The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged former Coinbase (COIN) product manager Ishan Wahi, his brother Nikhil Wahi and Sameer Ramani with wire fraud and insider trading on Thursday.
The DOJ alleged in a press release that Ishan Wahi shared information about what crypto assets Coinbase would list with Nikhil Wahi and/or Ramani prior to the actual listing. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also brought charges against the three tied to the same insider trading allegations.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York noted this was the second insider-trading case in crypto the DOJ has brought.
Ishan Wahi allegedly shared information about at least 14 different listings at Coinbase. According to the DOJ's press release, the defendants used anonymous Ethereum wallets and exchange accounts in other people's names to buy at least 25 different cryptocurrencies and potentially make up to $1.5 million (though the SEC release put the figure closer to $1.1 million).
The cryptocurrencies traded include TRIBE, ALCX, XYO, GALA, ENS and POWR, among others, according to the release.
The DOJ's indictment also referenced a Cobie tweet which identified an Ethereum address "that bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of tokens" on an asset listing post from Coinbase, before the exchange actually published it.
Ishan Wahi was arrested on Thursday but has been on law enforcement's radar for months, according to the release. Officials stopped him from boarding a plane to India in mid-May.
"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," Williams said.
Coinbase itself is not being charged. According to the DOJ, the exchange was also investigating allegations of insider trading.
Notably, the SEC did say in its complaint that some of the assets listed, such as POWR, AMP, RLY, DDX and LCX, were "crypto asset securit[ies]."
"As used in this complaint, 'crypto asset security' refers to an asset that is issued and/or transferred using distributed ledger or blockchain technology – including, but not limited to, so-called 'digital assets,' 'virtual currencies,' 'coins,' and 'tokens' – and that meets the definition of 'security' under the federal securities laws," the SEC complaint said.
Coinbase said in a statement that it "takes allegations of improper use of company information very seriously, as demonstrated by our rapid investigation of this matter. Again, we have zero tolerance for this kind of misconduct and will not hesitate to take action against any employee when we find wrongdoing."
"We appreciate the DOJ’s recognition of our help in holding these individuals accountable," the statement said.
UPDATE (July 21, 2022, 15:45 UTC): Adds context throughout.
UPDATE (July 21, 2022, 20:10 UTC): Adds Coinbase statement.
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