What to Make of the Avalanche Whistleblower Report

An investigation intended to show Ava Labs paid for adversarial lawsuits against its rivals has issues of its own.

AccessTimeIconAug 30, 2022 at 7:01 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 4:37 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconAug 30, 2022 at 7:01 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 4:37 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconAug 30, 2022 at 7:01 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 4:37 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Ava Labs, the crypto development group behind the Avalanche blockchain and AVAX token, is under fire after a supposed investigative report showed how the firm allegedly staged a series of class-action lawsuits to attack competitors.

On Aug. 26, so-described whistleblower site Crypto Leaks posted a lengthy expose that claims Ava Labs paid crypto-focused law firm Freedman Roche in tokens and equity to file this adversarial litigation. Ava CEO Emin Gün Sirer has called the allegations “categorically false.”

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The post includes short, surreptitiously recorded videos of the law firm’s founder, Kyle Roche, describing how he used the U.S. legal system to draw regulatory attention like a “magnet” against alternative layer 1 blockchains including Solana and Dfinity and protect Avalanche’s interests. He also discussed his close professional and personal relationships with Ava and its founders, as well as his financial stake in Avalanche.

The report, if true, is damning and shows that anti-competitive behavior is alive and well in crypto. There are, however, several reasons to remain skeptical about the allegations. Right now, the pursuit of truth has reached a he-said-she-said stage – where it seems like all parties are withholding some facts – that only tarnishes crypto’s reputation.

The central claims of the investigation cannot be disproven by a third party – that Ava weaponized the legal system may well be true – and need further verification. But some aspects of the report show clear bias. Whether you think that reduces the reporting to mudslinging is up to you, but there are clear factual problems.

When judging the veracity or authenticity of something, small facts matter. I think it’s significant that Crypto Leak’s investigation had to be updated to reflect that Gün Sirer, a former Cornell professor, had left the university. This was announced publicly months ago, when the computer scientist decided to go full time on his private ventures.

That update further alleges that Gün Sirer possibly left under nefarious circumstances, which is unsubstantiated. This matters because the whistleblower is building a profile of Gün Sirer who was supposedly bitter for not achieving tenure, suffered from “Satoshi envy” and … is possibly “a sociopath.”

You cannot fault a whistleblower for dramatics. But instead of leaning on the actual spy-cam footage, it brings in circumstantial evidence that only undermines its believability. The reporter thinks it’s significant that Roche has failed to update his LinkedIn page to reflect he’s living in Miami – possibly as a tax dodge – or that he works with Ava Labs.

Small examples of motivated reasoning add up, and should cast a shadow of doubt. However, for this same reason, you have to be skeptical of Ava’s immediate defense – which hangs on the investigation being funded by rival blockchain project Dfinity. (Roche Freedman has sued a Dfinity linked organization for “securities violations” and insider trading.)

There’s circumstantial evidence that suggests a relationship exists between “The Internet Computer” and Crypto Leaks, including that its previous reports were defenses of Dfinity against Solana and the New York Times, but there are no clear financial flows.

It’s also significant that in their responses to the investigation, Ava Labs, Emin Gün Sirer and Roche have yet to acknowledge Ava’s support of Roche’s “tokenized litigation” platform Ryval – which undercuts claims that Ava only worked with the law firm in its early days. The platform was designed to cryptofy lawsuits, allowing people to invest in the outcome of cases, and was publicly supported by Ava Labs in late 2020.

We’re left with a series of highly edited videos, filmed by an unknown party and acquired through unknown means, showing a lawyer making braggadocious claims about his practice and peer group. We have a lawyer who claims to have been deceived and “intoxicated” by a Norwegian venture capitalist and crypto founder that is downplaying his relationship to his lawyer.

Both Roche and Emin Gün Sirer have stated Ava Labs had no insight into Roche’s “plaintiff side practice,” which doesn’t entirely waive away the possibility they were more closely related than they claim. But you have to ask what benefit would it bring for Ava or Roche to sue Binance, or other crypto exchanges like Coinbase (COIN) and Kraken, as planned?

Roche’s words speak for themselves. He sued “for sport” and for insider information, a fact that only came to light after loose-lipped talking. And his career is likely finished, his reputation burned for getting himself in this mess. He cannot deny appearing on film, over multiple days, even if he was duped into speaking under false pretenses.

Then there’s the question of strategy: Did Ava actually think it could benefit ultimately by getting regulators to investigate their rivals for securities violations, despite basically running the same token game? The situation suggests self-cannibalization across-the-board, including the probability that Dfinity is funding mudslinging against its rivals.

Of course, this is all really just speculation based on speculation. Of course, lawyers do not always put their client’s interests first. And of course, crypto projects do not always act with honor and distinction. No claims in this sordid little drama seem out of the question.

The story is developing, more information will come to light. Question it all. And maybe rue the fact that even if Avalanche unethically paid lawyers to attack its competitors the project is bigger than the egos behind it, who might win either way. AVAX dropped 11% in intraday trading Monday, and has since rebounded significantly.

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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.