Federal prosecutors and the courts in New York are sounding the horn, proclaiming run-of-the-mill financial crimes also apply to digital tokens as much as fiat currency. On Tuesday, a judge finally sentenced former Coinbase product manager Ishan Wahi to two years in prison for insider trading. Prosecutors said Wahi used his privileged position within the crypto exchange to help his brother and another friend buy and sell crypto based on his insight into the whirlwind speculative market that is cryptocurrencies.
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U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Southern District of New York announced his sentencing around Midday Tuesday. He said in a release that Wahi’s sentencing “should send a strong signal to all participants in the cryptocurrency markets that the laws decidedly do apply to them.”
Back in February, Wahi pleaded guilty guilty to the charges of insider trading after initially making a not guilty plea. The court also sentenced the ex-Coinbase manager’s brother Nikhil Wahi to 10 months in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Nikhil had also pleaded guilty back in September. Per Reuters, prosecutors asked the court for three years, while Ishan asked for a prison term no longer than his brother’s.
Wahi’s lead attorney, Andrew St. Laurent from New York-based firm Harris St. Laurent & Wechsler LLP, declined to offer commentt o Gizmodo. Reuters reported that Wahi told the court “I made a huge mistake that will follow me for the rest of my life.”
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Prosecutors said Wahi worked at Coinbase starting in 2020 as a product manager listing assets on the exchange. Listing a cryptocurrency could give it legitimacy, bumping up its price. Wahi then brought in his brother and friend Sameer Ramani by letting them know when the exchange planned to list certain crypto assets. The two could then buy up those cryptocurrencies and sell them after listing for a tidy profit. Over the 10 months of the scheme, the Securities and Exchange Commission claimed in a separate lawsuit that the three co-conspirators made more than $1.1 million. Both Ishan and Nikhil Wahi are expected to settle those claims.
In April last year, Coinbase started investigating murmurings of a crypto wallet that was buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tokens exclusively listed on Coinbase. Before the exchange could fire Wahi, he allegedly tried to board a plane to India but he was stopped by police.
Though Coinbase currently sits as the second-largest crypto exchange in market cap (behind Binance), it was only in the top three just a year ago when it found out about Wahi’s scheme. That was before the collapse of both the Terra stablecoin and its main competitor FTX later that year.
The SEC has claimed that Coinbase lists securities from among its various crypto tokens, though Coinbase has routinely denied it’s under the federal agency’s purview. The SEC is currently investigating the exchange regarding whether it was listing unregistered securities. In April, Coinbase turned around and filed its own suit against the SEC, claiming the agency needs to clear the air about its rules regarding crypto.
Lately, the exchange’s leadership has claimed it was looking into leaving the U.S. to get away from all the scrutiny. On Monday, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong told CNBC that the SEC is their main regulatory antagonist and their “lone crusade” against crypto, but further said “Coinbase is not going to relocate overseas.”
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