Ian Freeman, the Keene-based libertarian activist facing criminal charges relating to his bitcoin-exchange business, was ordered released to home confinement Friday after two months in jail following his arrest in March.
In an order Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph N. Laplante imposed a number of conditions, including that Freeman leave home only for approved reasons, refrain from accessing digital currency, submit to government monitoring of his computer activity and agree to forfeit $200,000 in money or property if he fails to appear for court.
Freeman’s attorney, Mark Sisti, said Friday afternoon that his client was set to be released later in the day.
Prosecutors claim Freeman ran an unlicensed virtual currency exchange business that handled millions of dollars in transactions over several years, in violation of federal law. According to the government, Freeman and his codefendants advertised sales of virtual currency online and operated virtual currency exchange kiosks in Keene and elsewhere.
Prosecutors allege Freeman and others used personal bank accounts and accounts in the names of “purported religious entities” to conceal the nature of their business, and directed customers to falsely report that they were donating to churches or buying rare coins, not purchasing cryptocurrency.
The government also claims Freeman allowed an undercover agent to exchange around $20,000 in cash for bitcoin after the agent told him he was dealing drugs.
Freeman has pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, money laundering, operating an unlicensed money transmitting business and conducting a continuing financial crimes enterprise. A trial is expected next spring, according to court documents.
The government has also charged five others — Colleen Fordham of Alstead, Renee and Andrew Spinella of Derry, Aria DiMezzo of Keene and a Keene man who legally changed his name from Richard Paul to Nobody — with helping Freeman operate an unlicensed money transmitting business. Fordham, Nobody and Renee and Andrew Spinella are also charged with wire fraud.
All have pleaded not guilty, and all but Nobody were released the day of their arrests.
Prosecutors opposed granting Freeman bail, calling him a flight risk due to his substantial financial assets and the prospect of years in prison, among other things. One of the charges against him carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.
Sisti responded that Freeman has lived in New Hampshire since 2006, has substantial ties to the community — including running for office multiple times and donating regularly to the Hundred Nights shelter in Keene — and made no effort to flee even though he knew the government was investigating him.
After an initial bail hearing in March, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea K. Johnstone ordered Freeman detained. Sisti then filed a motion for the District Court judge assigned to the case, Laplante, to revoke that order.
Laplante ordered Freeman released to home confinement after a hearing Thursday.
Federal prosecutors have said numerous scammers used Freeman’s services to trade cash for virtual currency.
“The anonymity his business provided to his customers attracted hordes of cyber criminals that used his services to convert proceeds of romance scams, investment scams, and your-friend-is in jail scams, among others,” they wrote in a recent filing opposing Freeman’s release. They added that the government possesses emails and recordings in which “Freeman made no secret that he knew that fraudsters used his service for this purpose or that he needed to make misrepresentations to banks.”
According to federal prosecutors, Freeman and his associates opened accounts under the names of entities like the Shire Free Church, the Church of the Invisible Hand, the Reformed Satanic Church and the Crypto Church of NH.
“When the account activity, showing an incredible volume [of] deposits, eventually caused the bank to question Freeman, he would try to obfuscate further before the bank would eventually shut his account,” prosecutors wrote. “He would then move on to another bank or have a confederate open an account in their name that he controlled.”
The government is seeking to force Freeman to forfeit assets that it says he derived from his allegedly illegal enterprise. According to a notice prosecutors filed Tuesday, that includes about $180,000 in cash seized from a safe at his house; more than $50,000 from cryptocurrency kiosks at four locations; silver and gold bars; silver, gold and copper coins; a one-ounce “platinum Ron Paul coin”; and cryptocurrency worth about $4 million as of Friday evening.
Most of that value comes from a gold-plated “Casascius” bar — a physical object with a code redeemable for 100 bitcoin, worth about $3.6 million as of 6 p.m. Friday. Casascius bars and coins stopped being sold in 2013, according to their creator’s website.
In March, a prosecutor said Freeman had access to 28 bitcoin, equivalent to about $1 million as of 6 p.m. Friday. It was not clear how many of those bitcoin were included in the government’s notice listing assets to be forfeited.
In an interview Friday, Sisti denied the government’s allegations, saying Freeman did not try to hide his business because he did not think he was doing anything wrong.
“He was never told by any government, banking agency, any agency whatsoever, to cease and desist,” Sisti said. “And he operated publicly, he operated very openly.”
Prosecutors have filed a 2018 notice that the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network emailed to an entity called “Shire Cryptocoin,” stating that the government believed it was a money services business, and as such had to register with the agency and comply with anti-money laundering practices and other regulations.
Sisti said it was a form letter blasted out to thousands of bitcoin vendors. “It was generic in nature, and it was not addressed to Ian Freeman.”
Asked about the allegation that Freeman permitted an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer to trade cash for bitcoin, Sisti said he doesn’t “know where that’s coming from,” but said he has seen evidence of Freeman refusing to deal with criminals.
“I actually read a text exchange with somebody that Ian discovered was a drug dealer, and specifically told him he would not do business with him,” Sisti said.