New York Attorney General Letitia James today ordered Bitfinex and Tether to end all trading activity with New Yorkers.
In the case of Tether, the company represented that each of its stablecoins were backed one-to-one by U.S. dollars in reserve. However, an investigation by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that iFinex — the operator of Bitfinex — and Tether made false statements about the backing of the “tether” stablecoin, and about the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars between the two companies to cover up the truth about massive losses by Bitfinex.
An agreement with iFinex, Tether, and their related entities will require them to cease any further trading activity with New Yorkers, as well as force the companies to pay $18.5 million in penalties, in addition to requiring a number of steps to increase transparency.
The OAG’s investigation found that, 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, contrary to its representations. In the face of persistent questions about whether the company actually held sufficient funds, Tether published a self-proclaimed ‘verification’ of its cash reserves, in 2017, that it characterized as “a good faith effort on our behalf to provide an interim analysis of our cash position.”
In reality, however, the cash ostensibly backing tethers had only been placed in Tether’s account as of the very morning of the company’s ‘verification.’
On November 1, 2018, Tether publicized another self-proclaimed ‘verification’ of its cash reserve; this time at Deltec Bank & Trust Ltd. of the Bahamas. However, on November 2, 2018, Tether began to transfer funds out of its account, ultimately moving hundreds of millions of dollars from Tether’s bank accounts to Bitfinex’s accounts. And so, as of November 2, 2018 — one day after their latest ‘verification’ — tethers were again no longer backed one-to-one by U.S. dollars in a Tether bank account.
As of today, Tether represents that over 34 billion tethers have been issued and are outstanding and traded in the market.
In 2017 and 2018, Bitfinex began to increasingly rely on third-party “payment processors” to handle customer deposits and withdrawals from the Bitfinex trading platform. In 2018, while attempting to “move money [more] efficiently,” Bitfinex suffered a massive and undisclosed loss of funds because of its relationship with a purportedly Panama-based entity known as “Crypto Capital Corp.” Bitfinex responded to pervasive public reports of liquidity problems by misleading the market and its own clients. On October 7, 2018, Bitfinex claimed to “not entirely understand the arguments that purport to show us insolvent,” when, for months, its executives had been pleading with Crypto Capital to return almost a billion dollars in assets.
On April 26, 2019 — after the OAG revealed in court documents that approximately $850 million had gone missing and that Bitfinex and Tether had been misleading their clients — the company issued a false statement that “we have been informed that these Crypto Capital amounts are not lost but have been, in fact, seized and safeguarded.” The reality, however, was that Bitfinex did not, in fact, know the whereabouts of all of the customer funds held by Crypto Capital, and so had no such assurance to make.
From the beginning of its interaction with the OAG, iFinex and Tether falsely claimed that they did not allow trading activity by New Yorkers. The OAG investigation determined that to be untrue and that the companies have operated for years as unlicensed and unregulated entities, illegally trading virtual currencies in the state of New York.
In April 2019, the OAG sought and obtained an injunction against further transfers of assets between and among Bitfinex and Tether, which are owned and controlled by the same small group of individuals. That action — under Section 354 of New York’s Martin Act — ultimately led to a July 2020 decision by the New York State Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, First Department, holding that:
Today’s agreement requires Bitfinex and Tether to discontinue any trading activity with New Yorkers. In addition, these companies must submit regular reports to the OAG to ensure compliance with this prohibition.
Further, the companies must submit to mandatory reporting on core business functions. Specifically, both Bitfinex and Tether will need to report, on a quarterly basis, that they are properly segregating corporate and client accounts, including segregation of government-issued and virtual currency trading accounts by company executives, as well as submit to mandatory reporting regarding transfers of assets between and among Bitfinex and Tether entities.
Additionally, Tether must offer public disclosures, by category, of the assets backing tethers, including disclosure of any loans or receivables to or from affiliated entities. The companies will also provide greater transparency and mandatory reporting regarding the use of non-bank “payment processors” or other entities used to transmit client funds.
Finally, Bitfinex and Tether will be required to pay $18.5 million in penalties to the state of New York.