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SEC orders crypto ATM operator to pay $3.9 million for selling unregistered tokens
On April 28, the SEC settled with a cryptocurrency ATM operator for allegedly selling unregistered tokens in order to raise money to expand its bitcoin ATM network. Described as a “token sale,” the SEC claimed the respondents in total raised crypto assets during an initial coin offering valued at roughly $3.65 million. According to the SEC, the company offered and sold its token as investment contracts, which qualified it as a security since investors would have reasonably expected to obtain future profits from the token’s rise in value based upon the respondents’ efforts. By offering and selling securities without having on file a registration statement with the SEC or qualifying for an exemption, the respondents violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act, the SEC said. Additionally, one of the respondents and its CEO were also accused of violating Section 17(a) of the Securities Act and Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 by making materially false and misleading statements and engaging in other fraudulent conduct connected to the offer and sale of the token. The respondents neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings, but agreed to pay a collective $3.92 million civil penalty and said they would cease and desist from committing violations of the Securities Act and the Securities Exchange Act. One of the individual respondents also received a three-year officer and director ban.
District Court orders fintech to pay $2.8 million to settle claims of price manipulation of crypto-assets security
On April 20, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered a final judgment in which a fintech company and its former CEO (collectively, “defendants”) have agreed to pay the SEC more than $2.8 million to settle allegations that they manipulated the price of their crypto-assets security. The SEC filed charges against the defendants last September for “perpetrating a scheme to manipulate the trading volume and price” of their digital token, and for effectuating the unregistered offering and sale of such token. The complaint also contended that the defendants hired a third party to create the false appearance of robust market activity for the token and inflated the token’s price in order to generate profits for the defendants. According to the SEC, the defendants allegedly earned more than $2 million as a result. The SEC charged the defendants with violating several provisions of the Securities Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5, as well as certain sections of the Exchange Act. At the time the charges were filed, the third party’s CEO consented to a judgment (without admitting or denying the allegations), which permanently enjoined him from participating in future securities offerings and required him to pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest.
The defendants, while neither admitting nor denying the allegations, consented to the terms of the April final judgment. The company agreed to pay nearly $2.8 million, including more than $1.5 million in disgorgement of net profits, a civil penalty of more than $1 million, and roughly $240,000 in prejudgment interest. The former CEO agreed to pay more than $260,000, representing disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and a civil penalty. Both defendants are permanently enjoined from engaging in future securities law violations, and are restricted in their ability to engage in any offering of crypto asset securities.
Software company to pay $3 million to SEC for misleading disclosures about ransomware attack
On March 9, the SEC charged a South Carolina-based donor data management software company with allegedly making materially misleading disclosures about a 2020 ransomware attack. According to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order, the company issued statements that the ransomware attack did not affect donor bank account information or social security numbers. It was later revealed that the attacker had accessed and exfiltrated the unencrypted sensitive information. However, the SEC maintained that due to the company’s alleged failure to maintain disclosure controls and procedures, employees did not inform senior management responsible for public disclosures. As a result, the company’s quarterly report filed with the SEC allegedly omitted material information about the scope of the attack and “misleadingly characterized the risk of exfiltration of such sensitive donor information as hypothetical,” the SEC said. The company did not admit or deny the SEC’s findings, but agreed to pay a $3 million civil penalty and said it would cease and desist from committing violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
SEC awards whistleblowers $28 million
On January 24, the SEC announced awards totaling nearly $28 million to joint whistleblowers whose information and assistance led to successful SEC enforcement actions. According to the redacted order, the joint whistleblowers’ provided information that prompted the opening of the SEC staff’s investigation and significantly contributed to the success of the action through substantial analysis and ongoing assistance. The SEC also noted that the joint whistleblowers’ actions helped result in the return of millions of dollars to harmed investors.
Company to pay $45 million to SEC, states for unregistered crypto-lending product
On January 19, the SEC charged a Cayman Islands digital asset firm for allegedly failing to register the offer and sale of its retail crypto-asset lending product. According to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order, the company’s product allowed U.S. investors to tender certain crypto assets with the company, which were then deposited in interest-yielding accounts and used by the company to generate income and fund interest payments to investors.
The SEC maintained that the company’s product was marketed as an opportunity for investors to earn interest on their crypto assets, and that company actions “included staking, lending, and engaging in arbitrage on purportedly ‘decentralized’ finance platforms; investing in certain crypto assets; loaning funds to retail and institutional borrowers; and entering into options and swap contracts with respect to the crypto assets tendered”— resulting in the company acquiring $2.7 billion in assets from approximately 112,000 investors. The SEC found that because the product qualified as a security and did not qualify for an exemption from registration under the Securities Act of 1933, the company was required to register its offer and sale of the product, which it failed to do.
The company did not admit or deny the SEC’s findings, but agreed to pay $22.5 million to the SEC, and said it would stop offering and selling the unregistered lending product to U.S. investors. The SEC considered remedial actions promptly taken by the company, as well as its cooperation with Commission staff in determining the settlement amount. The SEC reported that the company voluntarily stopped offering its product to new U.S. investors and ceased paying interest on new funds added to existing accounts after the SEC announced charges against a different company that offered a similar crypto investment product. The company also announced that the product would stop being offered in certain states and that it was phasing out all of its products and services in the U.S.
The company also agreed to pay another $22.5 million to state regulators from California, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont, and Washington in a parallel action claiming the company offered interest-earning accounts without first registering the investment products as securities. According to the announcement, the company allegedly failed to comply with state securities registration requirements, and, among other things, deprived investors “of critical information and disclosures necessary to understand the potential risks of the [product].”
SEC charges companies for offering and selling unregistered crypto asset securities
On January 12, the SEC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against two companies (collectively, defendants), alleging that they were involved in the unregistered offer and sale of securities through a crypto asset lending program. According to the complaint, in December 2020, one defendant entered into an agreement with the other defendant to offer customers, including retail investors in the U.S., an opportunity to loan their crypto assets to the defendant in exchange for its “promise to pay interest on those investors’ crypto assets.” The complaint further alleged that in February 2021, the defendants began offering the program to retail investors, which included that there was no minimum investment amount to be eligible to participate, and that investors tendered their crypto assets to one of the defendants acting as the agent to facilitate the transaction. The SEC noted that the defendant deducted an agent fee, sometimes as high as 4.29 percent. The complaint also alleged that the defendant then exercised its discretion in how to use investors’ crypto assets to generate revenue and pay interest to investors. In November 2022, the company announced that it would not allow its investors to withdraw their crypto assets because the company did not have sufficient liquid assets to meet withdrawal requests following volatility in the crypto asset market. These activities violated Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act the SEC said. The SEC’s complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, prejudgment interest, and civil penalties.
CFTC, DOJ, SEC file charges in crypto fraud scheme
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.
SEC issues $20 million whistleblower award
On December 12, the SEC announced an award totaling nearly $20 million to a whistleblower whose new information and assistance led to a successful SEC enforcement action. According to the redacted order, the whistleblower provided new information, met with SEC staff multiple times, and cooperated in the investigation, which allowed SEC staff to more quickly and efficiently investigate complex issues.
SEC seeks to stop the registration of misleading crypto asset offerings
On November 18, the SEC instituted administrative proceedings against a Wyoming-based organization (respondent) to determine whether a stop order should be issued to suspend the registration of the offer and sale of two crypto assets. The SEC alleged that a Form S-1 registration statement filed by the respondent in September 2021 failed to contain required information about its business, management, and financial condition, such as audited financial statements, and contained materially misleading statements and omissions, including inconsistent statements about whether the tokens are securities as required under the Securities Act of 1933. The SEC further alleged that the respondent failed to cooperate in the examination of respondent’s registration statement.
District Court says blockchain network’s token is a security
On November 7, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire ruled that digital tokens sold by a blockchain network qualify as securities under the Securities Act of 1933. The SEC sued the company in 2021, claiming that by issuing the tokens, the company conducted an unregistered offering of securities. The company countered that its tokens are not securities because they are not being offered as an investment opportunity on its platform, but rather are designed to be used by content creators and users. The company also argued that the tokens are not securities because they function as “an essential component” of the company’s blockchain and that investors acquired them for use on the company’s network, rather than with the intention of holding them as an investment. Further, the company claimed that it did not receive fair notice that its token offerings are subject to securities laws.
In determining whether the tokens are securities, the court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of an investment contract in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., focusing on the issue of “whether the economic realities surrounding [the company’s] offerings of [the tokens] led investors to have a ‘reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.’” According to the court, multiple statements made by the company led potential investors to reasonably expect the tokens to grow in value as the company continued to oversee the development of its network. “[P]otential investors would understand that [the company] was pitching a speculative value proposition for its digital token,” the court said, rejecting the company’s argument that it had informed some potential investors that the company was not offering its token as an investment. “[A] disclaimer cannot undo the objective economic realities of a transaction,” the court stated, adding that “[n]othing in the case law suggests that a token with both consumptive and speculative uses cannot be sold as an investment contract.” Additionally, the court explained that, while this may be the first instance where securities laws are being “used against an issuer of digital tokens that did not conduct an ICO, [the company] is in no position to claim that it did not receive fair notice that its conduct was unlawful.”