The United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged the crypto asset trading platform Bittrex and its cofounder and former CEO William Shihara for operating an unregistered national securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency. The agency filed a separate charge against Bittrex Global.
The SEC is pressing four charges of Exchange Act violations against the companies and Shihara in the U.S. District Court Western District of Washington. Bittrex Global is also being charged “in connection with its operation of a single shared order book along with Bittrex.”
The SEC argued in its complaint that the OMG, Dash (DASH), Algorand (ALGO), Monolith (TKN), Naga (NGC) and IHT Real Estate Protocol (IHT) tokens traded on Bittrex are securities. The SEC has been criticized in the past for the practice of “regulation by enforcement” by claiming tokens are securities only at the time when it files such complaints, and not prior.
Today we charged crypto asset trading platform Bittrex Inc. and its co-founder and former CEO William Shihara for operating an unregistered national securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency.https://t.co/kBsIFMp7ZA— U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (@SECGov) April 17, 2023
The agency also claims Bittrex and Shihara advised clients to delete “problematic statements” to avoid regulatory scrutiny. The SEC complaint seeks disgorgement, penalties and permanent injunctions against the defendants in a jury trial. SEC Enforcement Division Director Gurbir Grewal said in a statement:
“Today’s action not only holds Bittrex accountable for misconduct that we allege put investors at risk, but should also send a message to other non-compliant crypto market intermediaries to follow the federal securities laws or be held accountable for their violations.”
Bittrex was expecting the SEC action and reportedly received a Wells notice warning it of the impending action in March. The exchange had already announced its intention of closing down U.S. operations on April 30 due to the regulatory environment.
Bittrex released a statement that said, in part:
“For over five years, [...] the SEC would not provide notice of the specific conduct that it thought violated the federal securities laws. Specifically, on multiple occasions, we asked them to tell us what digital assets on our platform they viewed as securities, so that we could review and potentially delist them. They refused to do so.”
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Bittrex was hit with charges from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network in October for violating sanctions programs and the Bank Secrecy Act.
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Update (April 17, 2023 at 7:06 pm UTC): This article has been updated to add a response from Bittrex.