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On September 11, the CFTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas against four individuals accused of operating a purported multi-level marketing scheme involving the solicitation of nearly $100,000 in customer funds that were to be used to speculate in cryptocurrency. The CFTC alleged that the defendants violated the Commodity Exchange Act by, among other things, creating the false illusion that their business employed “master traders” with years of cryptocurrency trading experience, that customers’ earnings would increase based on the amount of their deposits, and that customers who made referrals would receive bonuses. Additionally, the defendants posted misleading trade statements online that failed to “accurately reflect the Bitcoin trading purportedly undertaken by [the d]efendants and led certain customers to believe they were earning significant amounts of money from [the d]efendants’ trading of Bitcoin on their behalf.” The CFTC further claimed that when customers tried to unsuccessfully withdraw their funds, the defendants would first claim their website or smartphone app were experiencing technical problems, but then eventually stopped responding to the customer requests. The CFTC seeks to enjoin the defendants’ allegedly unlawful acts and practices, to compel compliance with the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC regulations, and to further enjoin the defendants from engaging in any commodity interest-related activity. In addition, the CFTC seeks civil monetary penalties, restitution, trading and registration bans, and other statutory, injunctive, or equitable relief as the court may deem necessary and appropriate.
On July 27, the CFTC announced an approximately $9 million whistleblower award to a claimant who reported “specific, credible and timely” information that led to a successful Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) enforcement action. The associated order notes that the claimant voluntarily provided original information leading to the opening of an investigation and the enforcement action, and was under no “legal obligation” to provide the information. The order does not provide any other significant details about the information provided or the related enforcement action. The CFTC has awarded approximately $120 million to whistleblowers since the enactment of its Whistleblower Program under the Dodd-Frank Act, and whistleblower information has led to nearly $950 million in monetary relief.
On April 16, the CFTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida against a commodity trading adviser and the companies he controlled (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly soliciting customers and prospective customers to buy now-delisted and worthless digital tokens. The CFTC alleged that the defendants violated the Commodity Exchange Act by making untrue and materially misleading representations about their digital tokens’ function and the performance of a proprietary foreign exchange trading algorithm that the defendants claimed would deliver high rates of return. According to the CFTC, while the defendants knew that none of the customers could lawfully use the algorithm until the defendants’ risk disclosures were approved by the National Futures Association, they still sold the tokens and raised more than $1.6 million based on the premise that the algorithm was ready to be released on the open market. The CFTC claimed, however, that the disclosures were never approved, customers never gained access to the algorithm, and the tokens were eventually delisted by all the digital asset exchanges. The CFTC seeks to enjoin the defendants’ allegedly unlawful acts and practices and to compel compliance with the Commodity Exchange Act and regulations. In addition, the CFTC seeks restitution, civil money penalties, trading and registration bans, and other statutory, injunctive, or equitable relief as deemed necessary and appropriate.
On July 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the Commodity Future Trading Commission (CFTC) had the enforcement authority to bring a $290 million fraud action against a trading platform, concluding that the district court improperly dismissed the action. According to the opinion, the CFTC brought an action against a trading platform alleging that it was an illegal and unregistered leveraged retail commodity transaction market for precious metals. The platform moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the Dodd-Frank Act did not give the CFTC the power to pursue stand-alone fraud claims without allegations of manipulation and that the Commodity Exchange Act’s “registration provisions do not apply to retail commodities dealers who ‘actual[ly] deliver’ the commodities to customers within twenty-eight days.” The district court agreed, and dismissed the action.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit concluded the district court erred in dismissing the CFTC’s claims, holding that the CFTC had the authority under Section 6(c)(1) of the CEA to take action against the entity for fraudulently deceptive activity. Specifically, the appellate court held that the CFTC could bring an action for “fraudulently deceptive activity, regardless of whether it was also manipulative,” concluding the district court erred when it interpreted the use of the word “or” in the CEA’s prohibition of the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance” to mean “and.” Moreover, the appellate court rejected the platform’s “actual delivery” argument, concluding that the platform’s practice of storing the goods in depositories, and “maintain[ing] total control over accounts,” with the ability to liquidate at any time, amounts to “sham delivery, not actual delivery.” The appellate court looked to the legislative history of Dodd-Frank and observed that, “[i]f Congress wanted only to ensure enough inventory it could have said so. It did not; it required ‘actual delivery,’” which would require some “meaningful degree of possession or control by the customer.”
CFTC, SEC settle with foreign trading platform conducting Bitcoin transactions without proper registration
On March 4, the CFTC resolved an action taken against a foreign trading platform and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly offering and selling security-based swaps to U.S. customers without registering as a futures commission merchant or designated contract market with the CFTC. The CFTC alleged that the platform permitted customers to transact in “contracts for difference,” which were transactions to exchange the difference in value of an underlying asset between the time at which the trading position was established and the time at which it was terminated. The transactions were initiated through, and settled in, Bitcoin. The CFTC alleged that these transactions constituted “retail commodity transactions,” which would have required the platform to receive the proper registration.
According to the CFTC, the defendants, among other things, (i) neglected to register as a futures commission merchant with the CFTC; and (ii) failed to comply with required anti-money laundering procedures, including implementing an adequate know-your-customer/customer identification program. The consent order entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposes a civil monetary penalty of $175,000 and requires the disgorgement of $246,000 of gains. The consent order also requires the defendants to certify to the CFTC the liquidation of all U.S. customer accounts and the repayment of approximately $570,000 worth of Bitcoins to U.S. customers.
In a parallel action, the SEC entered into a final judgment the same day to resolve claims that, among other things, the defendants failed to properly register as a security-based swaps dealer. The defendants are permanently restrained and enjoined from future violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and are required to pay disgorgement of approximately $53,393. This action demonstrates the potential application of CFTC and SEC registration requirements to non-U.S. companies engaging in covered transactions with U.S. customers.
On March 6, the CFTC issued an enforcement advisory announcing that it would add violations of the Commodity Exchange Act involving foreign corrupt practices to its cooperation and self-reporting program. The CFTC will recommend no civil monetary penalty where companies and individuals which are not registered (or required to be registered) with the CFTC timely and voluntarily disclose such violations. Full cooperation and appropriate remediation would also be required. In announcing the enforcement advisory, the CFTC’s Director of Enforcement stated at the ABA’s National Institute on White Collar Crime that the change “reflects the enhanced cooperation between the CFTC and our law enforcement partners like the Department of Justice.” He also stated that the agency currently has open investigations into various foreign corrupt practices that violate the Commodity Exchange Act, including bribes that “secure business in connection with regulated activities,” manipulation of benchmarks, “prices that are the product of corruption [being] falsely reported to benchmarks,” and corrupt practices altering the commodity markets.
On March 6, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the CFTC’s request for preliminary injunction against defendants alleged to have misappropriated investor money through a cryptocurrency trading scam, holding that the CFTC has the authority to regulate virtual currency as commodities. The decision additionally defined virtual currency as a “commodity” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) and gave the CFTC jurisdiction to pursue fraudulent activities involving virtual currency even if the fraud does not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts. However, the court noted that the “jurisdictional authority of CFTC to regulate virtual currencies as commodities does not preclude other agencies from exercising their regulatory power when virtual currencies function differently than derivative commodities.” Under the terms of the order, the defendants are restrained and enjoined until further order of the court from participating in fraudulent behavior related to the swap or sale of any commodity, and must, among other things, provide the CFTC with access to business records and a written account of financial documents.
Find continuing InfoBytes coverage on virtual currency oversight here.
On July 24, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced its approval, by unanimous vote, of the first digital currency derivatives exchange under the Commodity Exchange Act. The CFTC issued a letter and order granting the registration, allowing the company to provide clearing services for fully-collateralized digital currency swaps, but noted that the authorization to provide clearing services for fully-collateralized digital currency swaps did not constitute or imply a CFTC endorsement of the use of digital currency generally, or bitcoin specifically. Based on the company’s representations related to having collateral already on deposit to cover the maximum possible loss, the CFTC exempted the company from certain regulations calling for, among other things, monthly stress-testing and specific daily reporting requirements. The company initially plans to clear bitcoin options.
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