Poloniex gets busted by SEC for $10M, and Circle pays — again

Sometimes you make a bad business decision, and you keep paying for it. And for Circle — the company behind the USDC stablecoin — that bad decision was Poloniex, the crypto exchange it bought in February 2018 for $400 million.  

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced in a press release on Monday that Poloniex agreed to pay $10 million to settle charges that it operated an unregistered securities exchange. Poloniex neither admits or denies the claims by agreeing to the settlement. 

Circle, which plans to go public via a special-purpose acquisition company merger, will cover the cost of the settlement, adding to the $156.8 million it already lost when it sold Poloniex in October 2019 — only 18 months after buying the troubled exchange. 

According to the SEC, Poloniex allowed users to trade digital assets that were unregistered securities from July 2017 through November 2019, though it didn’t specify exactly which tokens were securities. 

Exchanges that sell securities have to register with the SEC or apply for an exemption, according to Section 5 of the Security and Exchange Act of 1934. 

Although Circle had plans to turn Poloniex into a regulated exchange, those plans never materialized. Instead, Circle ended up paying for Poloniex’s mistakes.

History of Polo

Poloniex launched in January 2014. In its early days, it operated out of Somerville, Massachusetts, not far from Circle headquarters in Boston. 

The exchange started off allowing users to trade bitcoin for a number of “promising” altcoins — such as Namecoin, Memorycoin, Klondikecoin, Earthcoin, and the like — as you can see from this 2014 web archive. 

In March 2014, Poloniex lost 12.3% of its bitcoin supply (97 BTC), worth around $48,000 at the time, when it was hacked, leaving the company insolvent.  

“I take full responsibility; I will be donating some of my own money, and I will not be taking profit before the debt is paid,” Poloniex then-owner Tristan D’Agosta said on BitcoinTalk, writing under the username Busoni.

By July 2014, D’Agosta said he had paid back the debt, thanks to the popularity of Monero, a privacy coin known for its use in money laundering, darknet markets, ransomware, and cryptojacking. 

Later, the exchange allowed users to trade altcoins against Ether and increasingly Tether — a stablecoin with dubious backing. 

Since Poloniex was never able to get proper banking, it remained a crypto-to-crypto exchange. If you wanted to exit into fiat, you had to move your BTC or ETH to a banked crypto exchange, such as Kraken or Coinbase.

All through the initial coin offering craze and bitcoin bull market of 2017, Poloniex cashed in, listing a slew of ICO tokens in the same manner that it had previously listed all those altcoins. 

Circle knew the SEC was breathing down Polo’s neck when it opted to purchase the exchange.

According to Circle’s consolidated December 31, 2020, and 2019, financial statements, which were part of its SPAC filing, the SEC had filed a complaint against Poloniex in December 2017 related to “the trading of cryptocurrencies that may be characterized as securities.” Circle set aside $10.4 million to pay for the settlement. 

In July 2017, the SEC released its infamous DAO Report, effectively saying that most ICOs were investment contracts. The report also warned crypto exchanges that they needed to register with the SEC as a national exchange or apply for an exemption — if they were going to list these tokens. 

At that time, Poloniex should have delisted every single one of its ICO tokens. Instead, the exchange put profits ahead of common sense. 

“Poloniex chose increased profits over compliance with the federal securities laws by including digital asset securities on its unregistered exchange,” Kristina Littman, chief of the SEC enforcement cyber unit, said in a statement.  

Big plans

Circle purchased Polo with pie-in-the-sky plans. A few months after the purchase, Circle would get $110 million in funding led by Bitmain, a Chinese crypto mining company, to launch USDC. Eventually, the stablecoin business would become more attractive. 

Jeremy Allaire and Sean Neville, Circle’s co-founders, described turning Poloniex into a marketplace for “tokens which represent everything of value,” including physical goods, real estate and even creative productions. 

The timing of the purchase was terrible. In February 2018, Bitcoin had lost half of its value since reaching nearly $20,000 in December 2017. Retailers were selling their bitcoin and getting out of the crypto markets. And Poloniex was left with a backlog of 140,000 open customer tickets to deal with.

Circle figured that if it could transform Poloniex into a respectable alternative trading system — a type of exchange that would qualify for an exemption — the SEC would not push charges. 

According to a leaked slide from a Circle presentation, the SEC told Circle that it would “not pursue any enforcement action for prior activity” at Poloniex as long as Circle turns it into a regulated exchange. 

Only the ATS never happened. Instead, Circle moved most of Poloniex’s international operations offshore to Bermuda in July 2019, so that it could sidestep US regulations. 

Around the same time, Poloniex announced a partnership with payment processor Simplex in mid-2019 that allowed users in 80 countries to fund their accounts with cash and have their money automatically “tokenized” into USDC.  

Meanwhile, throughout 2019, Poloniex’s problems kept adding up.

Circle received subpoenas from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and an Iranian government agency looking into Poloniex registered accounts and transactions that may have violated sanctions. According to its SPAC filings, Circle estimated the penalty would be between $1.1 million to $2.8 million.

Several Poloniex investors lost money in May 2019 when CLAM token suffered a flash crash, causing substantial numbers of margin loans to default. The exchange had to socialize $14 million in losses, opening itself up to class-action lawsuits. 

Circle estimated it would have to pay $1.3 million for two settlements, according to its filings. The company says “the remaining prospective claims are not probable of being successful at the current time and will continue to monitor developments around these claims and other claims made by affected lenders.”

Enough is enough

In October 2019, Circle decided to spin off Poloniex to a new entity — Seychelles-based Polo Digital Assets Ltd — backed by an Asian investment group. Tron CEO Justin Sun led the consortium with plans to invest $100 million into the exchange. 

Why did Circle sell Polo? It is likely the crypto downturn of 2018 made operating the exchange too costly. And I’m guessing it was a lot more work to turn Polo into a regulated exchange than Circle anticipated, given all Polo’s previous mishaps. 

Neville stepped down from Circle after the sale. He didn’t give an explicit reason why, but he told Coindesk that the company’s recent sale of Polo was one of several factors that made “the time appropriate for me to transition.” 

After that, Circle decided to put all of its energy into its USDC stablecoin, of which there are now 26.7 billion in circulation. 

Tesla spent $1.5B in clean car credits on bitcoin, the filthiest asset imaginable

Tesla bought $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin, the company said in a regulatory filing on Monday, effectively putting nearly all of the money it earned on clean car credits towards the world’s filthiest asset.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the firm’s SEC filing. As of January 2021, the Silicon Valley-based company updated its investment policy to allow it more flexibility in diversifying its returns on cash. Those changes allow Tesla to buy bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which it immediately did.

“Thereafter, we invested an aggregate $1.50 billion in bitcoin under this policy and may acquire and hold digital assets from time to time or long-term. Moreover, we expect to begin accepting bitcoin as a form of payment for our products in the near future, subject to applicable laws and initially on a limited basis, which we may or may not liquidate upon receipt.”

The filing does not say how Tesla bought the bitcoin or how they are custodying it. It also does not tell us how many bitcoin it purchased or for what average price. We only know Tesla bought bitcoin sometime between Jan. 1 and early February, when the price was between $30,000 to $41,000. 

Tesla says its customers will be able to buy its vehicles with bitcoin. However, “liquidate upon receipt” means that if you purchase a Tesla with bitcoins, the company is likely to sell those bitcoins for cash immediately, something that is usually done by sending the funds through a payment processor first.

This is what most large merchants do when they say they are accepting bitcoin. They convert it to cash, so they don’t have to deal with bitcoin’s wild volatility. So if you buy a Tesla with bitcoin in the future, it will likely be the same as selling your bitcoin for fiat and then handing the cash over to Tesla.

Clean car credits for bitcoin

Tesla earns tradable credits under various regulations related to zero-emission vehicles, greenhouse gas, fuel economy, renewable energy, and clean fuel. It then turns around and sells those credits to other automakers when they can’t comply with auto emissions and fuel economy standards.

In 2020, Tesla reported making $1.58 billion in selling these tradable credits it received. And here is the important bit: without those tradeable credits, the company would not have been profitable. Tesla would have lost money. So what does it do with that money? It turns around and buys bitcoin.

Bitcoin is an environmental disaster. The bitcoin network currently burns around 116.87 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, according to the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance. To give you an idea of how devastating that is to our climate, that is as much energy as a small country or seven nuclear power plants.

Keep in mind, bitcoin’s energy consumption increases right alongside the price of bitcoin. As bitcoin goes up in price, more people want to mine the virtual currency for profit, leading to greater energy consumption as they pile more money into power-hungry ASIC rigs.

Bitcoin is not only filthy for its energy waste but also because it is the currency of choice in underground economies. Ransomware would probably not exist if it were not for bitcoin.

And bitcoin fits the very definition of a Ponzi scheme. It has no intrinsic value—any money new investors put into the system immediately goes out via bitcoin miners selling their 900 newly minted bitcoin per day. Tesla’s massive influx of cash will fund the bitcoin miners for about a month and a half, at most.

Elon Musk shilling crypto

Two years ago, Musk and Tesla paid a combined $40 million penalty to the SEC after Musk’s cryptic tweets about taking Tesla private led to stock fluctuations. The regulator charged him with securities fraud. As part of the settlement, Musk agreed to step down as chairman of the company, although he continued to hold the title of CEO.

Apparently, Musk has learned nothing from that experience. Last month, presumably around the time Tesla was buying up hoards of bitcoin unbeknownst to the general public, Musk caused the price of bitcoin to go up 20% when he changed his Twitter bio to include the word “bitcoin.”

Soon after changing the bio, Musk said in a tweet: “In retrospect, it was inevitable.” In retrospect, that tweet looks like an early hint that Tesla was funneling money into the digital asset.

Will Musk get into trouble for his bitcoin tweets?

It is unlikely, Columbia University Law Professor John Coffee, Jr., told the Wall Street Journal, especially given that a federal judge rebuked the SEC when it sought to hold Musk in contempt in 2019. “I don’t think the commission would dare push it that far,” he said.

The latest Tesla news caused bitcoin to spike 18% this morning, sending the price to over $44,000, and setting a new all-time high.

Updates Feb. 8: Bitcoin topped $44,000 on Monday, even higher than the $43,000 I mentioned earlier. I added that in the SEC settlement Musk agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla. And I added the Coffee quote from WSJ.

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News: Tether surpasses $26B, Elon Musk pumps BTC, Gregory Pepin’s magic trick

It’s been three years since the last bitcoin bubble. And as I write this newsletter, I can’t help but feel this is getting so tiring. Where are the regulators? Why did they not step in long ago to put an end to so much nonsense in the crypto space? Things just seem to keep getting crazier.

Tether has now surpassed 26 billion tethers—after minting 1.3 billion last week alone. How does an outfit get away with creating $1.3 billion worth of a stablecoin without being subjected to an audit? Without a cease and desist? It’s been more than two years since the NY attorney general started investigating them.

Bitcoin slipped below $30,000 on Wednesday, but then climbed to $37,800 on Friday after Elon Musk added #bitcoin to his Twitter bio, apparently just for the lulz. The move sparked $387 million worth of short liquidations on Binance, Bitfinex, BitMEX, ByBit, Deribit, FTX, HuobiDM and OKEx.

Today Bitcoin is back down to $32,800.

In general, it’s been a week of madness in the markets. Reddit group WallStreetBets has been pushing up lousy stocks like GME and AMC to squeeze the shorts and wreak havoc on certain hedge funds. And to take the joke even further, they even pushed up the price of dogecoin 800% in a 24-hour period. Unsurprisingly, the DOGE pump was fueled mainly by tethers.

Still sore about that Bit Short story?

Are tethers backed? Nobody will give you a straight answer and certainly not Stuart Hoegner, Tether’s general counsel, who spends all day retweeting tweets and trying to convince folks that tethers are worth real money.

He is apparently still upset about the anonymous “Bit Short” article, which I mentioned in my previous newsletter. He keeps saying it’s all FUD, and now claims it’s not only hurting Tether, but all of bitcoin. Of course, the reason the story is gaining popularity is because it is largely true.

“But beyond its false claims about @Tether_to, this post really amounts to an attack on the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem. Bitcoin has a market cap of above US$600B, and the growing number of major institutions investing in bitcoin is a tribute,” he said in a Twitter thread.

Hoegner keeps complaining. (Also, we already know market cap is nonsense when it comes to bitcoin and the reason institutions have been jumping in is mainly because they see an attractive arb opportunity via GBTC.) But the one thing Tether won’t do is come clean and audit its reserves, which would put the whole matter to bed once and for all. Do those reserves consist of cash that Tether got from real clients? Or is Tether simply buying bitcoin with tethers and selling them for USD on OTC desks and banked exchanges?

Instead of giving out real answers, Stuart and Paolo and their friends at Deltec keep trying to obfuscate, distort, and push the blame on “disbelievers” and “salty nocoiners.”

Gregory Pepin’s disappearing act

Tether is a perpetual PR disaster machine. After delivering a disastrous interview with Laura Shin, where he tries to convince listeners Tether is legitimate, but comes off sounding like a used car salesperson, Gregory Pepin, the deputy chief executive officer at Deltec (where Tether does its off-shore banking), suddenly disappeared from Deltec’s website. But after Twitter noticed and started making jokes, he suddenly reappeared again.

Clearly, Deltec was monitoring Twitter and thought, well, maybe removing Pepin from the website wasn’t such a good idea after all? So they put him back. But his brief disappearance brought up questions: Were Pepin’s colleagues upset with him? Did he even consult with his colleagues before he went on the podcast? Surely they would have worked out a plan for what he would say and all come to an agreement on it. Did he forget to follow the plan? 

For the last time, Tether is NOT regulated

Tether keeps telling everyone that it’s regulated. Well, it’s not. No government agency is overseeing Tether and making sure they behave properly, which is why Tether and its sister company Bitfinex have been for years doing whatever they want. They make up the rules of the game as they go along, and put forth whatever nonsense narrative they feel like, simply because they can.

JP Kroning wrote a piece in Coindesk, where he points out that Tether is not regulated. Tether has made numerous claims that it is regulated because it is registered with FinCEN. But “registered” and “regulated” are two different things. “Tether isn’t regulated by FinCEN,” Kroning writes. A registration is not a seal of regulatory approval, and it shouldn’t be advertised as such. “Yet, this is what Deltec and Tether executives seem to be doing on Twitter and in podcasts.”

Ripple responds to SEC; the XRP pump

As I wrote in a recent post, Ripple responded to SEC charges that XRP is a security. They are using the same lame defense that Kik used to try and convince the SEC that kin wasn’t a security. It’s a strategy that is likely to fail miserably, and Ripple will most likely end up settling. It’s just a matter of when.

In the meantime, a group on Telegram called Buy and Hold XRP pumped the price of XRP to its highest number since December. The group’s membership hit Telegram’s 200,000 limit within hours, forcing everyone to head over to a new channel with a similar title. The granddaddy pump is scheduled to start on Feb. 1 at 8:30 EST. (Update: The organized pump turned out to be a miserable failure.)

Is XRP a security? All cryptocurrencies are investment contracts because they pass the Howey test. You can’t buy anything with XRP, BTC, ETH, or any of them. There is virtually no merchant adoption for crypto. For most people, a cryptocurrency is an investment of money in a common enterprise with an expectation of profit to be derived from the efforts of others. But the SEC has accepted the claim of bitcoin fanatics and cultists that Bitcoin is not a security, therefore, putting BTC outside of its jurisdiction.  

Coinbase going public via direct listing

Coinbase says it plans to go public via a direct listing. The U.S. crypto exchange confidentially filed its registration with the SEC in December. Now we know for sure they are not going the traditional IPO route.

In an IPO, a block of new shares are created and sold to institutional investors at a set price. The advantage of an IPO is it gives companies a way to both go public and bring in fresh capital at the same time. If a company doesn’t need fast cash, it can go with a direct listing, in which only existing shares are sold.

Direct listings have become popular of late because it gives companies a way to go public without the bank’s help. Palantir, Asana, Slack, and Spotify all went public without a traditional IPO. (Coinbase blog, Techcrunch)

The big question: What will Coinbase stock be worth once Tether is shut down and the price of BTC collapses?

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Ripple shoots back at SEC claims, takes the Kik route

Crypto firm Ripple has filed its response to U.S. Security and Exchange Commission charges claiming that Ripple and two execs conducted a $1.3 billion illegal security offering. Ripple made the filing public on Friday. And its general counsel was tweeting about it. 

San Francisco-based Ripple, which launched its XRP token in 2012, looks to be taking the ineffective Kik route in effectively arguing, “Hey, people use our token like real money; therefore XRP doesn’t satisfy the Howey test for being a security. And also, we are decentralized, so…”

Canadian messenger app Kik initially said it would fight the SEC tooth and nail after the regulator claimed its kin token was a security. But after a lot of bluff and bluster, Kik ended up settling for $5 million in October.

Stephen Palley, a lawyer in the cryptocurrency space, calls Ripple’s response to the SEC “delusional.”

Ripple’s 93-page letter does sound like the long-winded rant of someone with a loose grip on reality. But keep in mind, you need a certain level of hubris to pull something like Ripple off. According to the SEC, Ripple’s Brad Garlinghouse and Chris Larson personally pocketed $600 million off the sale of XRP.

And it’s not like they didn’t know they might run into problems down the road. Lawyers warned Ripple early on that there was some risk XRP would be considered an investment contract, the SEC said.

‘Ill-conceived legal theory’

Ripple calls the SEC complaint “unprecedented and ill-conceived legal theory.” It goes on to state that XRP functions as a “medium of exchange,” therefore, the SEC has no authority to regulate it as a security.

Similar to Kik, Ripple will likely have a tough time convincing anyone its token works like money. What can you buy with it? XRP is mainly bought by traders in the hopes “number go up.”

Sometimes it goes up, and sometimes it goes down. In 2017, XRP hit an all-time high of $2.7. It currently trades at $0.27, down from $0.68 in November after several regulated exchanges, including Coinbase, suspended trading of XRP after the SEC filed charges in December.

Ripple also argues that in the eight years that XRP has existed, no securities regulator anywhere has claimed XRP is a security. So what?

That is not an effective defense, said Edmund Schuster, a professor of corporate law at the London School of Economics. He wrote on Twitter: “Regulators operate under resource constraints, so they tend to start paying attention once people lose enough money. In new areas, they take time to pick strong cases and then sequence [enforcement] action strategically.”

What about Ethereum?

Ripple also points to the case of Ethereum, which held an initial coin offering for its ether (ETH) token in 2015. ETH is the second most popular cryptocurrency next to Bitcoin. For a long time, XRP held third place, but recently it slipped to number five.

In its current form, ETH has not been deemed a security. In 2018, SEC official Bill Hinman famously stated that although ETH started out as a security, it is now “sufficiently decentralized,” like Bitcoin so that it no longer is one. (Hinman stepped down from the SEC last year.)

Ripple, on the other hand, started off completely centralized. When it initially created its 100 billion fixed supply of XRP, 80 billion went straight to Ripple and the other 20 billion to Ripple execs. To this day, Ripple still holds a vast quantity of XRP.

But Ripple apparently feels that any rule that applies to Ethereum should also apply to Ripple—and that XRP could also be deemed “sufficiently decentralized.” 

Along with the court filing, the company has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with the SEC asking how the regulator determined ETH evolved from a-security to not-a-security. The FOIA is a law that requires the disclosure of previously unreleased information controlled by the U.S. government upon request.

“We’re simply asking for the rules to be 1. stated clearly 2. applied consistently,” Ripple general counsel Stuart Alderoty said in a Twitter thread.

Assuming they’re sure that the SEC won’t go after Ethereum, this isn’t that unusual, Schuster said. “Lawyers often say ‘but then X is also A’ when they know X≠A to bring the other side to distinguish and thereby narrow down the attack surface. Unlikely to be of value here IMO, but [I] may be wrong.”

You’ll hurt all our users

Ripple also argues in its letter that calling XRP a security will harm everyone who uses the token. (Probably most especially, Garlinghouse and Larson.)

“To require XRP’s registration as a security is to impair its main utility. That utility depends on XRP’s near-instantaneous and seamless settlement in low-cost transactions. Treating XRP as a security, by contrast, would subject thousands of exchanges, market-makers, and other actors in the gigantic virtual currency market to lengthy, complex and costly regulatory requirements never intended to govern virtual currencies.”

Lawyers for Ripple also claim that XRP is a “store of value,” not a share of Ripple’s profits. The “store of value” narrative stems from Bitcoin. In reality, you can’t call anything a store of value if it loses 60% of its value in two months.

At one point in its letter, Ripple asserts that holding massive amounts of XRP does not, in and of itself, qualify the token as a security.

“Many entities own large amounts of commodities and participate heavily in the commodities markets—Exxon holds large quantities of oil, De Beers owns large quantities of diamonds, Bitmain and other Chinese miners own a large percentage of outstanding bitcoin. Such large commodity owners inevitably have interests aligned with some purchasers of the underlying asset. But there is no credible argument that substantial holdings convert those commodities or currencies into securities, nor has any case so held.”

It’s important to point out that Exxon did not create oil out of thin air, nor did De Beers create diamonds out of thin air. XRP, on the other hand, is a number in a database, and Ripple made up 100 billion of them.

The rest of Ripple’s response consists of going through every one of the 400 paragraphs of the SEC’s complaint and offering a denial or some sort of rebuttal to every claim.

I don’t see how Ripple is going to get anywhere fighting the SEC. The case for XRP being a security is a strong one. And as the saying goes, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it likely is one.

The best Ripple can do at this point is buy time. But ultimately, it will probably wind up settling with the SEC to avoid going to trial, and for a lot more than Kik’s $5 million.   

News: Ripple paid Moneygram $11M, weird stuff going on with e-Payments, fraudster tries to buy Perth Glory, another bitcoin ETF bites the dust

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

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 5.27.45 PM
Filming at a coffee shop in Vancouver Monday.

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

pexels-photo-2570139As 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

LFE Founder Jim Aylward
LFE founder Jim Aylward on Twitter

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.

Canada’s central bank venturing into e-currency

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

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 9.39.31 PMFCoin, 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.

The agency claims that Seagal failed to disclose he was promised $250,000 in cash and $750,000 worth of B2G tokens in exchange for his promotions. He even put out a cringe-worthy press release in 2018 titled “Zen Master Steven Seagal has become the brand ambassador for Bitcoiin2gen.” (SEC press release, Variety, CNBC)

Can someone check IOTA for a pulse?

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.

News: EY goes after Quadriga’s payment processors, more exchange hacks, the SEC tells us what we already know

I had to take my website offline for a few hours Tuesday, so if you were searching for one of my stories and got a weird message, my apologies. I asked WordPress to downgrade my site from a business plan to a premium plan, and when they did, a bunch of my content disappeared, so I had to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

Big thanks to my now 18 patrons, who are making it easier for me to focus on writing about crypto. If you like my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can keep doing what I am doing.  

Now onto the news, starting with Quadriga, the defunct Canadian crypto exchange that I won’t shut up about. (Read my timeline to get up to speed.)

Ernst & Young (EY), the court-appointed monitor charged with tracking down Quadriga’s lost funds, released its fourth monitor report, which reveals more money going out then coming in. The closing cash balance for March was CA$23,268,411. Incoming cash for the month was CA$4,232, and total disbursements was CA$1,463,860—most of which was paid to professionals. A full half of that (CA$721,579) went to EY and its legal team.

EY is trying to chase down money held by Quadriga’s payment processors. It has drafted a “Third Party Payment Processor Order” for the court to approve on Monday. If that goes through as is, several payment processors, including WB21, will have five business days to handover funds and/or Quadriga documents and transaction data. If they don’t comply, they will be in contempt of court. A shift from CCAA to bankruptcy proceedings will also give EY more power to go after funds as a trustee

Christine Duhaime, a financial crimes lawyer who worked for Quadriga for six months in 2015 to early 2016, wrote “From Law to Lawlessness: Bits of the Untold QuadrigaCX” for CoinDesk, where she talks about how Quadriga went off the rails following its failed efforts to become a public company.

In the article, Duhaime—who in February called for a government bailout of Quadriga’s creditors (archive)—openly admits to having lost CA$100,000 in funds on the exchange. She claims her involvement with the exchange stopped in early 2016. “I’m glad we were let go by QuadrigaCX for being one of the ‘law and order’ folks,” she said.  

I have been corrected on detail here:

She does not mention this in her article, but in 2015, she also owned 20,000 shares of Quadriga stock. It is possible she has since sold the holdings.

Preston Byrne, an attorney at Byrne & Storm, PC, tweeted, “No offense to @ahcastor but this claim that @cduhaime may have owned shares in Quadriga looks to be incorrect. She’s listed as the principal contact for an SPV, and the SPV is the named purchaser. A retraction is in order.”

SPV stands for special purpose vehicle, typically used by firms to isolate them from financial risk. I’ve reworded the paragraph as follows:

This 2015 British Columbia Report of Exempt Distribution, a document of Quadriga Financial Solutions’ ownership, lists Duhaime as the contact for 1207649 B.C. Ltd, which owns—or owned—20,000 shares of Quadriga. I was unable to find the corporate files for 1207649 B.C. The address in the report matches that of Duhaime’s office.  

Update (April 9): I found the corporate files. The actual company name appears to be 1027649 B.C. Ltd.—with the numbers “2” and “0” transposed. The company was founded on February 16, 2015 and dissolved on August 1, 2017. The sole director is “Anne Ellis,” and the registered office is Duhaime Law.

According to court documents, Cotten and Quadriga co-founder Michael Patryn had been seeking to buy back shareholdings after Quadriga’s public listing failed, so it is possible one of them may have bought back those shares as well. I reached out to Duhaime for comment a few times, but she has not responded. 

Duhaime may have left Quadriga behind, but she continued to have business dealings with Patryn, who we now know is convicted felon Omar Dhanani

She and Patryn co-founded Fintech Ventures Group, which calls itself “an investment bank focused on digital currency, blockchain, and AI-focused technology.” According to a January 2016 archive of the company’s site, Duhaime was Fintech Venture’s “Digital Finance Maven & Co-Founder.” (Interestingly, former Quadriga director Anthony Milewski worked there, too, as the company’s “Investment Relations Extraordinaire.”) 

Duhaime and Patryn were also both advisors at Canadian crypto exchange Taurus Crypto Services, according to this June 2016 archive. (Milewski shows up here again, this time as an advisor.) The exchange was founded in 2014 and shut down in January 2017, when the business shifted to over-the-counter trades.  

Like Duhaime, Patryn also claims his involvement with Quadriga ended in early 2016. Although the Globe and Mail said that in October 2018, “it received an e-mail pitch from an ‘executive concierge’ company called the Windsor Group offering up Mr. Patryn for interviews to discuss virtual currencies and describing him as a Quadriga director.” Patryn told the Globe he did not know what the Windsor Group was, nor had he authorized anyone to pitch him as a Quadriga director, as he never served on the board.

Patryn had a personal website michaelpatryn.com, but it got taken down. Here is a 2011 archive and here is a 2014 archive. From 2016 on, the archives point to his LinkedIn profile, where he now goes by “Michael P.” having dropped all but the first initial of his last name. According to his LinkedIn, he has been an advisor for numerous cryptocurrency platforms going back to November 1999. I guess that means his work at Shadowcrew in 2004 and the 18 months he spent in jail for conspiracy to commit credit and bank card fraud and ID document fraud qualifies as advisory services.

Patryn appears to enjoy the limelight. Several reporters told me they had no trouble reaching him. At one point, Patryn even went into the “Quadriga Uncovered” Telegram group—basically, the lion’s den, where hundreds of pissed off Quadriga creditors sat waiting on their haunches —where I am told he calmly deflected accusations.

Meanwhile, I’ve been practicing my authoritative stare and baritone.

Other exchanges

Elsewhere in cryptoland, there have been a number of exchanges hacks. Singapore-based exchange DragonEx was hacked on March 24 for an undisclosed amount of crypto.

Blockchain data firm Elementus suspects that Coinbene, another Singapore exchange, was also hacked. On March 25, Elementus noted that $105 million worth of crypto was on the move out of the exchange. Coinbene totally denies it’s been hacked, claiming that delays in deposits and withdrawals are due to maintenance issues. 

A third exchange, Bithumb was hacked on March 30. The South Korean crypto exchange lost 3.07 million EOS and 20.2 million XRP, worth around $19 million. Bithumb thinks it was an insider job.

Helsinki-based LocalBitcoins, a once go-to for anonymous bitcoin transactions, has added know-your-customer (KYC) identity checks to comply with new laws in Finland. The change goes into effect in November. Per the company’s announcement, this is actually good news for bitcoin, because it will create a “legal status for crypto assets, which should improve significantly Bitcoin’s standing as a viable and legit financial network.”  

A study by reg-tech startup Coinfirm found that 69 percent of crypto exchanges don’t have “complete and transparent” KYC procedures. And only 26 percent of exchanges had a “high” level of anti-money-laundering procedures.

With crypto markets in the dumps, exchanges are looking for new ways to attract volume. To that end, San Francisco-based Coinbase is launching a staking service to lure in institutional investors. The service, which starts with Tezos (XTZ), will pay investors to park their money in XTZ. The coins are kept in offline cold wallets. The catch is that the interest will be paid XTZ, and of course, crypto is highly volatile. 

The price of XTZ went up 70 percent on the news.

Cryptocurrency exchange Binance is launching a new fiat-to-crypto exchange in Singapore later this month. (It’s been launching these crypto onramps all over the word.)

Binance also says it’s planning to launch its decentralized exchange (DEX) later this month. The DEX is built on a public blockchain, Binance Chain. Basically, Binance is looking to create an economy for binance coin (BNB), which is totally not a security.

Other interesting news bits 

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 11.03.29 AMThe the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued a “Framework for ‘Investment Contract’ Analysis of Digital Assets.” There is not a lot new to see here. A footnote in the document makes clear this is “not a rule, regulation, or statement of the Commission,” just some thoughts from the SEC’s staff about how they interpret existing securities laws. 

Stephen Palley, partner at law firm Anderson Kill, appeared on Bloomberg sporting a beard to explain the framework—definitely worth five minutes of your time to listen to.

Justin Sun, the founder of blockchain project Tron, bungled a Tesla promotional giveaway. After a widespread cry of foul play, he decided to make it up to everyone by giving away—two Teslas. This wasn’t the first time a Tron promotion raised eyebrows.

Nocoiner David Gerard wrote a Foreign Policy piece on “How Neo-Nazis Bet Big on Bitcoin (and Lost)” that was translated for Newsweek Japan.

The ever outspoken Jackson Palmer did a good interview with Epicenter Blockchain Podcast on the history of Dogecoin and the state of cryptocurrency in 2019.

Nicholas Weaver, who gave the “Burn it with Fire” talk at Enigma, spoke to Breaker about why cryptocurrencies don’t really work as currencies.

Finally, Dream Market, the last standing marketplace from the once infamous “big four” sites that dominated dark web trading in the mid-2010s, announced plans to shut down.

 

 

Social media startup Kik is kicking back—at the SEC

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 12.23.59 amKik is ready to go to battle. The Canadian social media startup has decided to take on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At issue is whether Kik’s digital token kin is a security.

Kik raised $47.5 million in September 2017 by selling kin in an initial coin offering, or ICO — though, Kik prefers to call it a token distribution event. That was after Kik pre-sold $50 million worth of kin to a group of 50 wealthy investors, mainly blockchain hedge funds. The presale was a simple agreement for future tokens, or SAFT, which is basically, a Reg D exemption, where the investors would get the tokens at some point in the future after things were up and running.

What is kin?

On its website, Kik describes kin as a “digital currency” that you can use to “earn points for watching video ads, then use points for stickers and custom emojis.” Kin is different from other in-house loyalty points, because it “can be bought and sold for real money.” In other words, you could use Kin as a utility token in the Kik app and also trade it on crypto exchanges for other coins, like bitcoin and ether.

Kik initially announced its token sale in May 2017, four months ahead of its ICO. At the time, the company banned Canadians from taking part in its public sale, because the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) had already deemed its token to be a security. But that didn’t stop Kik from opening its sale up to U.S. citizens.

Although Kik consulted with lawyers before its public ICO, as far as what I’m reading, they never actually reached out to the SEC for guidance. And it’s not like they weren’t given fair warning that this might pose a problem. 

Fair warning

By mid-2017, the SEC had already begun its crackdown on ICOs. Two months prior to Kik’s ICO, the regulator issued an investigative report concluding that tokens sold by the DAO (a decentralized investment fund that ran on Ethereum) were securities. That report was a cautionary tale to any other project thinking about raising money in an ICO. In a public statement at the time, the SEC said:

“We encourage market participants who are employing new technologies to form investment vehicles or distribute investment opportunities to consult with securities counsel to aid in their analysis of these issues and to contact our staff, as needed, for assistance in analyzing the application of the federal securities laws.” (Emphasis mine.)

But instead of proactively reaching out to the SEC, Kik sat back and waited to hear from them—not a great strategy. 

The SEC first contacted Kik two days after Kik’s token offering began. “It was a friendly contact for information, which we happily responded to,” Kik CEO Ted Livingston wrote in a blog post. But from there the conversations “ramped up,” and on November 16, 2018, the SEC sent Kik and the Kin Foundation a Wells notice—essentially, a letter stating that the regulator was about to bring an enforcement action against them. On December 7, Kik sent back a 31-page response.

As far as the SEC sees it, Kik is in violation of section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, which states that it is illegal to sell securities unless you register with the SEC or else apply for an exemption, such a private placement, which limits a sale to accredited investors—i.e., wealthy people who can survive the loss, if things go wrong. 

As mentioned, Kik’s private token sale was a Reg D exemption. (Here is the SEC filing from September 2017.) According to SEC rule 506 of Regulation D, purchasers receive “restricted securities,” meaning that the securities cannot be sold for at least six months to a year. Also, Reg D does not pre-empt something from being a security.  

The problem with SAFTs

In general, the problem with SAFTs is that, for various legal reasons (see SEC rule 144), even after the holding period, you can probably only sell your coins to other accredited investors. In other words, you cannot freely trade those coins on the secondary market. Obviously, that limits kin’s usability. It also makes kin not a very good currency, because you can’t actually buy and sell it for real money—at least not that easily.

The basic rule for determining wether something is a security is the Howey test, which states that a security is “an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.” In its response letter, Kik claims kin is not a security according to the Howey test, because Kik never marketed its ICO as an investment.

“Simply put, Kik did not offer or promote Kin as a passive investment opportunity. Doing so would have doomed the project, which could only succeed if Kin purchasers used Kin as a medium of exchange (rather than simply holding it as a passive investment). Accordingly, Kik marketed Kin, not as an investment opportunity, but rather as a way to participate in a fundamentally new way for consumers to access digital products and services, and for innovative developers, and their users, to be compensated for the value they provide.”

But Kik’s main rebuttal is that kin is a currency—so securities laws don’t apply.

Let’s take a look at Page 11 of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act. It says:

“The term ‘‘security’’ means any note, stock, treasury stock, security future, security-based swap, bond, debenture, certificate of interest or participation in any profit-sharing agreement… but shall not include currency or any note, draft, bill of exchange, or banker’s acceptance which has a maturity at the time of issuance.”

Lawyers will have to debate how to define kin. But just as the SEC’s Munchee order in December 2017 made it clear that calling a token a “utility token” does not unmake it a security, calling a token a “cryptocurrency” may prove equally as futile—especially, if the token doesn’t actually work as a currency.