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In a series of parallel actions announced on July 21, 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) initiated criminal and civil charges against three defendants in the first cryptocurrency insider trading case.

According to the criminal indictment, DOJ alleges that a former employee of a prominent cryptocurrency exchange used his position at the exchange to obtain confidential information about at least 25 future cryptocurrency listings, then tipped his brother and a friend who traded the digital assets in advance of the listing announcements, realizing gains of approximately $1.5 million. The indictment further alleges that the trio used various means to conceal their trading, and that one defendant attempted to flee the United States when their trading was discovered. The Government charged the three with wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy. Notably, and like the Government’s recently announced case involving insider trading in nonfungible tokens, criminal prosecutors did not charge the defendants with securities or commodities fraud.

In its press release announcing the charges, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said: “Today’s charges are a further reminder that Web3 is not a law-free zone. Just last month, I announced the first ever insider trading case involving NFTs, and today I announce the first ever insider trading case involving cryptocurrency markets. Our message with these charges is clear: fraud is fraud is fraud, whether it occurs on the blockchain or on Wall Street. And the Southern District of New York will continue to be relentless in bringing fraudsters to justice, wherever we may find them.”

Based on these facts, the SEC also announced charges against the three men in a civil complaint alleging securities fraud. In order to assert jurisdiction over the matter, the SEC alleges that at least nine of the cryptocurrencies involved in the alleged insider trading were securities, and the compliant traces through the Howey analysis for each. The SEC has not announced charges against the exchange itself, though in the past it has charged at least one cryptocurrency exchange that listed securities tokens for failure to register as a securities exchange. Perhaps coincidentally, on July 21 the exchange involved in the latest DOJ and SEC cases filed a rulemaking petition with the SEC urging it to “propose and adopt rules to govern the regulation of securities that are offered and traded via digitally native methods, including potential rules to identify which digital assets are securities.”

In an unusual move, Commissioner Caroline Pham of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) released a public statement criticizing the charges. Citing the Federalist Papers, Commissioner Pham described the cases as “a striking example of ‘regulation by enforcement.’” She noted that “the SEC’s allegations could have broad implications beyond this single case, underscoring how critical and urgent it is that regulators work together.” Commissioner Pham continued, “Major questions are best addressed through a transparent process that engages the public to develop appropriate policy with expert input—through notice-and-comment rulemaking pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act.” She concluded by stating that, “Regulatory clarity comes from being out in the open, not in the dark.” The CFTC is not directly involved in either case, and it is atypical for a regulator to chide a sister agency on an enforcement matter in this fashion. On the same day, another CFTC Commissioner, Kristin Johnson, issued her own carefully-worded statement that seemed to support the Government’s actions.