (US$30 million) to distribute.
Reginald Fowler’s lawyers confirmed that money is indeed at the center of a conflict between them and their client — and the main reason why they want to withdraw from the case.
The news was revealed Friday in a telephone status call attended by Assistant US Attorneys Jessica Greenwood, Sheb Swett and Sam Rothschild; Fowler’s defense team, James McGovern, Michael Hefter, and Sam Rackear of Hogan Lovells, and Scott Rosenblum of Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry; and Fowler himself.
Fowler, a former NFL investor — who resides in Chandler, Arizona, and is free on bail — is accused of setting up a shadow banking service that has been linked to Crypto Capital, a Panamanian firm at the center of the New York Attorney General’s investigation into crypto firms Bitfinex and Tether.
As I wrote earlier, Fowler’s defense counsel have been careful about disclosing details on why they want to ditch their client, who they have been working with since Fowler was indicted in April 2019.
District Judge Andrew Carter began the call: “Defense, can you give me a little further elucidation regarding the grounds for your seeking to be relieved without getting into any privileged or confidential materials?”
Fowler’s attorney McGovern said the matter involved privileged and confidential information but added: “I think it is fair to say that it is of the nature that the government assumes in their filing, of a fee-based nature.”
Judge Carter cut straight to the heart of the matter: “So it is fair to say, without getting into the details, this is about lawyers not getting paid?”
“Yes,” McGovern answered, but added it was “a little bit more than that.” He then suggested that his team file an ex-parte submission setting out the nature and specifics of the request to withdraw. “That way, we’ll provide the court with a substantial amount of information that will provide color for the entire discussion,” he said.
Fowler is represented by two legal firms. Carter asked if the nature of the conflict was the same for both firms. “Yes,” responded Rosenblum, Fowler’s attorney at the second law firm.
Federal prosecutors have argued that Fowler’s defense can’t simply withdraw from the case without giving some type of explanation.
US Assistant Attorney Greenwood reiterated that argument, telling the judge that “there are significant portions of a fee arrangement that are not potentially privileged.” She suggested Fowler’s attorneys provide details in an ex-parte and then allow the government to access the non-privileged portions “so we can appropriately respond to the motion to withdraw.”
Judge Carter agreed to allow Fowler’s defense team to file a submission under seal. “Once I receive those materials,” he said, “I will make a determination as to whether or not the document will remain under seal or whether or not there are portions that can, in fact, and should, in fact, be redacted and other portions that should be made public.”
The defense counsel said they would submit the document on Nov. 18.
So where is Fowler’s money?
Fowler has been having money problems for a while—problems that extend back to when the US Department of Justice froze his bank accounts in late 2018, leading to the collapse of the Alliance of American Football, a new football league that he cofounded and was a major investor in.
From there, things seem to have gotten worse.
Recall that in January 2020, Fowler rejected a plea deal that would have required him to forfeit $371 million. It was the forfeiture requirements that blew up the deal. Prosecutors hit back with a superseding indictment that added a new count: wire fraud.
On October 15, Law360, reported that Fowler’s legal team might be open to exploring for a second time potential options to resolve the charges, even though the new wire fraud charge complicated things.
And then, on October 23, Fowler’s defense team went to the court seeking to modify conditions of his bond so that he could pay for his defense. (Here is the original May 2019 bond conditions; here is their request for a change.)
Specifically, they wanted to change the bond conditions to enable Fowler to take credit out on properties he had acquired prior to February 2018 “when the alleged conspiracy began” without approval from pretrial services. And to remove the five properties posted as security for the $5 million bond.
Those properties, based on a rough estimate of looking at them on Zillow, are probably only worth around $1.5 million total.
Whatever happened after that — it clearly wasn’t enough to satisfy his attorneys.
Updated Nov. 14 to add the bit about Fowler’s accounts getting frozen in 2018 and the AAF.
Reginald Fowler, the Arizona, businessman allegedly linked to hundreds of million of dollars in missing Crypto Capital funds, is about to lose his defense team. Did he neglect to pay them?
And knowing who their client was, did his lawyers ask for a large enough retainer in the event that something unexpected like, say, a superseding indictment might extend their work?
Crypto Capital is the payment processor that Tether and Bitfinex—and several other cryptocurrency firms—used to shuttle money around the globe as a workaround to the traditional banking system. Fowler allegedly helped out by opening up a network of bank accounts for them.
We can only guess the real reason Fowler’s lawyers are keen to drop their client at the moment, but court docs may offer clues. Here is the backstory:
Earlier this week, Fowler’s attorneys—James McGovern and Michael Hefter of Hogan Lovells US LLP—asked a New York judge for permission to withdraw from the case. (Here is their motion to withdraw filed on Nov. 9.)
(Fowler is also represented by Scott Rosenblum of Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry PC, though Rosenblum’s name is not on the motion.)
The lawyers claim they initially told Fowler their reasons for wanting to quit on February 26—coincidentally, just five days after the government added a fifth charge against Fowler in its superseding indictment and a month after Fowler forfeited on a reasonable sounding plea bargain.
In the months follower, the legal team informed Fowler both “orally and in writing on multiple occasions” of their grounds for wanting to withdraw. Now, after much back and forth, they have had enough: they are asking the court for permission to drop him.
McGovern and Hefter don’t offer a specific reason for wanting to quit in their motion, citing attorney-client privileged. But they argue the case has had “limited pertinent discovery,” Fowler has had ample time to find new counsel, and essentially, the case should go on just fine without them.
Federal prosecutors are not convinced. In a letter addressed to Andrew Carter, the Southern District of New York judge overseeing the case, they argue the defense counsel has’t presented enough facts for the court to decide on the motion. (Here is their response filed on Nov. 12.)
Specifically, they dispute the “limited pertinent discovery” claim, saying the government has so far produced over 370,000 pages of discovery, much of which they have already discussed in detail with the defense counsel.
Further, they argue that if this is about a “fee dispute,” the court needs to weigh other factors, such as “nonprivileged facts” about the fee arrangement, including whether a “more careful or prudent approach to the retainer agreement might have avoided the current problem”—i.e., McGovern and Hefter should have insisted on more money up front.
Finally, they claim that if Fowler’s lawyers’ leaving further delays the trial, the court should not allow it. After two postponements, the trial is currently scheduled for April 12, 2021. (It was originally slated to begin on April 28, 2020, and then got moved to January 11, 2021, before the current trial date.)
“Now, approximately five months before the current trial date, defense counsel seeks to withdraw from this matter based on facts they claim were discussed with the defendant as early as February 26, 2020—nearly nine months ago and before both prior adjournments in this case,” federal prosecutors said. “The current motions should be denied if allowing counsel to withdraw at this late stage would further delay trial.”
EY, the court-appointed trustee in the bankruptcy case of failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, has released its 7th report of the trustee. (You can download it here.)
Most of this is administrative and accounting stuff with regard to how EY plans to settle claims, but I’ll summarize for you.
Claims for lost QuadrigaCX money were due on August 31, 2019. Most of the claims came in before that date, but there’s been a small trickle afterward. EY has thus far received 17,053 claims for missing Quadriga funds.
(Recall that earlier, EY said Quadriga had roughly 76,000 active users when the exchange shuttered in early 2019. Presumably, some folks were shy about filing claims and revealing their true identities—or else they had such small amounts on the exchange that it wasn’t worth the fuss.)
All the claims rank pari-passu, meaning they will all get treated the same. None will receive priority over any others, although 25 percent who filed claimed a “right of priority” under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.
Here’s EY’s breakdown of the claims by asset:
Choosing a currency conversion date
Affected Quadriga users have submitted claims for missing crypto, Canadian dollars, and U.S. dollars. EY now needs to convert all of the U.S. dollar and crypto claims into Canadian dollars, so it can distribute available funds in the same base currency.*
The question is — what exchange rates do they use, based on what day?
The trustee has the choice of using one of two dates. It could use February 5, 2019, the date Quadriga froze all withdrawals and deposits, which is the same day the exchange filed for creditor protection. (Yes, as unbelievable as it sounds, Quadriga was accepting funds up until that very day, even though its CEO Gerald Cotten died in December.)
Or it could use April 15, 2019, the day that Quadriga officially transitioned into bankruptcy. The price of crypto went up substantially in those two months, so EY is asking the court to establish the exchange rates.
Total claims will be either CA$224 million (US$171 million) or CA$291 (US$223 million), depending on the conversion date used.
Accepting claims with errors
Of the 17,053 claim forms it received, EY found that 5,500 contained errors. Most of these were minor errors, such as missing signatures, missing pages, etc. Rather than calling and tracking down the claimants individually to fix the errors — which costs money — EY is requesting a court order that will allow them to accept the claims as is.
EY said it believes this is the “most cost effective way to address the issue” and will maximize the amount the affected users will ultimately recover.
What’s left in the till?
Another big question is, how much money will go to the claimants?
From the period April 15, 2019, to October 30, 2020, EY has rounded up nearly CA$45 million (US$34 million) in missing Quadriga funds — that includes money from liquidating properties held by Cotten’s widow, Jennifer Robertson.
In the same period, EY has paid out CA$5.7 million (US$4.4 million) — that includes a whopping CA$1.9 million for trustee fees and CA$1.4 million in legal fees. That leaves a total of roughly CA$39 million (US$30 million) available for distribution.
Miller Thomson, the legal firm representing Quadriga’s former users, said in September, that two things need to happen before any claims can be filled. First, EY has to review each claim individually. Second, the Canada Revenue Agency needs to complete its audit of Quadriga’s tax liabilities.
*Updated to clarify that the conversion rates for USD and crypto will be applied to the claim amounts, not the amount that EY has recovered.
Things are getting antsy here in the U.S. We’ve got two days till the election, and I’m stocking up on food and alcohol, just in case all hell breaks loose.
Meanwhile, here’s the crypto news for the week, starting with…
“Libra Shrugged” is here!
David Gerard’s book “Libra Shrugged” is available on Amazon starting Monday. I bought a copy, and you should, too.
The book covers everything from how Facebook was lured into blockchain in the first place—even that part is crazy—to how its plans for a world cryptocurrency were slammed down by regulators. There’s even a section on central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs.
You would think that a company as large as Facebook would be savvy enough to know how to prep for regulators, but sadly, no. Read the book. It is fabulous. (I helped edit an early draft.)
Virgil tries to get charges dropped
Virgil Griffith, the former Ethereum developer who was arrested last Thanksgiving and charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, is trying to get the charges dropped. Griffith, a U.S. citizen who was living in Singapore at the time, flew to North Korea in 2019 to give a talk at a conference. (The IEEPA prohibits U.S. citizens from exporting goods, services, or technology to North Korea without approval from the Treasury Department.)
The motion, filed by attorney Brian Klein, is moving to dismiss based on grounds the indictment was unconstitutional. Essentially the motion claims Griffith didn’t do anything that horrible, like actually teach the DPRK how to evade sanctions. He simply went to a conference there and gave a general speech based on publicly available information, “like he does almost monthly at conferences throughout the world,” Klein wrote. (Coindesk, Cointelegraph, Decrypt)
I’m no lawyer, but I think trying to get the charges dismissed is a long-shot. Griffith was pretty in-your-face about traveling to the sanctioned country, going so far as posting his visa for North Korea on Twitter and encouraging others to come to the conference with him.
The U.S. takes sanctions “very seriously,” Stephen Rutenberg, an attorney at Polsinelli law firm, told Coindesk in January. “It wasn’t like he was going there to play music.”
Bitcoin hits $14,000
The price of Bitcoin hit $14,000 (briefly) on October 31—for the first time since January 2018, when it was in free fall from the biggest bitcoin bubble to date. Bitcoiners (people who are invested in the popular virtual currency and want you to invest, too) are convinced we’ll have another bull run like 2017, so buy now before it goes to the moon!
It is really, really hard to ignore the correlation between bitcoin’s price and the latest fresh supply of tethers (USDT). Tether issued $500 million worth of tethers in one week and is fast on its way to a total of $17 billion worth of tethers in circulation. Take a look at this graph:
Most of those tethers, by the way, go straight to crypto exchanges Bitfinex, Binance, and Huobi, according to Whale Alert.
MicroStrategy’s bitcoin bet
In its Q3 earnings call, business analytics firm MicroStrategy said it was putting its excess stockpiles of cash into stock buybacks and bitcoin—but mostly bitcoin.
Bitcoin is mentioned 52 times in the call by MicroStrategy President Phong Le and CEO Michael Saylor, who spoke to investors. The publicly traded company purchased approximately 38,250 bitcoins for $425 million during the quarter, for an average of around $11,111.
Saylor also disclosed in a recent tweet that he personally “hodls” 17,732 BTC, which he bought at $9,882 each on average for a total of $175 million. He claims MicroStrategy knew of his personal investments before the company went ahead and bought BTC on its own.
As Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig notes, MicroStrategy stock was hot during the dot-com bubble of the late 90s, but after the SEC accused the firm of accounting fraud in December 2000, its stock never recovered.
To settle the charges at the time, Saylor paid $350,000 in civil penalties to the SEC and disgorged $8.3 million. Two other executives also paid $350,000 to the SEC and returned $1.6 million and $1.4 million to shareholders. They did not admit or deny the charges. (SEC litigation release)
Now, after complaining to the WSJ about the low returns on cash, Saylor said he is willing to take a risk on bitcoin. But what about the company’s stockholders? Is this why they are buying a publicly traded stock? So they can gamble on bitcoin?
“Investors who wish to buy bitcoin could always do so themselves with the proceeds of a dividend or share buybacks,” Zweig writes. “The point of buying a stock is to get a stake in a business, not to take a flier on cryptocurrency.”
Keto dietary hazards
Bitcoiners are famous for their weird dietary habits. Last week, I mentioned Soylent, the dreadful drink that is a meal replacement substitute, which some bitcoiners were investing in—and drinking. And a lot of bitcoiners follow a strict all-meat diet. But at least one has ended up in the hospital.
“After about a month of a 90% strict carnivore diet, and years of a mostly [low carb, high fat] diet before that, I have now been hospitalized since Sunday morning for diverticulitis of the large intestine. I won’t be able to eat anything but soups and mashed things for a while,” bitcoin advocate Knut Svanholm tweeted from his hospital bed.
You would think a cryptocurrency wallet—meant to help you safely store your bitcoin—would be big on security right? Think again.
After a hack resulted in a leak of Ledger’s customer emails (and phone numbers, too, apparently), owners of the hardware crypto wallet are being targeted by a phishing attack.
A third-party is sending them emails and text messages that appear to come from Ledger support telling them to download the latest version of the Ledger app. (The Block)
One Ledger customer posted on Reddit a confusing email from Ledger explaining the situation.
Customers are upset because they say Ledger hasn’t been transparent about the breach and what exactly was stolen.
So, if you want to buy bitcoin, but you’re worried about how to safely manage your keys, invest in a hardware wallet—but preferably not one that will lose your emails.
It’s October, and the year so far feels like a foggy dream. After spending the last two weeks in the wonderful city of Austin wandering around Zilker Park and Barton Springs and getting bitten by mosquitoes at dusk, I’m trying to get back into writing. Here is the crypto news for the week — not all of it, but stuff that I found interesting, and maybe you will, too.
Ken Kurson, co-founder of crypto outlet Modern Consensus, was arrested Friday for cyberstalking. The criminal complaint outlines months of alleged batshit behavior while Kurson was going through a divorce in 2015. All of this came to light in 2018, when the FBI did a background check on him, blowing sky high his chances for a prestigious federal position.
I was employed by Modern Consensus earlier this year but left due to a hostile and abusive work environment that Kurson enabled. I made the decision to leave the day I stumbled on two articles, one in the Atlantic and another in the NYT, detailing his history of mistreating women. It was clear, at that point, I needed to get out.
In a tweet following the arrest, Deborah Copaken said dozens of women contacted her after she wrote her story in the Atlantic. I was one of them.
Kurson co-founded MC in January 2018 with Lawrence Lewitinn who went on to work for CoinDesk before I joined. Before his departure, Lewitinn hired Leo Jakobson, an old friend of his, who was my direct report.
Six reporters have exited CoinDesk since July—during a pandemic when media jobs are scarce. Some of the outlet’s dirty laundry was aired in a leaked memo penned by one of its employees last week. Here’s the bit that caught my eye: Among other grievances, the memo states that “DCG portfolio companies felt comfortable trying to direct our coverage…”
CoinDesk Chief Content Officer Michael Casey published the leaked memo in an upbeat blog post titled “How a Newsroom Learns and Grows From Its Mistakes,” In the post, he downplayed morale issues, saying only one or two reporters left due to internal tensions, and promised “big changes.”
In a recent Decrypt piece, Ben Munster sits down with CoinDesk reporter Leigh Cuen. The story offers clues on what it’s like working in crypto.
PayPal embraces crypto trading
Payments giant PayPal has entered the cryptocurrency market. According to a company press release, beginning next year, PayPal users can “buy, hold and sell” cryptocurrencies, starting with bitcoin, ether, bitcoin cash and litecoin, directly within the PayPal digital wallet.
Bitcoin skeptic David Gerard is baffled by the move. “If PayPal pursues this crypto trading market, I would expect trouble when—not if—mum-and-dad investors get ripped off,” he said in a blog post.
PayPal’s crypto service won’t allow users to transfer their cryptocurrency to another wallet—the only way out of the PayPal system is cash. What benefit then does this offer the user, if you can’t really control your own bitcoin?
None, Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told me. He points out that PayPal’s lawyers undoubtedly took note of the recent U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control notice saying that companies that facilitate ransomware payments could be in violation of federal law.
“I suspect this is some Bitcoin/Libertarian VP’s vanity project,” Weaver said. He predicts PayPal is “going to call it a pilot program, see that nobody wants to actually use it, and quietly vanish it in the memory hole.”
What about Epik?
Curiously, earlier this month, just prior to announcing it was embracing Bitcoin, PayPal closed an account held by domain registrar Epik, home to several right-wing websites. (Here’s the unhinged letter Epik sent to PayPal, calling the move an “unwarranted abuse of civil liberty.”)
One source told Mashable the problem lies with Epik’s virtual currency “Masterbucks,” which can be used to purchase products sold by Epik or converted into U.S. dollars. On its website, Epik touts Masterbucks as “liquidity for the domain industry.” (Sounds eerily like QuadrigaCX bucks.)
The big question: if PayPal has concerns about compliance issues with Epik, why is it getting involved with crypto, potentially an even bigger compliance nightmare?
After making a big to-do about supporting Black Lives Matter and then telling employees they shouldn’t engage in politics at work, Armstrong tweeted a rambling blog post by Robert Rhinehart, the founder of Soylent, a company that makes a meal replacement drink, titled “Why I am Voting for Kanye West.”
In the post, Rhinehart, who has the writing style of a nine-year-old child, hails West, who suffers from bipolar disorder, as some kind of genius.
“I know, in my heart, that Kanye West, while he is not perfect, is the best person to lead America,” he writes. “Even if Kanye West was not running for president, I would vote for him.”
Armstrong referred to the post as “Epic.”
It is worth noting Coinbase’s connections with Soylent. Apparently, the crypto exchange’s employees were guzzling the foul concoction as far back as 2013. And at one point, you could purchase Soylent with BTC.
About Peter Schiff’s offshore bank
Gold bug, Bitcoin skeptic and libertarian economist Peter Schiff is in the hot seat for tax evasion. His Puerto Rican bank Euro Pacific’s anti-money laundering efforts are lax, and the bank’s customers include entities linked to a who’s who of financial and organized crime, according to reports in the Age, the NYT and 60 Minutes Australia. The trio of news outlets say that Schiff’s bank is being probed by a team of international investigators.
I met the outspoken Schiff in person at the 2017 Nexus crypto conference in Aspen, where he gave his usual spiel on the upcoming economic apocalypse and dollar collapse. Naturally, he was there representing Euro Pacific Bank.
“It was fairly apparent that Peter Schiff was operating in a manner that was intended to attract customers who were looking to either evade tax or perhaps launder money,” John Chevis, former Australian Federal Police investigator, told 60 Minutes Australia. Schiff, who denies any wrongdoing, stormed off of the 60 minutes Australia set when pressed for details.
Tether began issuing its wildly popular stablecoin in 2015. It took more than two years to issue the first billion. By January 2020, Tether was at $4.5 billion worth of Tethers. And here we are today, with the company putting out as much as $1 billion worth of tethers every two weeks.
I’m sure all of these tethers are backed by real assets and generated by real demand, as the NYAG will eventually discover in its ongoing investigations — as soon as Tether/Bitfinex hand over that paperwork any day now.
Filecoin’s disastrous launch
Filecoin, a blockchain-based data storage network, raised more than $200 million in an initial coin offering three years ago.
After much anticipation and many delays, the mainnet finally launched on October 15. Since then, the price of the FIL coin has been a wild rollercoaster ride, soaring more than 100 percent at first, then tumbling 80 percent days later, as Cointelegraph explains.
But the bigger problem is the handling of the miners, who provide the storage for the system. Initially, they weren’t able to pull a profit.
Miners have to stake a large number of FIL tokens to start their mining operations. At first, they weren’t getting enough tokens to do this via mining rewards because they had to vest 100% of those rewards for six months. This forced them to buy tokens on the open market at high prices if they wanted to ramp up to capacity.
As a result, two days after the platform launched, five of the largest miners switched off thousands of rigs in protest, according to 8btc.
Since the folks behind Filecoin didn’t foresee any of this, they are now scrambling to make changes. The latest system upgrade allows miners to access 25 percent of their block rewards immediately, per the Block.
The search for what happened to QuadrigaCX’s missing money is a never-ending one.
In the latest twist, Ernst & Young, the trustee in the Canadian crypto exchange’s bankruptcy case, hired an analytics firm to probe the blockchain for additional clues on where it all went.
Miller Thomson, the law firm representing Quadriga’s former users, sent out a letter to Quadriga creditors on Friday, letting them know that on August 17, EY retained Kroll Associates “to conduct further analysis on a subset of transaction data.”
The decision was guided in part by the “official committee,” a subset of Quadriga users who represent the exchange’s former users as a whole. The group has been working with EY since February collecting and reviewing proposals from third-party cryptocurrency asset tracing firms, Miller Thomson said.
Kroll, a division of New York-based financial consultancy firm Duff & Phelps, will not be tackling the project alone, however. It is joining forces with Coinfirm, a London-based blockchain analytics firm.
Kroll will receive up to $50,000 USD for their efforts. And EY has provided a contractual indemnity of up to $150,000 USD—three times the professional fees—to protect Kroll from any lawsuits or negligence claims.
In its letter, Miller Thomson also noted that it appears Crypto Capital is not holding any of Quadriga’s money.
Recall that back in January, Miller Thomson reached out to creditors asking for help in identifying if Quadriga had used the Panamanian third-party processor to funnel cash in and out of the exchange.
Crypto Capital is of interest because it is tied to crypto exchange Bitfinex, which is allegedly missing some $850 million. (I guess the hope was that some additional Quadriga money might have been tied up in all of that mess—and there would be more to reclaim.)
Disbursement of funds
So far, EY has located $35 million (CA$46 million ) to pay out to creditors. The amount represents a fraction of the total $190 million (CA$246 million) that went missing when the exchange went belly up early last year.
As of May, EY has received 16,959 claims from the 76,000 or so users who held funds on the exchange when it collapsed.
Two things have to happen before those claims can be filled. The first is that EY has to review each claim individually, and that takes time and money.
But the bigger holdup by far is that the Canada Revenue Agency needs to complete its audit of Quadriga’s tax liabilities, said Miller Thomson.
In March, the CRA collected a vast trove of documents from EY, and there’s no telling how long that will take to dig through, especially given current circumstances.
“The CRA did not confirm a timeline of when the CRA Audit will be completed given the COVID19 pandemic,” the law firm said.
The bankruptcy trustee for failed Canadian cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX is now free to hand over a trove of documents—including personal information of the exchange’s users—to the Canadian tax authority.
On Tuesday, Judge Glenn Hainey of the Ontario Court of Justice issued an order authorizing EY to comply with the Canada Revenue Agency’s production demand request. Here is the order. And here is Hainey’s handwritten signed endorsement. He apparently heard the motion over teleconference due to the pandemic.
An important aspect of the order is that it also frees Miller Thomson, the law firm representing Quadriga’s creditors, and the Committee for Affected Users, who speak on behalf of all of the creditors, from any liability.
EY will now be handing over 750,000 documents to the CRA. Many of those documents contain personal information on the 115,000 users who were active on the exchange at the time of its collapse in January 2019.
Quadriga’s creditors are not happy about this. Losing control of their personal data is their worst nightmare. But as I spelled in a previous post, the cost for the creditors to fight any of this would have been prohibitive. It also would have further delayed them getting back any of their already dwindling pool of recovered funds.
One of the biggest fears of cryptocurrency traders is losing control of their personal information. And that fear has become a reality for QuadrigaCX former users.
Ernst & Young, the trustee overseeing the bankruptcy case for the failed Canadian crypto exchange, will be turning over all of Quadriga’s user info and data to the country’s tax collector.
In itssixth report of the trustee posted Tuesday, EY said the Canadian Revenue Authority, or CRA, asked it to hand over information about the failed crypto exchange. In response, the accounting firm wants to send over a mountain of data, which has a lot of Quadriga user data mixed in. And it is seeking an order from the court authorizing it to do so. (The exchange estimated it had 115,000 affected users at the time of its collapse in January 2019.*)
We’ve known this was coming. In August 2019, the CRA sent a letter to EY saying it wanted Quadriga’s records from Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2018. The CRA’s request for documents and information is “significant,” the trustee said at the time. (See the third report of the trustee.)
The long list of requests
Following that, on Feb. 26, the CRA sent EY a seven-page production demand letter. The list of requests includes financial records and documents for tax years ended in 2016 to 2018, corporate legal records, and things like the platform’s raw database, files of AWS accounts, wallet addresses, fiat transaction records from payment processors, and so on
As this is coming from the taxman, EY is obligated to comply. But since it doesn’t have most of the info that the CRA is asking for (Quadriga kept no books), it simply plans to forward a copy of the full EDiscovery Database, redacted only for privilege. The database contains 750,000 individual documents.
In a letter, posted on its website Thursday, Miller Thomson, the law firm representing Quadriga’s creditors, said that it would not oppose the move. At this point, it wants to minimize costs and make sure funds get distributed to the exchange’s users as soon as possible.**
The problem for Quadriga’s users though is that a lot of their personal information is mixed in with those documents in the database. What can they do about it? Not a lot.
On Sept. 17, 2019, when EY was granted an order from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that would make it easier for them to comply with requests for information from law enforcement, regulators and tax authorities, it also got authorization to produce:
“…material, documents or data that contain any personal information including information related to Affective Users notwithstanding any previous orders of the Nova Scotia Court with respect to confidentiality of Affected User information, as defined in the Representative Counsel Appointment Order dated February 28, 2019…” [Link to order added.]
That order allowed EY to heap all of its Quadriga documents into a single giant database called the EDiscovery Database, and share that entire database with authorities every time they put in a request. This was a lot easier than tailoring each response individually. But it came at the price of giving out personal data about the exchange’s users.
According to Miller Thomson, the cost of trying to fight the CRA’s request would be between CA$50,000 and CA$100,000, notwithstanding the cost of EY and its lawyers.
Alternatively, the law firm could redact or pull anything considered private. But that could potentially come at an even bigger cost because it would require manually going through every single document in the massive database. (And as we know, EY has already spent roughly CA$637,000 compiling that database and responding to legal requests in the second half of 2019.)
Still, Quadriga users aren’t happy. Magdalena Gronowska, one member of the official committee that represents Quadriga creditors, wrote in a Twitter thread on Thursday that the CRA’s request is “an unprecedented affront” to individual privacy. She thinks they are just going on a fishing expedition.
After allowing Quadriga to operate for years with no oversight, the CRA has suddenly decided that it wants to audit the exchange. That’s a problem given that Quadriga maintained no traditional books or accounting records since 2016, and it did not file returns. Most years, Gerald Cotten, the exchange’s now-deceased founder, neglected to even file a personal tax return. When he did file, he claimed no income from Quadriga.
I don’t know what the CRA plans to do with all of this information. Are they planning to find out how much Quadriga should have paid them? Most of that money is long gone, thanks to the massive fraud that took place on the exchange after 2016. And if the CRA wants to make sure that Quadriga’s users pay taxes on any money they get back, there are certainly easier ways to get that information.
* An early affidavit estimated that the exchange had 115,000 affected users when it collapsed. But, in its trustee’s preliminary report, published in May 2019, EY said it anticipated receiving omnibus claims from 76,319 affected users.
**Roughly CA$215 million of user funds (crypto and fiat) was on the exchange at the time it shuttered. EY has so far only recovered about CA$45 million—if you count the CA$12 million that should come from selling properties that Cotten and his wife accumulated after 2016. (See my earlier story in Decrypt and the fourth report of the trustee.)
Good news this week. I’ve started freelancing for Decrypt. I’m in their Slack channel, and it’s nice to feel part of a group again. That and a few freelance gigs mean I’m less freaked out about making ends meet after leaving my last gig. Although now, I’m worried about COVID-19 and its impact on crypto media and the world economy as a whole.
This newsletter is going to be a bit different. I’m going to focus on the bigger stuff—or things that are interesting to me while supplementing them with additional notes or thoughts I might have—and then list off a bunch of other news that has caught my eye.
Coronavirus, crypto conferences, and the hell to come
I wrote a blog post about how the new coronavirus is impacting crypto conferences. My story even got picked up in Charles Arthur’s Overspill newsletter. (He’s a former tech writer for The Guardian.) In a week’s time, things have only gotten worse, with more events canceling. The city of Austin has canceled SXSW, which had a blockchain track. MIT issued an official statement Thursday night that is was canceling any event larger than 150 people but somehow made an exception for the MIT Bitcoin Expo, March 7-8.
What’s shocking is that the school did this despite knowing the dangers—more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts have been linked to a Biogen meeting in Boston with 175 attendees in late February. The news of this started coming out on Thursday, the very day MIT gave the green light for its expo. Even on Saturday, Boston Blockchain Week, scheduled for March 7-13, removed all events from its calendar.
Coindesk has made it clear that it is absolutely not canceling its New York City-based Consensus conference until it is forced to do so. The event, scheduled for May 11-13, drew in 4,000 people last year and 8,500 the year before. Here’s the refund policy:
“If Consensus is cancelled due to guidance from health organizations and local/federal governments, attendees will receive a full refund on their ticket purchase within 60 days of CoinDesk making the announcement to cancel. Further, if an attendee is unable to attend because his or her home country is barred from traveling to the United States, we will also issue a full refund within 60 days.”
Public health in the US is managed in a decentralized fashion by state & local gov. Structurally & politically we don’t have infrastructure to deal w/ a healthcare crisis that demands a strong immediate response. This is an inherent tradeoff in decentralized human systems.
South Korea, China, US step up efforts to disinfect dirty fiat
The new coronavirus can live on paper money, says the WHO, so South Korea’s banks are taking banknotes they receive and putting them through a heating process to kill off any germs. China is doing something similar. And now the U.S. is taking any U.S. dollars that it gets from Asia, disinfecting them, and keeping them for 7-10 days before reintroducing them to the financial system. It is routine for banks to disinfect banknotes, but now they are stepping up the process. Bitcoin is a contactless form of payment, but unfortunately, you can’t buy toilet paper, rice, beans or baby formula with it. (Decrypt, Reuters)
Baseline protocol: coaxing the enterprise to use public Ethereum
The Baseline Protocol is a thrilling new enterprise blockchain initiative from ConsenSys, EY, Microsoft, and a handful of other projects looking to sell consulting hours.
In short, the initiative is an effort to get big companies to use the Ethereum public blockchain. Baseline is supposed to serve as a middleware with its secret sauce being privacy-preserving zero-knowledge proofs. ZKP is key because otherwise, why would companies want to put their private dealings on a widely shared blockchain?
But what actually goes on the blockchain? The answer: not a lot, and certainly not any actual documents. What goes on the blockchain is a hash of the file you share via some other means along with a timestamp, so you can check the authenticity of the document. ZKP serves to hide the transaction of tokens and business logic in smart contracts.
A German company called Unibright plans on playing “a major role” in developing Baseline. Interestingly, Unibright has its own token (UBT), which had a big pump recently. UBT couldn’t get listed on any major exchanges. Instead, it is traded mainly on the Estonia-registered Hotbit and decentralized exchange IDEX. (Decrypt, David Gerard)
Reggie Fowler pleaded not guilty to wire fraud
Arizona businessman Reginald Fowler flew from his home in Chandler, Ariz., to stand before a judge Thursday and plead not guilty to a new charge of wire fraud. He now faces five counts and plans to go to trial next year. Yes, that’s right. His trial date, originally scheduled for April 28, has been moved to Jan. 11, 2021, because his lawyers need more time to prepare for the case. Until then, he remains free on bond. (My blog.)
How did bitcoin mining maker Canaan get listed on Nasdaq?
That’s like, such a good question. Bitcoin mining machine maker Canaan Creative operates out of China. Last year, it became the first crypto company to be listed on the Nasdaq. Woot! But after an unexplained pump in February, the stock tanked. And then on Wednesday, Phillippe Lemieux, an investor in Canaan, filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, saying Canaan misled investors. Some of the most damning information in the suit comes from a blog post by Marcus Aurelius, or MAV, titled “Canaan Fodder.” Canaan had three prior unsuccessful attempts to list on Asian exchanges. MAV calls the Nasdaq listing a “dumping ground of last resort.” I’m sure CAN stockholders will be happy to hear that. (Decrypt)
UK’s FCA issues warning about Bitmex
U.K.’s financial watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority, is warning Brits about Bitmex. Arthur Hayes’ bitcoin derivatives platform is promoting its services without authorization, the regulator said. Bitmex said it is trying to “assess” the situation.
The FCA issued a similar warning about Kraken, but that was soon taken down. Kraken CEO Jesse Powell said the regulator made a mistake and fixed it. “Seems like it might have been some scams pretending to be Kraken got reported,” he told Decrypt. (Decrypt)
Libra activates plan B
Facebook’s Libra may issue multiple coins based on national currencies in addition to its original idea—a coin based on a basket of assets. If it does that, it’ll be just another PayPal, but on the Calibra wallet.
Bloomberg and The Information were the first to report on the news, and the financial press followed, all linking back to these stories. (The Information originally said the national coins would replace the original Libra token but has since issued a correction, stating that the national coins would run alongside the Libra token.)
This is not a new plan at all. David Marcus and Mark Zuckerberg talked about doing this back in October. In terms of technology, there’s no innovation here either. The big hurdles for Libra are proving to the world that it can comply with anti-money laundering laws. And so far, it hasn’t been able to do that. (Decrypt, David Gerard, Bloomberg, The Information)
You hit the nail on the head. There is no innovation whatsoever. They have literally invented nothing. Libra is possibly the least innovative project to ever come out of Silicon Valley.
“If they’re not outright scams, they’re normally cash grabs.” One former coiner describes his experience working for crypto projects. (Medium)
Looks like Massive Adtoption’s Jacob Kostechki has exited the crypto world and gone into real estate. He’s now tweeting under @_jake_i_am.
Haseeb Qureshi, a managing partner at crypto venture fund Dragonfly Capital, wrote a good article describing how flash loans work. Flash loans were behind two recent hacks—one for $350,000 and another for $600,000—of margin trading protocol bZx. (Medium)
More info coming out on who invested in Telegram’s $1.7 billion initial coin offering: A Russian oligarch, a former cabinet minister and the COO of Wirecard. (Coindesk)
In April 2018, The Reserve Bank of India banned banks from doing business with crypto companies. On March 4, India’s crypto community rejoiced as the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the RBI’s ban was unconstitutional. The RBI plans to fight the ruling. (Economic Times, Cointelegraph)
The hostile takeover of the Steem blockchain is comedy cold for nocoiners. (Twitter thread)
Stephen Palley offers his take on the Feb. 26 ruling in the Ripple lawsuit: His most ooph worthy comment: If the court’s reasoning is accepted, “purchasers of crypto on secondary markets can state securities claims against the issuer where they did not directly purchase the crypto.” (Twitter thread, court order)
Reginald Fowler stood before a New York judge Thursday and pleaded not guilty to wire fraud. The new charge brought the total counts against him to five. An irked-looking judge agreed to move the trial date, originally set for next month, to Jan. 11. (Court doc.)
The wire fraud charge was added in a superseding indictment on Feb. 21. The Arizona businessman and ex-NFL owner had already pleaded not guilty to the four prior counts, which had to do with bank fraud and illegal money transmitting. He was looking at a trial date of April 28.
However, with the new charge piled on, Fowler’s lawyer James McGovern wanted more time to prepare. Matthew Lee of Inner City Press, live-tweeted Fowler’s arraignment in court today.
“The trial is scheduled. Mr. Fowler did not plead guilty. Now he wants an adjournment of the trial,” said U.S. Attorney Jessica Fender, according to Lee’s account.
Judge Carter granted the adjournment and offered Oct. 28 as a new date for the trial. But Fender turned it down saying her colleague was unavailable at that time.
“Really? A prosecutor not being available is not grounds under the Speedy Trial Act,” said Judge Carter.
Finally, a new date of early next year was settled upon — and the judge appeared irritated with the government, Lee told me.
The law moves slow
Nothing is happening fast in this case. But the right to a speedy trial isn’t for the benefit of the public — it’s for the benefit of the defendant, who can waive it. And since Fowler is free on $5 million bail while he awaits trial, he can afford to do that. After all, he could find himself behind bars for many years after the trial.
Fowler was originally indicted on April 30, 2019, along with Israeli woman Ravid Yosef, who remains at large. The pair allegedly ran a shadow banking service on behalf of Crypto Capital Corp, a Panamanian payment processor that counted Bitfinex and the failed QuadrigaCX cryptocurrency exchanges as customers.
A plea deal would have seen three out of four charges against Fowler dropped. The deal was conditioned upon him forfeiting $371 million* allegedly tied up in some 50 bank accounts, but he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—agree to that.
After Fowler turned down the plea deal, federal prosecutors heaped on the newest charge of wire fraud. The fifth count was no surprise. In a court transcript filed in October 2019, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Swett told Judge Carter:
“We have told defense counsel that, notwithstanding the plea negotiations, we are still investigating this matter, and, should we not reach a resolution, we will likely supersede with additional charges.”
Fowler, who resides in Chandler, Ariz., will likely go about his daily life until next year when his trial begins. Is he rattled by any of this? Who knows. This is a man who has plenty of experience dealing with lawyers and judges. In 2005, ESPN reported that he had been sued 36 times.
Updated (3/7/20) to add names of attorneys.
*Updated (3/5/20 at 11:30 p.m ET) to note that Fowler’s proposed plea deal was based on him forfeiting $371 million, not $371,000 as previously stated.
Novel coronavirus is a real threat. We now know the incubation period for COVID-19 is up to 14 days, and people can spread the disease without showing any symptoms at all. The best way to keep from getting ill is to avoid close contact with other people. Ultimately, that means cutting back on air travel and opting out of large events.
As a result, companies in all fields are canceling conferences in droves. They either can’t sell enough tickets or too many sponsors and speakers are starting to pull out. In some cases, entire cities are outright banning large indoor gatherings.
Nvidia said Monday thatit will not hold its GTC 2020 conference that had been scheduled for March 22-26 in San Jose. As many as 10,000 attendees were expected at the event, which centered around semiconductors, graphic chips, and AI technologies.
Also, on Monday, Facebook and Twitter pulled out of SXSW Conference & Festivals, a sprawling 10-day event in Austin set to kick off on March 13. The event drew more than 400,000 attendees last year. SXSW says the event is still going as planned, even though an onlinepetition is in the works to cancel it.
Similarly, the crypto world is feeling the pain. Tron has postponed indefinitely itsNitron Summit due to coronavirus concerns. The event was scheduled to take place between Feb. 29 and March 1 in Seoul, South Korea.
Paris Blockchain Week, originally set to kick off on March 31, is postponed until December. Even that is risky, though. December is when the cold and flu season starts up again, and a coronavirus vaccine isn’t due out until sometime in 2021.
How will crypto media fair?
If the trend continues — and likely it will — conference cancellations could hit some crypto media publications hard. I’m talking about Coindesk in particular. The company pulls in 85% of its revenue from conferences, according to a May 2019 report inThe Information. Coindesk doesn’t feature ads on its site anymore, so events are its bread and butter.
It hasn’t always been that way. I remember ads for every bottom-of-the-barrel initial coin offering on the site a few years ago. I’m not sure why Coindesk stopped serving ads, but they seem to have completely disappeared from the site after its relaunch in November.
Last year, Coindesk held one investor event in New York and another in Asia. But its flagship conference is Consensus. Held annually in Manhattan, Consensus is widely considered the most significant event in the cryptosphere, accompanied by lots of satellite conferences around the same time. This year, Consensus is scheduled for May 11-13 at the New York Hilton midtown.
In 2018, just coming down from the peak of the crypto hype cycle, Consensus drew in more than 8,500 attendees, each paying about $2,000 per ticket. Coindesk’s total revenue for the year was $25 million, so do the math — that’s $21 million in events alone.
Consensus 2019 saw less than half that with only 4,000 attendees. But even at an estimated $10 million in revenue, that’s still a decent amount of money. Despite the drop-off, Kevin Worth, Coindesk’s CEO, told The Information that Digital Currency Group, which owns 90% of Coindesk, still planned on growing its media business.
Indeed, Coindesk has been on a bit of a hiring spree. Almost anyone who has been writing about crypto has gotten pulled into working for the media outlet. It will be interesting to see what happens if Coindesk ends up having to cancel Consensus 2020 and potentially even Consensus 2021 — or even if it sees a significant drop in attendees.
Oddly, Consensus is the only event listed on the Coindesk’s website at this time. The company’s other two events — “Invest: NYC” and “Invest: Asia,” as they were called last year — are conspicuously missing. I reached out to Coindesk this morning. If they respond, I’ll post their comments here.
Other media pubs also rely on events for revenue, though not to the extent that Coindesk does, and their events aren’t nearly so huge.
Breakermag started planning an NYC event called Breakercon before it shuttered in 2019. The Blocktook over the event renaming it “Atomic Swap.” This year, The Block is now calling the one-day-event, scheduled for May 12, The Block Summit. Tickets cost about $800 and CEO Mike Dudas expects things to go as planned with 400 attendees.
Last year, a leaked investor pitch deck for The Block indicated that of the $5 million the startup wished to see in 2020, $3.4 million will come from subscription revenue; $1.1 million will come from ads and $500,000 from events. At least The Block has its revenue model spread out a bit, so it’s not so heavily dependent on a single event.
Decrypt relies on Ethereum venture studio Consensys’ patronage to keep its doors open. Consensys holds anEthereal Summit each year in New York City right before Consensus. That also appears to be on track for May 8-9.
Cointelegraph has a separate events division that does BlockShow Asia, which it’s been holding since 2016. This year the event is scheduled for Singapore in November. The outlet, which claims 6 million visitors a month, also makes money on ads and consulting.
My guess is that as the coronavirus spreads, we’ll see more crypto events being canceled. Some conferences are opting to go the “decentralized” route and put everything on video, but I just don’t see that being too popular. Most crypto people go to conferences to network and party — the talks, not so much.
A bigger threat: Crypto ice age
The bigger problem here is the crypto ice age, a term that refers to the general slowdown in the space that set in after 2017 due to increased regulation and the plunge in the price of bitcoin. As David Gerard details in a recent blog post, crypto media publications and low-end blogs are now collectively chasing an ever-shrinking pool of ad funds.
In general, the media advertising model has gone the way of the dinosaur. Subscriptions work for some publications. But big outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal who employ the model successfully have hundreds of thousands of readers. The crypto world simply does not have that big of a following.
Events are a big deal for many crypto pubs, and if that important revenue stream dries up, it could push some outlets to the breaking point. Expect more layoffs in 2020 with some crypto pubs and blogs falling off the map completely.
Did you enjoy this story? Consider becoming a patron. Subscribers get to view and comment on early drafts of work in progress.
As you know, I left my most recent full-time gig, so I’m solo again. I’m going to keep on writing, but I need to figure out how to make ends meet. I’ll be writing more for my blog, possibly writing some e-books, and relying on support from patrons. If this newsletter is worth buying me a latte every four weeks, consider becoming a monthly supporter.
Now, on to the news. Since I didn’t write a newsletter last week, a few of these items stretch beyond the last seven days.
Filming for Quadriga documentary
If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you know I was in Vancouver all weekend filming for an upcoming Quadriga documentary for Canadian public broadcast station CBC. It was a whirlwind adventure, loads of fun, and I got to meet my idol and fellow nocoiner David Gerard for the first time. He is 6’4″, which helps explain why he is not easily intimidated by anyone. (My blog, David’s blog with more pics.)
On our second day of filming, the crew got shots of David and me at a coffee shop going through my Quadriga timeline in detail. Of course, the more we talked and went over things, the more unanswered questions we came up with.
Ripple has been paying Moneygram millions
Moneygram’s 8-K filing with the SEC must be a bit of an embarrassment for Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse. It reveals Ripple paid $11.3 million to Moneygram over the last two quarters. That’s in addition to the $50 million Ripple has already invested in the firm. (Cointelegraph, Coindesk.)
This is apparently the ugly truth to how Ripple works. The company appears to pay its partners to use its On-Demand Liquidity (formerly xRapid) blockchain platform and XRP tokens and then say nice things about how well things are going. (FT Alphaville)
Of course, none of this is news to @Tr0llyTr0llFace, who wrote about how Ripple pays its partners in his blog a year ago. “Basically, Ripple is paying its clients to use its products, and then pays them again to talk about how they’re using its products,” he said.
Ripple class-action to move forward
In other Ripple news, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., has granted in part and denied in part Ripple’s motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit claiming the company violated U.S. securities laws. There’s a lot to unpack here, but overall it’s a win for the plaintiffs. In other words, the lawsuit will proceed even though it’s been trimmed back a bit. (Court order, CoinDesk, Bloomberg)
Ripple had claimed in its November court filing that the suit could topple the $10 billion market for XRP. Well, yeah, one would think so, especially if XRP is deemed a security and gets shut down by the SEC. This class action may be laying the groundwork for that.
Reggie Fowler gets hit with another charge
As if Reggie Flower did not have enough trouble on his hands. After forgoing a plea deal where three out of four charges against him would have been dropped, prosecutors have heaped on another charge — this one for wire fraud.
They allege that Fowler used ill-gotten gains from his shadow banking business, which he ran on behalf of Panamanian payment processor Crypto Capital, to fund a professional football league. The league isn’t named in the indictment, but a good guess says its the collapsed American Football League of which Fowler was a major investor. (My blog.)
The new charge should come as no surprise to those following the U.S. v. Fowler (1:19-cr-00254) case closely. In a court transcript filed in October 2019, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Swett told Judge Andrew Carter:
“We have told defense counsel that, notwithstanding the plea negotiations, we are still investigating this matter, and, should we not reach a resolution, we will likely supersede with additional charges.”
Fowler needs to go before the judge and enter his plea on the new charge before he can proceed to trial. Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to schedule arraignment for May 5, but it’s quite possible this is a typo and they meant March 5. (Court doc.)
Convicted fraudster won’t be buying Perth football team after all
The sale of Perth Glory Soccer Club to a London crypto entrepreneur fell through after it turned out that the man behind the company trying to buy Glory — businessman Jim Aylward — is convicted fraudster James Abbass Biniaz. (Imagine that, a person with a criminal past getting involved in crypto?)
Aylward had set up a group called London Football Exchange, a football stock exchange and fan marketplace powered by the LFE token. The grand scheme was for the company to buy soccer teams all over the world and integrate that business with the token.
Glory owner Tony Sage pulled out of the deal after traveling to London to go through a due diligence process with his lawyers and representatives of the London Football Exchange group. Sage had been promised $30 million by Aylward for 80% of the A-League club. (Sydney Morning Herald)
Here’s a recording of Aylward admitting the price of LFE is totally manipulated. “We control about 95% of the token holders,” he said.
Weird stuff happening with e-Payments
Something funny is going on with e-Payments, one of the biggest digital payments firms in the U.K. The London firm, which caters to the adult entertainment, affiliate marketing, and crypto industries, was ordered by the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority to suspend its activities as of Feb. 11 due to loose anti-money-laundering controls. That’s left ePayments’ customers unable to access their funds. Robert Courtneidge, one of its e-Payments’ directors stepped down the following week. Nobody knows why, but it looks like he was previously involved with the OneCoin scam. (FT Alphaville)
(BTW, on my flight back from Vancouver, I listened to the Missing Crypto Queen BBC podcast, which is all about OneCoin, and it’s fantastic. Definitely worth a listen.)
SEC shoots down another bitcoin ETF; Hester Pierce chimes in
In a filing posted Wednesday, the SEC set aflame another bitcoin ETF proposal. The regulator claims Wilshire Phoenix and NYSE Arca had not proven bitcoin is sufficiently resistant to fraud and market manipulation. (Their idea was to mix bitcoin and short-term treasuries to balance out bitcoin’s volatility, but the agency still wasn’t keen.) The SEC has rejected all bitcoin ETFs put before it to date, so there’s no new news here.
Predictably, though, SEC Commissioner Hester Pierce, aka “crypto mom,” filed her statement of dissent. She said the agency’s approach to bitcoin ETFs “evinces a stubborn stodginess in the face of innovation.” For some reason, Pierce seems to consistently confuse innovation with anarchy and giving bad actors free rein.
Speaking of which, she recently posted on Coindesk asking for suggestions to her ICO “safe harbor” plan. Attorney Preston Byrne responded, saying it would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious. He thinks the plan should be tossed in the bin.
other SEC commissioners: "no, 2+2 still makes 4" Hester Peirce: "I think sophisticated market investors can judge for themselves if it makes 5, or even 6. As Bruce Springsteen sung, 'it's just like Sister Ray said.'"
Canada’s central bank plans to lay the foundation for its own digital currency should the day arise where cash no longer rules. In a speech he gave in Montreal, Deputy Governor Tim Lane said there isn’t a compelling case to issue a central bank-backed digital currency right now, but the Bank of Canada is starting to formulate a plan in the event Canadian notes and coins go out of style. (Calgary Sun.)
Despite so many countries jumping into the game, central bank digital currencies are nothing new. They have been around since the 1990s, only nobody cared about them until Facebook’s Libra popped into the scene. Bank of Finland’s Alexi Grym recently did a podcast, where he talks about how the country launched its own Avanti project (a form of CBDC) in 1993. The idea sounded great in theory, but in practice, consumers didn’t like being charged to load the cards, especially since ATM withdrawals were free.
Drug dealer loses all his bitcoin
The problem with keeping track of the keys to your bitcoin is that it’s just too easy to lose them, as this U.K. drug dealer demonstrates. He jotted down the keys to his illicit $60 million BTC on a piece of paper. But then when he went to jail, his landlord gathered up all his belongings and took them to the dump. (Guardian.) This isn’t the first time millions of dollars worth of bitcoin have ended up in a trash heap.
FCoin insolvency bears hallmarks of funny business
FCoin, a crypto exchange based in Singapore, announced its insolvency on Feb. 17 after making the surprise discovery it was short 7,000 to 13,000 bitcoin—worth roughly $70 million to $130 million. The exchange blamed the shortage on a cacophony of errors following the launch of a controversial incentive program called “trans-fee mining.” There has been a lot of speculation that this was an outright scam. Now a new report by Anchain.ai shows BTC leaving the exchange’s cold wallets in droves right before FCoin shuttered and its founder Zhang Jian happily moved on to start a new business.
Quadriga was using Crypto Capital
The law firm representing QadrigaCX’s creditors believes the failed Canadian crypto exchange was funneling money through Crypto Capital. Financial documents that two former Quadriga users posted on Telegram show that to be true. (My blog)
Next question: Was Crypto Capital holding any Quadriga funds at the time the exchange went under? That’s going to be hard to track down given the exchange had no books.
Buffett still thinks crypto is a joke
Tron CEO Justin Sun paid $4.6 million to spend three hours with Warren Buffett and turn him into a crypto fan. He even gave the multi-billionaire some bitcoin. Turns out Buffett, promptly handed those BTC over to charity. He doesn’t want anything to do with bitcoin and still thinks crypto has zero value. “What you hope is someone else comes along and pays you more money for it, but then that person’s got the problem,” he told CNBC.
Steven Segal pays the price of being a shitcoin shill
Steven Segal thought he would bring in a little extra dough by shilling a shitcoin, but the effort backfired. The Hollywood actor has agreed to pay $314,000 to the SEC for failing to disclose payments he received for touting an ICO conducted by Bitcoiin2Gen (spelled with two “i”s) in 2018. He’ll pay a $157,000 disgorgement, plus a $157,000 fine on top.
How long does a blockchain need to be shut down for before it’s considered dead? How is it even possible to shut down something that is decentralized? Oh, wait, maybe it’s not.
IOTA has been offline for 14 days and counting ever since the IOTA Foundation turned off its coordinator node, which puts the final seal of approval on any IOTA currency transactions, to stop an attacker from slurping up funds from its wallet service.
The project has put together a tedious three-part series explaining the theft of its Trinity wallet, its seed migration plan and all the lessons it’s learned from the mishap. It’s all a bit mind-numbing, and you’ll feel a little dead after you read it, too.
Anyway, now the network, which they originally sold as (and spent years claiming was) decentralized has been down for nearly 2 weeks.
Anyway, now the network, which they originally sold as (and spent years claiming was) decentralized has been down for nearly 2 weeks.
“Absurd” isn’t the word I would use to describe the situation.
Well, it’s finally happening. I’m in Vancouver with David Gerard, my mentor and the person responsible for turning me into a bitter nocoiner. If it weren’t for him, I would be doing something productive and useful with my life. Instead, I’m writing about crypto for my blog. Next thing you know, I’ll be a Wikipedia gatekeeper.
This is my first time meeting him in the flesh. I flew in from Boston Saturday with a layover in Toronto, and almost as soon as I got here, David — who arrived several hours earlier on an eight-hour direct flight from London — met me in the hotel lobby. He was everything I pictured — six-foot-four-inches tall, legs a mile long, says “fuck” a lot and likes to drink beer. Naturally, we made a bee-line to the bar.
We’ve both come here to be interviewed for a documentary on failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX. I initially met with filmmaker Sheona McDonald last year in Nova Scotia — after a harrowing drive through a blizzard to attend a Quadriga court hearing — so the plan to bring me and David together has been in the works for nearly a year.
The documentary is for CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster. We aren’t sure when it will be out, but Sheona tells us the film may be in a few festivals first before it’s on TV.
It’s been a tight schedule this weekend. After a long day of travel, this morning, we went to this cool loft in downtown Vancouver for the filming. I was on the hot seat first, followed by David. As it turns out, talking for two-hours is really exhausting, especially when you’ve had only a few hours of sleep.
But this is exciting stuff, and it’s great to be able to hash over the details on what went on inside Quadriga with David. Sheona keeps asking us if we think Gerald Cotten, Quadriga’s cofounder who supposedly single-handedly drove the exchange to insolvency after February 2016, is really dead. David is split 50/50, but I’m leaning toward, no that’s not his body buried in Nova Scotia.
This evening, we got to meet up with fellow journalist and Vancouver local Cali Haan for a nocoiner convention at Starbucks and later for a beer.
We have more filming ahead Monday. While today we were interviewed separately, tomorrow Sheona will shoot us in a coffee shop, sharing ideas about what we think happened with Quadriga. And then after that, it’s off to the airport.
A superseding indictment filed with the SDNY court Thursday includes a new charge of wire fraud for ex-Minnesota Viking co-owner Reginald Fowler.
Fowler, who is living in Chandler, Ariz., while free on $5 million in bail, currently faces four other charges related to bank fraud and operating an illegal money transmitting business, so this makes for count number five.
According to federal prosecutors, from June 2018 to February 2019, Fowler obtained money through “false and fraudulent pretenses” to fund a professional sports league in connection with his ownership stake in the league.
What sports league would that be? The indictment does not tell us. But Fowler invested $25 million in the Alliance of American Football — an attempt to form a new football league — right before its inaugural season and shortly before his arrest on April 30, 2019.
The league ran into problems after withdrawals from Fowler’s domestic and foreign accounts were “held up around Christmas,” freezing a principal source of the league’s funding.
Due to money problems, the AAF collapsed on April 2, 2019, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy two weeks later. The league claimed assets of $11.3 million and liabilities of $48.3 million and held just $536,160.68 in cash.
I’ve stepped down from my role as senior editor of Modern Consensus. It was a matter of not seeing eye-to-eye with my direct report. I tried hard to resolve the situation, but ultimately, I made the decision to leave.
It was not an easy decision to make. I did not have another job lined up. I wasn’t sure where the money would come from. Like everyone else, I have bills to pay, and life in these modern times isn’t cheap. When I explained my quandary to another woman writer, whom I admire greatly, she told me: “Have faith in yourself.” And so, I chose to believe that things will turn out for the best.
What’s next? I’m going to keep writing, obviously. I will write for my own blog because I enjoy it immensely. I’ll write for other publications when I can. I’m open to any and all freelance work. If you have a project you need help with, my Twitter DMs are open, or you can reach me here. I’m also starting up my Patreon account again, so if you want to support my work, you can subscribe for as little as $5 a month.
In the short term, however, I am going to take some time off. I always work hard, but I’ve worked especially hard the last year. When I wasn’t working long days, I was worried about work or thinking about going back to work. I look forward to enjoying leisurely cups of coffee in the morning, going on long walks, and focusing on my yoga.
Last month, Miller Thomson, the law firm representing Quadriga’s former users, asked creditors for help in identifying if the failed Canadian exchange had used Crypto Capital Corp, a payment processor that is allegedly missing some $850 million.
In a letter posted on its website on Jan. 22, the law firm said that it had received information that Quadriga had used a “Panamanian shadow bank” in the final quarter of its operation—presumably, that means September thru December 2018, since the exchange went belly up in January 2019.
The former was a shell company in Chandler, Ariz., set up on Feb. 14, 2018, by Reggie Fowler, one of the individuals alleged to have connections to Crypto Capital. The latter was the Swiss parent company of Crypto Capital. (The firm was cited as a parent company on Crypto Capital’s website.)
Also, in a December 2018 letter published on this blog, Crypto Capital boss Ivan Molina wrote that “Global Trade Solutions AG and related entities” were being denied banking in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere as a result of financial crimes investigations. Molina was arrested for money laundering last year.
What about GTS Germany?
Global Trade Solutions Gmbh is not on Miller Thomson’s list. I can’t find it on any legal or court docs either, but someone posted on Reddit a year ago that they had received their Crypto Capital withdrawals from the company.
Spiral Inc. is a holding company Fowler set up in 1989. At one time it held more than 100 businesses. He also owns Spiral Volleyball.
Links to Quadriga
Two documents recently shared by individuals on Telegram claiming to be Quadriga creditors show funds sent to Global Trade Solutions Gmbh.
On June 28, 2018, one creditor wired $50,000 CAD from the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto to an account at Deutsche Bank in Germany belonging to Global Trade Solutions Gmbh.
“I should have followed my gut feelings when I was at the bank making this wire transfer,” the user told me. “I just had a very shady feeling.”
Another creditor shared the following document on Telegram. Similarly, it shows funds being sent to a Global Trade Solutions Gmbh account at Deutsche Bank. The transfer appears to be going out from a bank in Toronto, but there is no date on it.
There is other evidence to support Quadriga using Crypto Capital. At one time, the payment processor listed Quadriga on its website as a client. Gerald Cotten, the exchange’s now-deceased founder also admitted to using it in the past.
In an email to Bloomberg News on May 17, 2018, he wrote: “Crypto Capital is one such company that we have/do use. In general it works well, though there are occasionally hiccups.”
Assuming Quadriga did use Crypto Capital, the only question that remains is, was the payment processor holding any Quadriga funds when the exchange went belly up? (Remember, Quadriga didn’t keep any books, so it’s up to Miller Thomson and court-appointed trustee Ernst & Young to piece things together.) And if so, is there any chance in hell of getting those funds back?
As a reminder, I will be traveling to Vancouver on Feb. 22 to spend about a day and a half with David Gerard. We are being interviewed for a QuadrigaCX documentary. I know when we get there, we are going to wish we had more time to hang out and meet people in the area. Especially given how far Gerard has to travel (from London) and how beautiful Vancouver is. And with that, here is the news from the past week.
Crypto Mom wants to give criminals a head start
SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce (aka “Crypto Mom”) has unveiled her proposal to create a “safe harbor” for crypto startups, allowing them a three-year grace period after their ICO to achieve a level of decentralization sufficient to pass through the agency’s securities evaluations, specifically the Howey Test. (My story in Modern Consensus.)
Where to begin? Given that most, if not all ICOs are illegal securities offerings, this is like giving fraudsters free reign, so they can pump up their coins, cash in and leave the country. It’s like 2017 all over again. This whole notion of “sufficiently decentralized” is something that first came in mid-2018 when Bill Hinman, the SEC’s director, division of corporate finance, mentioned it in a talk he was giving about Ethereum. There is no clear way of defining “sufficiently decentralized.” It’s a murky concept to begin with. (See David Gerard’s story on Peirce. He goes into more depth and is not nearly so kind.)
Peirce is a Republican with libertarian leanings. Her term expires June 5. With a proposal like this and a nickname “Crypto Mom,” I can only assume she is buttering up for her next gig? Also, the odds of this rule passing are slim to none, especially given SEC Commissioner’s Jay Clayton’s strong criticism of ICOs in the past.
What is the point of this, apart from giving scammers time to rip off unsuspecting investors then escape with the money? https://t.co/MgJm8qmz5A
IOTA is in full meltdown mode. Apparently, IOTA founders Sergey Ivancheglo (aka Come-from-Beyond) and David Sønstebø were working on a ternary computing development project called Jinn. But it fell apart, and now the two can’t stop pointing fingers at each other. Ivancheglo says that he no longer works for foundation director David Sønstebø and is suing him for 25 million MIOTA (~ $8.5 million). Sønstebø wrote this really long Medium post, which I had trouble staying awake through. There is also a r/buttcoin Reddit post that spells out the full drama, if you’re in need of entertainment.
I notify the #IOTA community that I no longer work with David Sønstebø and am contacting my lawyers to get my 25 Ti from him. He refuses to transfer the iotas to make me act for his own benefit and against mine.
Given the maturity level demonstrated by this project in the past, I’m not surprised by any of this. The project has been a complete mess ever since they tried to roll their own crypto in 2017. I wrote about it for Forbes, and they attacked me with weird blog posts and other nonsense. Cofounder Dominik Schiener even threatened to slap me. And when confronted, he accused me of “leading the FUD race.” FT Alphaville actually covered this in a story titled “FUD, inglorious FUD” at the time.
Researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis is calling on some journalist somewhere to do a deep dive on this sketchy project. “At a glance it’s really hard to not come to the conclusion that there is rampant criminal fraud afoot,” she said in a Twitter thread.
Ripple perpetual swaps
Bitmex has announced trading of XRP perpetual swaps. Bitmex co-founder Arthur Hayes apparently believes XRP is lowly enough to trade on his exchange. Boo-yaka-sha!
Is it called Ripple, XRP, or dogshit? Who knows, who cares. It’s worth more than zero so it’s time to trade the USD pair on BitMEX. Boo-Yaka-sha! https://t.co/pa3T5vd5kl
Speaking of Ripple, XRP lost almost half of its value last year. It’s a touchy topic for Galaxy Digital CEO Mike Novogratz, because he has invested $23 million into the coin. He recently told a group of financial advisers in Orlando that XRP will “underperform immensely again this year.” He suggested it’s because Ripple owns a giant pool of the coins and keeps selling them off in a situation he likened to shares. (CoinDesk)
The total amount of XRP in circulation is 100 billion tokens. While Ripple was “gifted” 80 billion, its holdings are down to 56 billion, most of which are in escrow. The company unlocks one billion XRP each month, sells a portion and puts the rest back in escrow. Does that sound like shares to you?
Mastercard dumps all over Libra
Mastercard was one of several payments companies (along with PayPal, eBay, Stripe, Visa, Mercado Pago) to pull out of the Libra Association in October. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mastercard’s CEO Ajay Banga revealed why.
First, Libra Association’s key members refused to commit to avoid running afoul of local KYC/AML rules. Banga would ask them to put things in writing, and they wouldn’t. Second, he didn’t understand what the game plan was for making money. “When you don’t understand how money gets made, it gets made in ways you don’t like.” Finally, the financial inclusion bit struck him as odd. “I’m like: ‘this doesn’t sound right,’” he said.
This gives us a bit of insight into the lack of thought and planning Facebook put into its Libra project before going public with it. You would think a huge enterprise like Facebook would get this stuff right, but apparently not.
ConsenSys splits in two
Joe Lubin’s organism (that’s what he used to call it, an “organism) looks to be running into more funding trouble, so it’s going to spin off its venture arm. The company will basically become two separate businesses, a software business and an investment business. In the process, it’s also cutting another 14% of its staff. This is after cutting 13% of its staff in December. (My story in Modern Consensus.)
At one time, ConsenSys had 1,200 employees. In mid-2018, it reportedly had 900. About 117 were let go in December, and likely another 100 in this last round. This is a company that midwifed many of the ICOs that fueled the 2017-2018 crypto bubble. I can still recall going to ConsenSys’ Ethereum Summit on a sweltering day in May 2017 and watching some guy on stage strip down to his boxer shorts. Such was the exuberance at the time.
On Thursday, Tron CEO Justin Sun tweeted a receipt and pictures to show he finally dined with Warren Buffet. This, after paying $4.6 million in a charity auction last year to have lunch with the multi-billionaire. They were originally supposed to meet in San Francisco six months ago, but Sun postponed. This time they had dinner on Buffet’s home turf in Omaha, so Buffet clearly learned his lesson. Other guests were Litecoin’s Charlie Lee, Huobi CFO Chris Lee, eToro chief Yoni Assia, Binance Charity Foundation Head Helen Hai. The bill was for $515 and Buffet left a $100 tip. (Modern Consensus.)
Craig Wright’s abuse of privilege
Craig Wright, the self-professed creator of bitcoin, is driving the attorneys representing Ira Kleiman and the judge bananas. In a document filed with the court on Feb. 2, plaintiffs claimed that Wright has asserted privilege over 11,000 company documents. That is only part of the problem, they said. “The vague descriptions of what is being withheld makes any meaningful analysis on a document by document basis impossible.”
Wright has also apparently claimed that the” bonded courier” is an attorney and any communications with this person of mystery is privileged as well. (Modern Consensus.)
Altsbit gets hacked
Exchange hacks are extremely rare. We don’t hear about them too often, only once every few weeks or so. The latest victim is a small Italian exchange called Altsbit, which had its hot wallet vacuumed clean last week.
This was especially bad for Altsbit, because for some inexplicable reason, the exchange was keeping almost all of its funds in its hot wallet, which is a terrible idea. Most exchanges keep the majority of their funds in offline cold storage for security purposes.
According to reports, the hackers stole 1,066 Komodo (KMD) tokens and 283,375 Verus (VRSC) coins. The combined value of both stands at about $27,000. That’s small potatoes compared to other exchange hacks, where hundreds of millions worth of coins have gone missing. Almost all of Altsbit’s trading activity was coming from the ARRR/BTC pair. (ARRR is the native token of the Pirate Chain.) Altsbit said in a tweet on Feb. 5, it was investigating details of the hack and would get back to everyone soon, but so far nada. The exchange was founded in April 2018.
Dear users, Unfortunately we have to notify you with the fact that our exchange was hacked during the night and almost all funds from BTC, ETH, ARRR and VRSC were stolen. A small part of the funds are safe on cold wallets.
Bakkt, the ICE-owned bitcoin options and futures exchange, isn’t making any money on bitcoin options, but that’s okay because it has another plan. It’s going into payments. The exchange is set to acquire loyalty program provider Bridge2 Solutions. The master plan is to integrate reward points, crypto, and in-game tokens into a single app, so consumers get an aggregate view of their digital assets. Eventually consumers will be able to spend those as cash via the Bakkt mobile app. But for that to happen, Bakkt will have to invest copious amounts of money into marketing to get merchants to adopt the new system of payment. (My story in Modern Consensus)
What’s happening with Jae Kwon? As Decrypt reported on Jan. 31, he stepped down as CEO of Cosmos to work on a project called Virgo with lofty aims. Cosmos pulled in $17 million in an ICO in 2017. Now Kwon is tweeting under three different monikers and the people within his company have come to find his behavior untenable. (Coindesk)
Another study has come out showing that proof-of-stake is just as costly as proof-of-work. But instead of contributing to global warming, PoS requires stakers to put down tokens, lots and lots of them. It’s more evidence that blockchains aren’t economical.
If you have comments or feedback on this newsletter or a tip, drop me a line or DM me on Twitter at @ahcastor.
# # #
Crypto enables you to send vast amounts of make believe money almost instantaneously & with very low fees, assuming both parties are on the same blockchain. In the world of real money, this is known as an intra-bank transfer, and has been instantaneous & virtually free for years.
Only three weeks to go before David Gerard and I meet up together in Vancouver for work on a QuadrigaCX documentary. I hope the jet lag doesn’t take too much out of him. (He’s traveling from London.) I want to see what happens when he has a few drinks.
The comedy gold medal of the week goes to Massive Adoption, a bitcoin conference that’s now being called the Fyre Festival of crypto because of the packages sold. Jacob Kostecki promised roundtrip flights, hotels and parties for $300-$400. In a shock to all (note the sarcasm), he called the whole thing off. But don’t worry, your refunds are coming. It may take months, but they’re coming. Promise. I swear. So sorry about all this.
David Gerard was the one to originally report on #CryptoFyreFest. I wrote two stories for Modern Consensus on the topic. You’ll find them here and here.
Our friend Jacob appears to have alienated more than a few casual strangers on the internet. His own brother Jedrek has been speaking out about him on social media. According to Jedrek, Jacob has left a trail of debt and broken promises behind him. And yes, Jacob confirmed to me in a DM that Jedrek is indeed his brother.
Well, he was named as a scammer on the cover of a business journal, my pregnant wife and I have multiple visits from the cops because of him and he caused me to lose work, not to mention the money he owes me. My tank of loyalty is empty.
Jacob’s behavior reminds me a bit of Gerald Cotten’s when he was running HYIP schemes on TalkGold: Collect people’s money, and then later, tell them the scheme/event has collapsed. Blame it on something external to your control. (Jacob, for instance, is now pointing fingers at everyone, even me.) Apologize profusely and start issuing refunds in good faith, but slowly and over a long period, until people finally give up and go away.
Also, I can’t help but notice the strong resemblance of the Massive Adoption logo to that of this media consultancy firm.
Virgil’s pot of gold?
Virgil Griffith, former head of special projects for Ethereum Foundation, pleaded not-guilty on Thursday to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. He flew to New York from his parent’s house in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to enter his plea. I guess this means he is planning to go to trial? I have to wonder where all the money is coming from. Brian Klein, Griffith’s high profile L.A. lawyer, has made several trips to New York and these legal services don’t come cheap. Griffith’s parents and sister have already put up $1 million for his bail.
Telegram’s ICO investors surface
The SEC alleges that Telegram ran a scheme whereby wealthy investors—including several Silicon Valley heavyweights—would get tokens at a steep discount, then dump them on crypto exchanges to bilk retailers. More of those possible investors are now surfacing in court docs. As reported in CoinDesk, they may include:
The law firm representing QuadrigaCX’s former users are nudging the RCMP to dig up the corpse of Gerald Cotten, the exchange’s dead CEO, to make sure it’s really him and not some random dead guy from India. Everybody is mouthing the word “exit scam,” and this is likely the easiest way to find out. Of course, if the body is exhumed and it’s not Cotten, you can expect a Netflix series soon. (My story in my blog.)
Also, Quadriga’s fifth trustees report is out. Basically, it says that big four accounting firm EY, the collapsed exchange’s court appointed trustee, spent half a million U.S. dollars on fulfilling law enforcement requests in the second half of 2019. The small pile of what’s left of Quadriga creditor’s money continues to shrink. (My story in my blog)
Reggie Fowler and the mysterious sealed document
Alleged Bitfinex money mule Reginald Fowler was supposed to plead guilty to one count and have the other three counts dropped. But something weird happened when the Arizona businessman stepped before a New York judge on Jan. 17. According to Bloomberg, Fowler was supposed to surrender ~ $371 million in more than 50 accounts. The deal fell apart when he only agreed to forfeit whatever was in the accounts.
Now, according to a Jan. 31 court filing, the U.S. Government has officially withdrawn its plea offer. Nobody knows the full details of what happened that day, but a mysterious sealed document, which appeared in his court filings on Jan. 30, might contain some clues. His trial begins April 28.
Spammers gonna spam
In part two of “Decred fires its publicist because Ditto PR could not get the altcoin project a Wikipedia page” David Gerard, who happens to be a longtime Wikipedia administrator, fires back. He wrote an entire blog post calling Ditto out on their no-coiner conspiracy claims. (Ditto originally alluded to Gerard in saying that “a few influential no-coiners have admin power and are intentionally censoring crypto pages.”) He also wrote an article on Wikipedia Signpost, where he talks about the “ongoing firehose of spam” Wikipedia has had to put up with following the 2017 crypto bubble.
Wikipedia has set rules governing what stays up on the site and what gets taken down, and those rules have nothing to do with the site’s administrators. Ditto should know this, as opposed to hiding behind some mad-capped nocoiner conspiracy theory.
Bakkt is a ghost town
The hope was that bitcoin options would lure institution money into the space and send the price of bitcoin through the atmosphere. The unfortunate reality is that literally, no one is trading Bakkt’s bitcoin options. (The bitcoin futures exchange is governed by the Intercontinental Exchange, the owners of the New York Stock Exchange.)
In the last full trading week of January, not a single bitcoin options contract was traded on Bakkt, Coindesk reported. Bakkt launched the first regulated bitcoin options contract on Dec. 9, having rolled out a cash-settled futures and physically settled futures in November and September, respectively.
Chainalysis released a report on criminal uses of cryptocurrency in 2019. As long as you overlook some of the marketing fluff—e.g., 60 million Americans bought bitcoin last year—there’s some interesting takeaways. Like the bit about how crooks seem to cash out their bitcoins via over-the-counter trades going through Binance and Huobi. And how, for the first time in Bitcoin’s history, black market sales in crypto surpassed $600 million last year. (See my story in Modern Consensus.)
There’s been more than one news report claiming coronavirus is good for bitcoin. This is utter nonsense. The reason the price of bitcoin goes wildly up and down is because the markets are thinly traded, making them easy to manipulate. Literally, every time there is a crisis happening somewhere in the world, bitcoiners claims that’s good for bitcoin.
Far right website @Zerohedge had their Twitter account suspended. They always post wild stuff, but apparently, they crossed a line. Buzzfeed said the site claimed without evidence that a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology created the strain of the virus that has led the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency.
Ernst & Young, the bankruptcy trustee for failed Canadian crypto exchange Quadriga, filed its fifth report of the trustee with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Jan. 22.
The purpose of the 79-page document was to submit the accounts of the trustee and its counsel with regard to activities involving various law enforcement officials, regulatory agencies and tax authorities. In its report, EY collectively refers these activities as “law enforcement.”
In August 2019, EY told the court that it was getting overwhelmed with requests for material from law enforcement agencies and regulators. Collecting and producing the information is hard work and lawyers don’t come cheap. A court order on Sept. 17, 2019, solved that, giving EY the green light to continue cooperating with investigators.
EY worked with its general bankruptcy lawyer Stikeman Elliott to facilitate its cooperation with law enforcement. It also brought onboard Toronto law firm Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin for extra help in producing documents.
The volume of documents was huge, so EY put everything into a central “EDiscovery” database. At present, the database contains about 750,000 individual documents, it said.
The grand total for six months of responding to investigator inquiries came to CAD $637,156 ($484,000 USD). The costs were broken down as follows:
EY’s fees in connection with law enforcement activities for the period June 24, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2019, came to CAD $188,939.
Stikeman Elliott’s fees in connection with law enforcement activities for the period June 16, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2019, came to $133,618.
Lenczner Slaght’s fees in connection with law enforcement activities for the period June 25, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2019, totaled CAD $314,599.
EY said that it made “various efforts” to minimize costs and streamline the accumulation, review, and production of documents. However, it said, given the volume of documents and the time and effort required, the cost was still significant. The rest of the lengthy report spells out how the expenses were accrued.
Miller Thomson, the law firm representing Quadriga’s 76,000 creditors, is ramping up pressure on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to dig up the body of Gerald Cotten, the deceased founder of the failed Canadian cryptocurrency exchange.
Spring is just around the corner. That means the ground in the cold north is going to thaw, and so will the body of Cotten—or whoever that is buried six feet under—putting it at risk of further decomposition. Time is of the essence!
Miller Thomson originally sent a letter to the RCMP at their headquarters in Ottawa on Dec. 13 asking that they exhume the body of Quadriga’s former CEO pronto. They also requested a post-mortem autopsy to identify if that is truly his body and to determine the cause of death. Apparently, no action has been taken yet.
So on Tuesday, Quadriga’s court-appointed counsel dashed off a letter to the Honorable Bill Blair, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, who is the person responsible for the RCMP. Miller Thomson explained all of this in a separate letter that it emailed to Quadriga’s creditors and posted on its website the same day.
Miller Thomson said that it asked Blair to give them an update on whether the RCMP will conduct an exhumation and postmortem autopsy on the “alleged” — this is the language they are using now — body of Cotten prior to Spring 2020.
Miller Thomson also gave out Blair’s email, so that Quadriga creditors could contact him “if they have further questions about the RCMP’s management of this file.”
What this means is, Blair will probably wake up Wednesday to hundreds of angry emails from people who have serious doubts as to whether Cotten is really dead. The law firm also suggested creditors contact their local members of parliament.
I reached out to Blair for comments. It’s too late for him to respond now, but if he writes back, I’ll post his comments here.
Cotten died in Rajasthan, India, at the age of 30, from complications to Crohn’s disease. His body was embalmed in India before it was repatriated to Canada. The closed-casket funeral service took place at J.A. Snow Funeral Home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Dec. 14, 2018—the date he was laid to rest.
As most of you already know by now, I started a new job at the beginning of the month. I’m now senior editor at Modern Consensus. On Jan. 3, my second day on the job, I smashed my right index finger in my car door, and ended it up in the ER twice, first to stitch up the finger, and again to stop the profuse bleeding.
It was a bad smash. Early in the morning, after only a few hours sleep and a grueling yoga class, I stopped at a dog park. My dogs dashed out of the car, and as I was watching them, worried about coyotes, other dogs and cars in the vicinity (predators loom large in a tired mind), I wasn’t watching the finger, so I closed the door on it. My finger was so stuck in there, I had to actually pry open the door to get it out.
The finger is much better now, though still numb at the tip. But the good news is I can type with all my fingers again. No more hunt and peck, which is why I’m finally writing this update now.
Previous to Modern Consensus, I worked seven months for an ATM publication. Some of that was interesting. I was learning about cash and the world’s move away from cash. I got to cover bitcoin ATMs and the regulation—or lack of—in that space. But on the whole, I missed writing about the crypto space. It kept calling me back. Literally, I was still getting calls from people who knew me from my work around failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX.
I should mention why I turned to full-time work in June 2019 in the first place. Months prior, with encouragement from prolific nocoiner blogger David Gerard, I discovered the freedom of blog writing. Blogging is great. Nobody steps in to rearrange your sentences, wildly move paragraphs around, cross things out, or stick things in that feel like they don’t belong. (Editors do that kind of thing.) You are your own boss. The problem is, no one is paying you for the work either, so unless you are living out of a van, and don’t have rent or a mortgage, it’s a tough road. (Gerard, by the way, has a full time gig as a system administrator, so blogging is something he does on the side.)
Freelance work, which I’ve also done a lot of, is a tough road, too. A decade ago, you could make $1 a word as a freelance journalist. Now you are lucky to make $0.50. Writing, in general, has become a brutal profession. Nowadays, everyone is competing for clicks and views, and that means SEO and keywords, and at times, sacrificing any sense of individuality. But life is about compromises.
That said, I am very happy to be working for Modern Consensus. It is a small team, but a small team of very experienced and dedicated journalists, who know their stuff. And if it weren’t for the talented Lawrence Lewitinn leaving that small publication that he cofounded (he’s the one who actually came up with the name “Modern Consensus”) to join CoinDesk, there wouldn’t have been an opening for me fill. Now I get to research and write about crypto and finance and frauds full time until my eyes bleed.
I still plan to continue writing for my blog though, even if that’s just newsletters and small updates here and there. It’s something I enjoy doing and a chance for me to speak my mind the way I want to.
Let me kick off this newsletter with some personal news — I’ll be in Vancouver in the third weekend in February to meet up with David Gerard, the bitter nocoiner we all know and love. We’re both being interviewed for a documentary on QuadrigaCX. It’ll be a quick trip, but I suspect we’ll have enough time for a bottle of champagne, or two. I can’t wait to meet him for the first time in person. Next, on to the news.
CBDCs are all the rage
The big excitement these days tends to be around central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs. Ever since Facebook announced its plans for Libra in June 2019, central banks have been leaping into the digital currency bandwagon, researching the possibility of launching their CBDC.
China wants to be the first advanced economy to launch a CBDC. (Other central banks, such as the Central Bank of the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, are well on their way with pilots up and running.) Lawmakers for Japan’s ruling party say they are planning to put a proposal for a digital yen in front of the government next month. (Oops! Apparently, Japan’s legislators are looking to issue a state-backed digital yen, not a CBDC, as I previously thought.) And the Bank for International Settlements says that in three years, one fifth of the world’s population will be using a CBDC.
What’s a CBDC? While Libra is supposed to be backed by a basket of assets, a CBDC is a an actual replacement for cash. In other words, it’s legal tender issued and backed by the state’s central bank—not the state itself. This is where things get a bit confusing.
John Kiff, a senior financial sector expert at the International Monetary Fund, tells me the taxonomy for digital currencies is tricky and some definitions are still a bit fuzzy. He defines a CBDC as “a digital representation of sovereign currency that is issued by a jurisdiction’s monetary authority and appears on the liability side of the monetary authority’s balance sheet.” That should clarify things!
The general idea is, you should be able to use a CBDC to buy movie tickets, pay for groceries or buy a house. The big question here is, why would you want to use a CBDC if your debit card is more convenient and costs less to use?
Apparently, all this CBDC stuff is nothing new. Aleksi Grym, head of digitalization at the Bank of Finland, said in a Twitter thread that we are going through the third historical wave of digital currencies. During the first wave, in 1993, the Bank of Finland launched a CBDC product called Avant. It was discontinued after 13 years. This February 2000 article in the Economist (paywall) describes the second wave of digital currencies, he said.
Taking us back through time, David Gerard has written a blog post detailing the history of Avant. CBDC advocacy hasn’t changed since the days of Avant, he argues. “CBDCs are the sort of thing the vendor loves — but I’ve yet to see the case for consumers.” Does that mean the debit card will win?
Vodafone dealt another blow to the Libra project, when it announced on Tuesday it had pulled out of the Libra Association, the independent governing council for Facebook’s planned cryptocurrency. The British telecom giant said that it wants to put the resources it originally intended for Libra into its African mobile money transfer service M-Pesa. The 28 companies originally joining the association had pledged to put in $10 million apiece. Vodafone is the eighth big company to pull out.
You can’t blame Vodafone. Who would want to throw $10 million into a project whose chances of getting off the ground — at least in the format originally intended — are slim to none? Facebook is facing too many regulatory headwinds at this point, and clearly Vodafone doesn’t want to take that risk.
Elsewhere in the stablecoin world, on Thursday, Tether launched Tether Gold, a stablecoin backed by — you’ll want to sit down for this — real gold. That’s right. No longer do you need to bear the burden of worrying about where to safely store your personal stockpile of gold. Tether will take it off your hands and issue you I.O.U.s in it’s place. Similar to its fiat-backed cousin, Tether Gold is fully redeemable — under certain terms! If you want your full gold bars back, you’ll have to pick them up in Switzerland.
PayPal stopped supporting payments to Pornhub in November, but that’s okay because now the world’s most popular porn site accepts tethers— the kind that run on the Tron blockchain. The big question here is, what are the webcam models going to do with all the heaps of tether they earn? At some point, they need to convert those to dirty fiat to buy groceries and pay rent. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be easy.
More WB21 stuff
I wrote a lengthy story on WB21 (now Black Banx) for Modern Consensus last week. Roger Knox, who was a client of WB21, the payment processor that is allegedly holding $9 million in QuadrigaCX funds, pleaded guilty to running a $165 pump and dump on Jan. 13. Three other individuals connected to the scam have also pleaded guilty.
Matthew Ledvina, a Swiss attorney, pleaded guilty in Boston on Feb. 1, 2019.
Milan Patel, a Swiss attorney, pleaded guilty in Boston on Dec. 3, 2018.
Morrie Tobin, a California resident, pleaded guilty in Boston on Dec. 3, 2018.
Michael Gastauer, who ran WB21, has not been formally charged, though he was named in the October 2018 civil suit along with Knox. I would assume plans are to indict him as well. It is not unusual for somebody charged by the SEC or law enforcement to cough up information in return for a lesser sentence. So all these guilty pleas probably don’t bode well for him. I’m just not sure if anyone knows where Gastauer is right now. But guessing by some of the schemes he has been involved with, he likely has access to plenty of money. If he is at large, he could stay that way for a while.
WB21 also allegedly laundered money for cryptocurrency ponzi scheme OneCoin, according to a recent report in Financial Telegram.
On Wednesday, Miller Thomson, the representative counsel for QuadrigaCX creditors, asked creditors for help in identifying any records — financial or otherwise — related to Crypto Capital Corp.
In a letter (archive) posted on its website, the law firm said it had received information that a “Panamanian shadow bank” may have been a payment processor for the exchange in the final quarter of its operation. In other words, sometime in Q4 2019.
Crypto Capital at one time listed Quadriga on its website as a client. The exchange’s now-deceased founder also admitted to using the firm in the past. In an email to Bloomberg News on May 17, 2018, Gerald Cotten wrote: “Crypto Capital is one such company that we have/do use. In general it works well, though there are occasionally hiccups.”
In other news
On the legal front, in a complaint filed Tuesday, the SEC charged blockchain marketplace Opporty for conducting an unregistered ICO. The company raised $600,000 preselling its OPP tokens to roughly 200 investors in the U.S. and elsewhere. Opporty sold the tokens to wealthy investors via a simple agreement for future tokens, or SAFT contract.
SAFTs are a bad idea to begin with, but Opporty likely drew even more regulatory scrutiny to itself in describing its platform as some kind of magic do-it-all system. In its offering material, the company described its “ecosystem” as an “online platform that combines a blockchain-powered service marketplace, a knowledge-sharing platform, a system of decentralized escrow and a Proof-of-Expertise blockchain protocol.”
there's a decent likelihood that proof of before anything other than work or maybe stake when included in sales materials has a good chance of showing up in an SEC complaint eventually. pic.twitter.com/GfTgUxjc9g
Elsewhere, the Blockchain Association has thrown its support behind Telegram. In a brief filed with the court on Tuesday, the advocacy group sided with the messenger app in the SEC v. Telegram lawsuit. It told the judge that a ruling in favor of the SEC would stifle innovation in the field and hurt investors. Those investors included prominent VC firms Benchmark and Lightspeed Capital, along with several wealthy Russians. Together they put up $1.7 billion in exchange for the promise of future grams.
The Chamber of Digital Commerce also filed an amicus brief with the court, but with a broader focus, asking the court to come up with a better definition of digital assets.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit naming Tether have requested the consolidation of three lawsuits claiming that Tether manipulated the price of bitcoin and related bitcoin futures markets. They filed a letter with the court on Jan. 16. Tether seems to be okay with it.
French officials on Friday filed preliminary charges of money laundering and extortion against Alexander Vinnik, according to a report in the AP. The Russian nationalist was first arrested in Greece in July 2017, after he was accused of laundering $4 billion through the now-defunct exchange BTC-e. Greek authorities ruled that Vinnik should go to France, then to the U.S. and finally to Russia. Vinnik’s not happy about it. He was hoping to go straight to Russia, where he would face lighter sentencing.
Finally, Decred dumped it’s PR agency Ditto PR because they weren’t able to get a Wikipedia page for the project despite getting paid a retainer of $300,000. (It’s not clear if they were paid in DCR or dirty fiat.) Ben Munster covers the story in a hilarious article for Decrypt. And here is the full thread of Decred’s former publicist arguing their case.
Updated Jan. 26 at 4 p.m. E.T. with a clearer definition of CBDCs and a quote from John Kiff.
Updated Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. E.T. to add a section about Quadriga.