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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

CFTC, DOJ, SEC file charges in crypto fraud scheme

Federal Issues Digital Assets Securities SEC CFTC DOJ Cryptocurrency Enforcement Securities Act Securities Exchange Act Commodity Exchange Act Fraud

Federal Issues

On December 13, the SEC filed a complaint against the former CEO/co-founder (defendant) of a collapsed crypto exchange for allegedly orchestrating a scheme to defraud equity investors. According to the SEC, from May 2019 to November 2022, the defendant raised over $1.8 billion from investors who bought an equity stake in his company in part because they believed his representations that the platform had “top-notch, sophisticated automated risk measures in place.” The complaint alleged, among other things, that the defendant orchestrated “a massive, years-long fraud” to conceal (i) the undisclosed diversion of customers’ funds to the defendant’s privately-held crypto hedge fund; (ii) the undisclosed special treatment afforded to the hedge fund on the company platform, including providing it with a virtually unlimited “line of credit” funded by the platform’s customers; and (iii) the undisclosed risk stemming from the company’s exposure to the hedge fund’s significant holdings of overvalued, illiquid assets, such as the platform-affiliated tokens. The complaint further alleged that the defendant used commingled funds at his hedge fund to make undisclosed venture investments, purchase lavish real estate purchases, and give large political donations. The SEC’s complaint charged the defendant with violating the anti-fraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The SEC is seeking injunctions against future securities law violations; an injunction that prohibits the defendant from participating in the issuance, purchase, offer, or sale of any securities, except for his own personal account; disgorgement of his ill-gotten gains; a civil penalty; and an officer and director bar.

The defendant was also indicted by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on wire fraud, commodities fraud, securities fraud, money laundering, and campaign finance charges.

The CFTC also filed a complaint against the former CEO/co-founder, in addition to the collapsed crypto exchange and the hedge fund for making material misrepresentations in connection with the sale of digital commodities in interstate commerce. Specifically, the CFTC alleged that the exchange’s executives, at the former CEO’s direction, created a number of exceptions to benefit his hedge fund, including adding features in the underlying code to permit the hedge fund to “maintain an essentially unlimited line of credit” on the trading platform through an “allow negative flag,” which allowed the hedge fund to withdraw billions of dollars in customer assets from the company. The CFTC is seeking restitution, disgorgement, civil monetary penalties, permanent trading and registration bans, and a permanent injunction against further violations of the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC regulations, as charged.

Later, on December 21, the SEC and CFTC filed charges (see here and here) against the former CEO of the hedge fund and the former chief technology officer of the collapsed crypto exchange for their roles in the scheme to defraud equity investors. The agencies stated that investigations into other securities law violations and into other entities and persons relating to the alleged misconduct are ongoing.

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