Picture: 123RF/STANISLAV SHAHURIN
Picture: 123RF/STANISLAV SHAHURIN

Portland — The crypto-exchange Bitfinex has reached a settlement with New York attorney-general Letitia James over allegations that it hid the loss of commingled client and corporate funds and lied about reserves.

Without admitting or denying any wrongdoing, the officials who control Bitfinex and the affiliated stablecoin company Tether, agreed to pay $18.5m, the state attorney-general’s office said in a statement on Tuesday. New York officials, who began investigating Bitfinex in 2019, will receive quarterly reports on composition of the company Tether’s reserves for the next two years. The companies will end all trading activity with New Yorkers.

“Bitfinex and Tether recklessly and unlawfully covered up massive financial losses to keep their scheme going and protect their bottom lines,” James said in the statement. “Tether’s claims that its virtual currency [tether] was fully backed by dollars at all times was a lie.”

The investigation found that Bitfinex parent iFinex and Tether made false statements about the backing of Tether, the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars between the two companies to cover up the truth about massive losses by Bitfinex in 2017 and 2018. Starting no later than mid-2017, Tether had no access to banking, anywhere in the world, and so for periods of time held no reserves to back tethers in circulation at the rate of one dollar for every tether.

New York officials said iFinex and Tether falsely claimed that they did not allow trading activity by New Yorkers. Bitfinex says most of its companies are registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The agreement sheds some light on one of the most controversial areas of the cryptocurrency market, in which trading has been dominated by loosely regulated exchanges around the world. About 55% of all bitcoin purchases are conducted with Tether, according to researcher CryptoCompare.

‘Speeding ticket’

The price of bitcoin rose from the lowest levels of the day after the settlement was announced, with some market participants saying the agreement lifts a cloud over the cryptocurrency market. Bitcoin was down 11% to $49,084 as of 9.11am in New York, after tumbling as much as 18%.

“On the grand scale of things, it’s less than a speeding ticket,” said Antoni Trenchev, managing partner and co-founder of Nexo in London, a crypto-lender. “I’m just excited that they will be revealing more numbers so we can accurately assess [the situation] and hopefully that will create some comfort for the market participants.”

The use of Tether has ballooned since New York began the investigation, with the stablecoin’s market capitalisation growing to about $36bn from less than $5bn during that time. Many of the other major crypto-exchanges such as Binance also use Tether, saying it helps provide liquidity and can be used to facilitate transactions between different digital coins and tokens. Unlike other currencies such as bitcoin that are “mined”, Tether officials say they create new coins based on customer orders. That had led to speculation that Tether was being used to lift the price of bitcoin, an allegation Bitfinex officials dispute.

The settlement is the latest turn in a long-running saga involving more than $850m in lost funds. In April 2019, New York’s top cop said that Bitfinex failed to disclose that it entrusted more than $1bn of commingled client and corporate funds to a Panamanian payment processing firm, Crypto Capital.

“The settlement amount we have agreed to pay to the attorney-general’s office should be viewed as a measure of our desire to put this matter behind us and focus on our business,” Stuart Hoegner, general counsel for Bitfinex and Tether, said in a statement. Hoegner’s LinkedIn profile says he’s based in Toronto.

Bitfinex and Tether said they’re still working to recover funds lost when Crypto Capital was shut down. Funds were seized by government agencies in countries such as Poland and Portugal as part of investigations into Crypto Capital. Some of the funds may have been lost, the companies said.

In January, Bitfinex said it repaid a remaining balance of $550m on a loan that was at the heart of the attorney-general’s allegations of fraud.

Bloomberg

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