Court Allows U.S. Prosecution for American’s North Korea Speech About Cryptocurrency
From U.S. v. Griffith, decided yesterday by Judge P. Kevin Castel (S.D.N.Y.):
Defendant Virgil Griffith is charged in an indictment with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), 50 U.S.C. §§ 1701–1706. The indictment alleges that an object of the fifteen-month conspiracy was to provide services to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (“DPRK”) without the required government approvals. He now moves to dismiss the indictment …. [U]pon review of the law governing the offense conduct, the indictment states a federal crime and violates no constitutional prohibition….
Griffith asserts that he is an American citizen from Tuscaloosa, who at the time of the acts underlying the indictment, was domiciled in Singapore working for the Ethereum Foundation as a Senior Researcher. His position was similar to a business development manager for the Foundation. As part of his employment and interest in cryptocurrencies, Griffith spoke and gave presentations at various panels or conferences about the technology.
In August 2018, Griffith learned about a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea. Since early 2018, Griffith wanted to establish an Ethereum environment in the DPRK, at one point texting a colleague, “we’d love to make an Ethereum trip to the DPRK and setup an Ethereum node…. It’ll help them circumvent the current sanctions on them.” Griffith also sent texts to a colleague speculating that while he was not sure why the DPRK was interested in cryptocurrencies, it was “probably avoiding sanctions.”
In January 2019, Griffith applied to the State Department for permission to travel to the DPRK, informing them that he would speak at a cryptocurrency conference about “the applications of blockchain technology to business and anti-corruption.” The State Department denied his request, though according to the defense, they did not inform him that traveling to DRPK or participating in the conference would violate United States law. Griffith was determined to attend despite the denial, and sought the approval of the DPRK UN Mission in Manhattan. He sent the mission (via email) copies of his CV, passport, and explained his desire to attend the conference. He was granted a visa a month later.
Griffith flew to the DPRK on April 18, 2019. The conference was held from April 23 to April 24. He flew back to Singapore on April 25. The parties characterize the nature of Griffith’s presentation differently. Griffith claims that he spoke before approximately 100 North Koreans, covering very basic information about use of blockchain technology, use of “smart contracts,” and “information that one could readily learn from a Google search[.]” The government claims that Griffith gave a presentation and answered questions on cryptocurrency topics that were pre-approved by the DPRK and largely surrounded the potential to launder money and evade sanctions. The government obtained portions of audio recordings of the conference that have been produced to the defendant.
Upon returning to Singapore, Griffith visited the U.S. embassy to report his trip, and was interviewed by a State Department official for “several hours.” On May 22, 2019, he traveled to New York and was interviewed by the FBI at their request. On November 6, 2019, he was questioned over the phone by the FBI. On November 12, 2019, he again was interviewed by the FBI, this time in San Francisco, where he voluntarily turned over his cell phone. On or about November 28, 2019, he was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on a criminal complaint. On January 7, 2020, an indictment was filed charging him with one count of conspiring to
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