Wall Street regulators take multiple actions against cryptocurrency firms

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two Wall Street regulators on Tuesday announced a series of actions, including levying fines, against companies involved with cryptocurrencies, in a flurry of activity reflecting efforts to monitor the popular and unregulated asset class.

A sign for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is seen outside the offices in New York's financial district July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Cryptocurrencies, like the well-known bitcoin, are virtual tokens that can be used as forms of payments on a variety of online applications. They can also be traded on dedicated online exchanges.

Securities regulators have intensified their scrutiny of the nascent asset class, noting that some tokens may be considered securities, which would make their issuance, sale and trading subject to federal laws.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Jay Clayton said in February he believed most of the sales of new tokens, known as initial coin offerings, should be considered securities. However, the SEC has not specifically classified which coins are securities.

A New York federal judge ruled on Tuesday that a case could proceed in which U.S. securities law was being used to prosecute fraud cases involving cryptocurrency offerings.

In the first of three separate actions announced on Tuesday, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) accused Timothy Ayre, owner of Rocky Mountain Ayre RMTN.PK, of committing securities fraud after he sold and marketed the digital asset HempCoin.

HempCoin was backed by shares of Rocky Mountain Ayre, but Ayre did not register the coin as a security, FINRA said. Between 2016 and 2017, investors mined more than 81 million HempCoin, which they traded on the cryptocurrency exchanges C-Cex and Yobit.

Ayre could face a fine or suspension from the securities industry. Franklin Ogele, a lawyer representing Ayre, said they are planning to fight the charges because it is not clear that HempCoin can be considered a security.

The SEC separately on Tuesday said TokenLot and its heads Lenny Kugel and Eli Lewitt agreed to pay $471,000 in disgorgement plus interest to settle charges that they acted as an unregistered broker-dealer for the sale of digital tokens.

Kugel declined to comment on the settlement. Kugel, Lewitt and TokenLot did not admit or deny the SEC’s findings.

Finally, the SEC said the hedge fund Crypto Asset Management LP agreed to pay a $200,000 penalty after it was found to have offered a fund it falsely said was regulated by the SEC when it was not.

The fund and its manager Tim Enneking, who was also named in the order, neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings.

Enneking in a telephone interview said the firm cooperated with the SEC, and removed two statements from its website as soon as the regulator notified it about the problem.

“There is nothing in the order about financial impropriety, no investors were harmed, and this has not impacted the fund’s operation or performance at all,” Enneking said.

Reporting By Elizabeth Dilts and Anna Irrera in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Matthew Lewis