Jesse Powell, founder of Kraken, in 2014. His home in Los Angeles was searched by the F.B.I. in March.Credit…David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The F.B.I. searched the home of the cryptocurrency executive Jesse Powell in March as part of a criminal investigation into claims that he hacked and cyber-stalked a nonprofit that 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, had interfered with its computer accounts, blocking access to emails and other messages, the people said. Agents with the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of California have been looking into Mr. Powell since at least last fall, three people with knowledge of 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 accused Mr. Powell of any crimes.
Brandon Fox, a lawyer for Mr. Powell, confirmed that he was under investigation by federal prosecutors in Northern California. Mr. Fox said the investigation was focused on the allegations by the arts group, Verge Center for the Arts, and “in no way related to Mr. Powell’s employment or his conduct in the cryptocurrency arena.” He also said Mr. Powell “did nothing wrong.”
A Kraken spokeswoman said the Verge investigation had nothing to do with the company, and that Kraken had no reason to believe that prosecutors were investigating other potential issues.
An F.B.I. 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 cracked down on several of Kraken’s competitors. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the FTX crypto exchange, was charged with fraud last year, while Coinbase and Binance, two of the largest exchanges, face government lawsuits.
A key figure in the early history of crypto, Mr. Powell, 42, built Kraken into the second-largest U.S. crypto exchange behind Coinbase.
His company has faced years of legal scrutiny. In recent months, prosecutors have examined 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 probe said. In that lawsuit, a former Kraken employee accused the firm of earning revenue from accounts in countries that were under U.S. sanctions, and claimed Kraken’s bank accounts were missing millions of dollars of customer deposits.
The suit was settled in 2021, after a judge dismissed 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 $30 million fine 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 took place after an article in The Times detailed Mr. Powell’s efforts to incite debates about race and gender that some Kraken employees found offensive.
After Mr. Powell’s dismissal, he blocked Verge from using its website, emails and internal messaging system, and improperly accessed confidential information stored in those accounts, according to a letter that 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 ouster was improper and that he owned Verge’s digital accounts. Mr. Cunningham, Verge’s lawyer, said Mr. Powell’s claims did not have any merit.
In September, Mr. Powell announced he would step down as Kraken’s chief executive while remaining chairman. He was replaced by Dave Ripley, Kraken’s chief operating officer, who took over the firm in March.
Kirsten Noyes and Kitty Bennett contributed research.