The FBI searched the home of cryptocurrency executive Jesse Powell in March as part of a criminal investigation into claims he hacked and cyber-stalked a nonprofit he founded, three people with knowledge of the matter said.
The investigation focused on an allegation by the nonprofit that Mr. Powell, who also founded the cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, interfered with its computer accounts, blocking access to emails and other messages, the people said. Agents of the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of California have been investigating Mr. Powell since at least last fall, three people familiar with the case said.
Agents searched Mr. Powell’s home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and seized electronic devices, according to a person familiar with the search and documents reviewed by The New York Times. Prosecutors have not charged Mr. Powell with any crimes.
Brandon Fox, a lawyer for Mr. Powell, confirmed that he is being investigated by federal prosecutors in Northern California. Mr. Fox said the investigation focused on the allegations by the arts group, Verge Center for the Arts, and “has nothing to do with Mr. Powell’s employment or his conduct in the cryptocurrency.” He also said that Mr. Powell “has done nothing wrong.”
A Kraken spokeswoman said the Verge investigation had nothing to do with the company, and that Kraken had no reason to believe prosecutors were investigating other potential issues.
An FBI representative declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of California declined to confirm whether an investigation was underway.
In recent months, federal investigators have targeted several of Kraken’s competitors. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the FTX crypto exchange, was accused of fraud last year, while Coinbase and Binance, two of the largest exchanges, are facing government lawsuits.
A key figure in the early history of crypto, Mr. Powell, 42, built Kraken into the second largest US crypto exchange behind Coinbase.
His company has faced years of legal scrutiny. In recent months, prosecutors have been examining allegations against Kraken and Mr. Powell that were made in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the company in 2019, two people familiar with the investigation said. In that lawsuit, a former Kraken employee accused the company of earning revenue from accounts in countries that were under US sanctions, and claimed that Kraken’s bank accounts were missing millions of dollars in customer payments.
The suit was settled in 2021, after a judge rejected the employee’s claim that his firing was related to the sanctions issue.
Last year, Kraken paid a $360,000 fine to settle Treasury Department charges that it violated sanctions by allowing users in Iran to trade digital currencies. In February, Kraken paid a A fine of 30 million dollars to the Securities and Exchange Commission for offering an investment product that the agency said violated securities laws.
Mr. Powell founded Verge, the Sacramento arts group, in 2007. Last year, the group removed him from its board of directors, citing his failure to attend board meetings and violations of the organization’s “guiding principles,” according to court records. The removal came after an article in The Times detailed Mr Powell’s efforts to incite debates about race and gender, which some Kraken employees found offensive.
After Mr. Powell was fired, he prevented Verge from using its website, emails and internal messaging system, and improperly accessed confidential information stored in those accounts, according to a letter Verge’s lawyer, Phillip Cunningham, sent to Kraken in November. The letter was reviewed by The Times.
Last month, Mr. Powell sued Verge in state court in Sacramento, claiming his removal was improper and that he owns Verge’s digital accounts. Mr. Cunningham, Verge’s lawyer, said Mr. Powell’s claims had no merit.
In September, Mr Powell announced he would step down as chief executive of Kraken while remaining chairman. He was replaced by Dave Ripley, Kraken’s chief operating officer, who took over the company in March.
Kirsten Noyes and Kitty Bennett contributed research.