Chain of events
Widow details husband’s shady bitcoin exploits — and the millions that vanished with his mysterious death
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/01/2022 (306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Gerald Cotten, the 30-year-old Canadian CEO of bitcoin exchange and investment platform QuadrigaCX, died suddenly in India in 2018, $250 million worth of cryptocurrency and cash vanished just as suddenly.
The bitcoin was supposedly held in Quadriga’s “cold wallet” — essentially stored offline on Cotten’s laptop — the passwords to which were known only to the deceased CEO. (And whose passwords were never recovered, despite the best efforts of forensic computer experts.)
It now appears, based on this confessional account by his widow, Jennifer Robertson (with an assist from University of King’s College journalism professor Stephen Kimber), that there weren’t any substantial investment assets — bitcoin or otherwise — in Quadriga. What Cotten ran was a high-tech version of an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme.
A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that pays existing investors rich returns via funds collected from new investors. Meanwhile, the bulk of the capital in a Ponzi is siphoned off to underwrite the fraudster’s lavish lifestyle.
And a lavish lifestyle is what Cotten and Robertson enjoyed.
They owned homes in Nova Scotia and Kelowna, other properties in Nova Scotia, an East Coast Island, a 50-foot yacht, a Tesla electric vehicle, a Cessna airplane and leased a private jet. In the space of a few years they travelled to India, Scotland, Ireland, South America, the Galapagos Islands, the Maldives, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Singapore, Aruba, Las Vegas, Malta and Amsterdam.
Robertson vehemently denies knowledge of or being a party to any of Cotten’s criminal activities. And she’s generally persuasive on that point.
But you have to wonder about her credulity.
After all, would a legitimate $250-million financial trading platform be run by one guy out of a single laptop — usually manned by him while sitting in bed, at a kitchen table or in his bathtub?
And what about the stacks of cash she saw laying around all over the place in their various residences — cash she also saw Cotten stuff into envelopes, ostensibly to be delivered to investors as earnings or redemptions?
There had to be at least some degree of what the law calls “wilful blindness” going on in her life with Cotten.
Ultimately, and after much litigation, most of the personal tangible assets she and Cotten acquired were sold to make partial reimbursement to investors and pay for a wealth of accounting, trustee and legal costs.
This is autobiography, so it’s told in the first person. But Robertson puts herself at the forefront of far too much of the narrative.
Not every incident need be recounted with the almighty “I” leading and navigating at every turn. She seems compelled to constantly remind readers of something we already all know — that she’s the protagonist of her own story.
It also gives her story a soap-opera-ish feel and vibe. Too often it reads like a wistful romance novel penned by a betrayed, and self-absorbed, heroine.
The book could also use a technical assist.
You’d think that early on Robertson would explain for readers just what bitcoin is, and how its enabling blockchain technology works. But her sole, and very modest, attempt at explanation doesn’t surface until roughly halfway into the book.
Robertson and Cotten’s rise and fall makes for a fascinating story. It’s just not all that well told here.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.
Updated on Thursday, February 3, 2022 1:44 PM CST: Removes reference to Robertson stuffing cash into envelopes