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On October 13, Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sent a letter to SEC Chair Gary Gensler urging him to issue regulations on digital asset securities. According to the letter, Hickenlooper urged the agency to publish regulations through a notice-and-comment process, stating that “existing laws and regulations were not designed to deal with how digital assets are being used in the market.” Hickenlooper noted that the SEC has repeatedly mentioned that existing securities regulations do not ‘cleanly apply’ to digital securities and said that retail investors may not always receive proper disclosures for comprehending the risks tied to digital assets. Hickenlooper also commented that “there are some products and investments, such as Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), where the SEC is well positioned to offer regulatory guidance since ICOs operate similarly to a traditional financial product.” He specifically urged the SEC to, among other things, clarify what types of digital assets are securities, address how digital securities should be issued and listed, determine what disclosures are necessary for investors to be properly informed, and establish a registration regime for digital asset security trading platforms.
SEC orders cryptocurrency company to register tokens as securities or pay more than $30 million fine
On August 9, the SEC issued a cease and desist order to a cryptocurrency company accused of allegedly holding an unregistered securities offering. The company raised approximately $30.9 million by selling cryptocurrency tokens to investors through an initial coin offering from November 2017 to January 2018. The SEC asserted, however, that the tokens were offered and sold as investment contracts (and therefore should be considered securities), and that the company’s offering constituted an unregistered securities offering. “A purchaser in the offering of [the tokens] would have had a reasonable expectation of obtaining a future profit based upon [the company’s] efforts in using the proceeds from the offering to create an online identity attestation system that would increase the token’s value on crypto asset trading platforms,” the SEC said in the order, which alleged violations of Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act. While at the time of the offering the company required certain purchasers to agree that they were buying the tokens for “utility” rather than an investment, the SEC argued that the company’s marketing promotions and statements made by early purchasers indicated that purchasers “had a reasonable expectation of profit.” Under the terms of the order, the company agreed to register its tokens with the SEC and notify purchasers in its offering that they may be able to claim a refund on their token purchases. The company also agreed to pay a $300,000 civil penalty. If the company fails to take these actions it faces a $30.9 million fine, minus the amount already paid to the SEC or to token purchasers, the order stated. The SEC noted that the company has already voluntarily taken steps to prepare for registration.
On July 14, the SEC announced a settlement with the owners and operators of a software platform provider, resolving allegations that the company violated anti-touting provisions by failing to disclose the compensation it received from issuers of the digital asset securities it profiled. According to the order, the company’s website, which was accessible in the U.S. from 2016 to August 2019, publicized offerings for digital tokens. The platform claimed to “list” or profile the “best” token offerings, such as so-called initial coin offerings (ICOs) and initial exchange offerings. The company also allegedly claimed that its “mission [was] to make it easy and safe for people around the world to join ICOs.” According to the order, the platform profiled more than 2,500 different token offerings, which compromised fundraising of over $10 billion. The SEC alleged that the company violated provisions of the Securities Act, such as Section 2(a), because the digital tokens publicized by the company included those that were offered and sold as investment contracts, and 17(b), because the company promoted a security without disclosing that they received compensation for doing so. The order, which the company consented to without admitting or denying the findings, imposes a civil money penalty of $154,434 and $43,000 in disgorgement, and provides that the company must cease and desist from committing or causing any future violations of the anti-touting provisions of the federal securities laws. SEC Commissioners Hester M. Peirce and Elad L. Roisman dissented from the settlement, stating they agreed that “touting securities without disclosing the fact that you are getting paid, and how much, violates Section 17(b)” but “[they] are disappointed that the Commission’s settlement with [the company] did not explain which digital assets touted by [the company] were securities[.]”
On June 22, the SEC announced a settlement with an intellectual property search software platform provider and its CEO resolving allegations that the company made materially false and misleading statements in connection with an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) of digital asset securities. According to the order, the company raised $7.6 million from investors by offering and selling digital tokens. In promoting the ICO, the company and its CEO made multiple materially false statements to investors and potential investors, including false statements about the company’s revenues, number of employees, and the platform’s user base. The SEC alleges that the company violated Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act because the digital assets it offered and sold were securities under federal securities laws, and the company did not have the required registration statement filed or in effect, nor did it qualify for an exemption from registration. The order, which the company consented to without admitting or denying the findings, imposes a $7.6 million penalty, and requires the company to “destroy all [of the digital tokens] in their possession or control,” publish notice of the order on the company’s social media accounts, request removal of the tokens from trading platforms, and refrain from participating in future offerings of a digital asset security.
On October 21, the SEC announced the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered a final judgment against a tech company issuer that raised approximately $100 million through an unregistered initial coin offering. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the SEC filed an action alleging the issuer failed to provide required disclosures to investors and did not register the offer or sale of its digital tokens with the SEC, as required by Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 (the Act). The SEC argued that the issuer marketed the digital tokens as an investment opportunity and told investors that they could earn future profits from the issuer’s efforts to create, develop, and support a digital “ecosystem.”
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the SEC at the end of September, concluding, among other things, that the issuer violated Section 5 of the Act when it conducted an unregistered offering of securities that did not qualify for any exemption from registration requirements. The final judgment (i) requires the issuer to pay $5 million in a civil penalty; (ii) permanently enjoins the issuer from violating Section 5 of the Act; and (iii) requires the issuer, for a period of three years, to provide notice to the SEC before engaging in any “issuance, offer, sale or transfer” of specified assets.
On September 11, the SEC announced charges against five Atlanta-based individuals for allegedly promoting unregistered and fraudulent initial coin offerings (ICOs) owned by one of the defendants, a film producer, who promised investors he would build a digital streaming platform and a digital-asset trading platform. Two companies controlled by the film producer that conducted the ICOs were also charged. According to the SEC’s complaint, the film producer, among other things, allegedly misappropriated the funds raised in the ICOs, transferred and sold certain tokens to generate an additional $2.2 million in profits, and engaged in manipulative trading to artificially inflate the price of other tokens. The SEC charged the film producer with violating the registration, antifraud, and anti-manipulation provisions of the federal securities laws. The other defendants were charged with various securities violations, including violating registration, antifraud, and anti-touting provisions for their roles in promoting, offering, selling, or conducting the ICOs. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement, and civil monetary penalties, as well as an officer-and-director bar against the film producer and certain prohibitions against the other defendants.
The SEC’s press release noted that it had entered into proposed settlements subject to court approval with several of the defendants except for the film producer, which would require three of the defendants to each pay a $25,000 penalty and subject them to “conduct-based injunctions prohibiting them from participating in the issuance, purchase, offer, or sale of any digital asset security for a period of five years.” An order reached with another defendant—who neither admitted nor denied the findings—imposes a $75,000 civil monetary penalty and bans the defendant from participating in the offering or sale of digital-asset securities for at least five years.
On June 26, the SEC announced a settlement with two offshore entities, resolving allegations that the entities violated federal securities laws by raising more than $1.7 billion in unregistered digital token offerings. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2019, the SEC obtained a temporary restraining order, halting the offerings. According to the SEC, the entities violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act by failing to register its offers and sales of securities with the SEC. Prior to the restraining order, the entities had sold approximately 2.9 million digital tokens worldwide, including more than 1 billion tokens to 39 U.S. purchasers. The settlement requires the entities to return more than $1.2 billion to investors in “ill-gotten gains” from the token offerings. Additionally, the parent company is required to pay an $18.5 million civil penalty and give proactive notice to the SEC before participating in any digital asset issuances for the next three years. The entities entered into the settlement without admitting or denying the allegations in the SEC’s complaint.
On May 28, the SEC announced a settlement with a California-based blockchain services company resolving allegations that the company conducted an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) of digital asset securities. According to the order, the company raised over $25 million by selling “Consumer Activity Tokens” to nearly 9,500 investors, including U.S. investors, to raise capital to “develop, administer, and market a blockchain-based search platform for targeted consumer advertising.” The company allegedly told investors that the tokens would increase in value and made the tokens available on third-party digital asset trading platforms after the ICO. However, the SEC found that the tokens constituted securities, and that the company allegedly violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act by distributing the tokens without having the required registration filed or in effect, nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements.
The order, which the company consented to without admitting or denying the findings, imposes a $400,000 penalty, and requires the company to disgorge $25.5 million and pay approximately $3.4 million in prejudgment interest. Additionally, the company is required to surrender all its remaining tokens to the fund administrator so they can be permanently disabled, publish notice of the order, and request the removal of the distributed tokens from all digital asset trading platforms.
On February 19, the SEC announced a settlement with a blockchain technology company resolving allegations that the company conducted an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO). According to the order, the company raised approximately $45 million from sales of its digital tokens to raise capital to develop a digital asset trade-testing platform and to build a cryptocurrency-related data marketplace. The SEC alleges that the company violated Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act because the digital assets it sold were securities under federal securities laws, and the company did not have the required registration statement filed or in effect, nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements. The order, which the company consented to without admitting or denying the findings, imposes a $500,000 penalty and requires the company to register its tokens as securities, refund harmed investors through a claims process, and file timely reports with the SEC.
On January 21, the SEC announced that it filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against a blockchain company and the company’s founder (defendants) for allegedly “conducting a fraudulent and unregistered initial coin offering (ICO).” The SEC alleges, among other things, that from 2017 until 2018, the defendants raised $600,000 from nearly 200 investors through promoting an ICO of digital asset securities called “OPP Tokens,” using material misrepresentations to create the false impression that the defendants’ platform was creating notable growth in the company. The defendants marketed the tokens by making misstatements to potential investors, greatly exaggerating the numbers of providers that were “willing to do business on, and contribute content to, [defendants’] blockchain-based platform.” The complaint also alleges that in marketing the ICO, the defendants provided a catalog of small businesses eligible to use the defendants’ platform that numbered in the millions, in order to create the false impression that the platform had a huge base of users. In reality, the catalog was not compiled by the defendants, but was simply acquired from a vendor. Additionally, the SEC alleges that the defendants provided numerous customer reviews in its promotions to create the impression that the platform had many users creating content, which were actually reviews stolen from a third-party website. The SEC charges that in addition to the above allegations, the defendants misrepresented that they had filed an SEC registration statement for the ICO. The SEC seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement of profits, civil money penalties, and a permanent bar preventing the founder from serving as officer or director of any public company.