Alex Mashinsky, co-founder and former CEO of insolvent crypto lender Celsius, was arrested in New York on Thursday following an investigation into the company's collapse, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed to CoinDesk.
Mashinsky and others are charged with seven counts including securities fraud, commodities fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to manipulate the price of Celsius' token CEL, according to a DOJ indictment.
The lending platform filed for bankruptcy in July 2022, and crypto consortium Fahrenheit recently won a bid to acquire its assets. In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Mashinsky for allegedly misleading investors about the firm’s health leading up to its bankruptcy filing. Mashinsky later called the accusations "baseless" and said they were informed by online misinformation.
The DOJ accused Mashinsky and Celsius Chief Revenue Officer Roni Cohen-Pavon of orchestrating "a years long scheme to mislead customers" on the market value of the company's value and interest in CEL. The indictment added Mashinsky made false and misleading public statements about his own sales of CEL. Cohen-Pavon was also arrested on Thursday, according to a Bloomberg report.
"Mashinsky portrayed Celsius as a modern-day bank, where customers could safely deposit crypto assets and earn interest. In truth, however, Mashinsky operated Celsius as a risky investment fund, taking in customer money under false and misleading pretenses," the indictment said, adding that Mashinsky misled investors about loans being collateralized, counterparties defaulting and regulatory scrutiny.
In a statement, the DOJ said it had struck a non-prosecution deal with Celsius itself, as the company had accepted responsibility for its role in the allegedly fraudulent scheme, and was cooperating.
The SEC, meanwhile, accused the firm and Mashinsky of securities fraud, in a lawsuit filed on the same day. In its complaint, the SEC asserted that CEL and Celsius' Earn product constituted securities.
“In this case, Celsius offered and sold CEL and the Earn Interest Program as securities…. Celsius and Mashinsky never filed a registration statement or had one in effect with the SEC for their offers and sales of securities through the Earn Interest Program,” the complaint said.
Speaking at a Thursday press conference, the SEC's Enforcement Director Gurbir Grewal said that defendants had misled investors, alleging they were "often completely fabricating their financials."
"Today, along with our federal partners, we're holding Mashinsky and Celsius responsible for their lies and for their deceit," Grewal said.
In a separate complaint, the CFTC accused the company and Mashinsky of engaging in a "scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of customers by mispresenting the safety and profitability of its digital asset-based finance platform." Despite deteriorating market conditions, the company continued to "promote the safety and viability of Celsius, and failed to disclose these losses to customers," the CFTC filing added.
The CFTC alleges the firm violated federal commodities regulations, committed fraud and failed to register as a Commodity Pool Operator and provide relevant disclosure documents.
"Defendants assured customers that Celsius maintained sufficient reserves to meet customer obligations," said a complaint by the FTC, which accused the firm of violating the Federal Trade Commission Act "in connection with the marketing and sale of cryptocurrency lending and custody services."
The FTC announced it had reached a settlement with Celsius Network "that will permanently ban it from handling consumers’ assets," and block it from "offering, marketing, or promoting any product or service that could be used to deposit, exchange, invest, or withdraw any assets."
The FTC also charged former executives Shlomi Daniel Leon, Hanoch “Nuke” Goldstein and Mashinsky with tricking consumers into transferring crypto onto the platform. The regulator said the three executives have not agreed to the settlement, and that the case against them will proceed in federal court.
"The companies also agreed to a judgment of $4.7 billion, which will be suspended to permit Celsius to return its remaining assets to consumers in bankruptcy proceedings," the FTC notice said.
Lawyers for Mashinsky, Celsius and the SEC did not immediately respond to a CoinDesk request for comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York is due to host a press conference on the indictment at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Thursday.
Following the publication of this article, lawyers for Mashinsky told CoinDesk via email that he "vehemently denies the allegations brought today" and that "he looks forward to vigorously defending himself in court against these baseless charges."
Jack Schickler and Amitoj Singh contributed reporting.
UPDATE (July 13, 13:20 UTC): Adds CFTC, FTC has filed suit and more detail throughout.
UPDATE (July 13, 13:54 UTC): Adds detail from DOJ indictment.
UPDATE (July 13, 14:19 UTC): Adds FTC settlement and details throughout.
UPDATE (July 13, 15:22 UTC): Updates first paragraph to reflect DOJ confirmation on Mashinsky arrest.
UPDATE (July 13, 15:47 UTC): Adds DOJ statement regarding non-prosecution agreement.
UPDATE (July 13, 16:10 UTC): Adds comment from Mashinsky's lawyers.
UPDATE (July 13, 16:21 UTC): Adds Grewal quote.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, institutional digital assets exchange. Bullish group is majority owned by Block.one; both groups have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary, and an editorial committee, chaired by a former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, is being formed to support journalistic integrity.