MEMBERS OF CONGRESS INTERFERED WITH FTX INVESTIGATION

Last March, eight members of Congress, dubbed the “Blockchain Eight,” meddled in an investigation of cryptocurrency companies that included the FTX exchange that just went bankrupt. They wrote a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) trying to bully it into easing off on its investigation of cryptocurrency companies. Representative Emmer (R-MN) was the lead author of the letter that was signed by three other Republicans [Reps. Budd (NC), Davidson (OH), and Donalds (FL)] and four Democrats [Reps. Auchincloss (MA), Gottheimer (NJ), Soto (FL), and Torres (NY)]. [1]

(Note: If you find my posts too much to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making.)

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is an independent regulatory and law enforcement agency whose investigations are not supposed to be influenced by politicians. However, the letter the Blockchain Eight sent questioned the SEC’s authority for making information requests to cryptocurrency companies and stated (inaccurately) that the requests might violate federal law. It said that the crypto companies found the requests “overburdensome” and that they were “stifling innovation.” The crypto industry’s complexity and opacity, along with its history of evading sanctions, concealing transactions, and defrauding investors, all make an SEC investigation into it more than appropriate. [2]

The SEC’s investigation of FTX was relevant to its possible mishandling of customer funds, which is what led to its bankruptcy. FTX was improperly transferring customers’ funds to an associated trading company, Alameda Research, which used them to engage in speculative transactions. Ironically, at a congressional hearing back in December 2021, Rep. Emmer told FTX’s CEO Bankman-Fried, “Sounds like you’re doing a lot to make sure there is no fraud or other manipulation.”

U.S. Representative Emmer (R-MN) was clear in a Tweet he sent in March 2022 that the Blockchain Eight’s letter was in response to complaints from crypto companies and that the intent was to stop the SEC’s investigation. He wrote that crypto companies “must not be weighed down by extra-jurisdictional and burdensome reporting requirements. We will ensure our regulators do not kill American innovation.” Simultaneously, Rep. Torres had an op-ed published that called for New York State to loosen its regulation of the crypto industry. However, many experts believe the crypto industry is seriously under-regulated.

It’s unclear whether or not the Blockchain Eight were acting based on a direct request from FTX in their effort to slow or stop the SEC’s investigation. In any case, it’s inappropriate for members of Congress to interfere in an on-going investigation. There are both congressional ethics rules and federal laws that prohibit political interference in investigations.

Five of the eight signers of the letter had received campaign contributions from FTX and/or its employees: Emmer and Gottheimer each got $11,600, Auchincloss got $6,800, and Budd and Torres each received $2,900. Rep. Budd had also received $500,000 from a Super PAC created by FTX co-CEO Ryan Salame. In the 2022 election cycle, with Rep. Emmer as chair of the House Republicans’ campaign committee, its PAC received $5.5 million from FTX-related sources. In 2021, the overall crypto industry contributed $7.3 million to political campaigns and committees.

The House Financial Services Committee has announced hearings into the FTX bankruptcy. Perhaps not surprisingly, six of the Blockchain Eight are on the committee: Emmer, Gottheimer, Auchincloss, Budd, Davidson, and Torres.

The FTX bankruptcy hasn’t stopped Rep. Emmer from supporting the crypto companies. At a recent event of the Blockchain Association, the crypto industry’s trade group, he promoted cryptocurrency and opposed regulation of the industry. Furthermore, Emmer and the other Republican letter signers have tried to blame the SEC and its Chair, Gary Gensler, for the FTX bankruptcy and have peddled conspiracy theories about ties between Gensler, the SEC, and FTX.

Among other things, the SEC has been investigating whether FTX and other crypto companies are creating securities that should be registered with the SEC. The Blockchain Eight’s letter criticized the SEC for “employing … investigative functions to gather information from unregulated cryptocurrency and blockchain industry” companies. However, this is exactly what the SEC should be doing – investigating whether securities that should be registered and regulated are being created by crypto companies.

The revolving door of personnel moving between related government and private sector jobs is very evident in the crypto industry and with its lobbyists. The Blockchain Association’s director of government affairs is the former financial services policy expert for Rep. Davidson. Many of the other lobbyists for the crypto industry are former regulators or other government officials, including three former SEC Chairs, three former Chairs of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, a former Treasury Secretary, a former White House chief of staff, and three former Senators.

The crypto industry is actively using all three government influencing strategies – campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door – in its efforts to avoid regulation. Meanwhile, many customers are losing money in the basically unregulated cryptocurrency financial markets.

The Blockchain Eight’s letter is eerily reminiscent of the Keating Five scandal in 1987 that was part of the Saving and Loan debacle. Back then, five Senators pressured bank regulators into shutting down an investigation into Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan bank. Keating had donated $1.3 million to the five Senators’ campaigns over a number of years. Shortly after the shutdown of the investigation, Lincoln went bankrupt, costing the government and taxpayers $3.4 billion. This was a piece of the nationwide Savings and Loan debacle and bailout that cost the federal government and taxpayers $125 billion. Keating was convicted of fraud and served time in jail. The Senate Ethics Committee found that three of the five Senators had improperly interfered with a federal investigation.

I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support strong regulation of the crypto industry. Enough people have lost enough money that strong regulation is clearly needed. Also encourage them to ensure that a thorough investigation of the FTX bankruptcy occurs and that appropriate punishments and sanctions are meted out to companies and individuals that were involved.

You can email President Biden at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Sammon, A., 3/21/22, “The eight Congressmen subverting the SEC’s crypto investigation,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/eight-congressmen-subverting-secs-crypto-investigation/)

[2]      Dayen, D., 11/23/22, “Congressmembers tried to stop the SEC’s inquiry into FTX,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/congressmembers-tried-to-stop-secs-inquiry-into-ftx/)

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