Bitcoin's alleged architect troubled by financial, tax issues

A Bitcoin sign displayed at a bar in Sydney on Sept 29.
A Bitcoin sign displayed at a bar in Sydney on Sept 29. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Australian Craig Steven Wright is the latest in a line of men alleged to be the mysterious creator of bitcoin, a digital currency that has attracted the interest of banks, speculators, criminals and regulators.

Wired magazine, which along with fellow US publication Gizmodo published a story outing Wright based on a stash of leaked documents and emails, called him a genius.

But interviews with those who have done business with Wright, and a closer inspection of documents published by the two technology websites paint a more complex picture.

They point to a smart but sometimes abrasive figure facing growing legal and financial problems at least in part caused by his involvement with bitcoin.

While it was not immediately possible to support or refute claims that he is Satoshi Nakamoto - the person or group credited with writing the paper, protocols and software that led to bitcoin - some of those who worked with Wright raised questions about the timing of the leak and the likelihood that he was Nakamoto.

"It can't be him, there's no way he could have kept quiet about it this long," said a former senior employee at Hotwire Preemptive Intelligence, who also detailed Wright's difficulties with authorities over his Australian businesses' bitcoin dealings.

The former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, citing legal issues, said the collapse of Tokyo-based bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox in early 2014 had a direct effect on Hotwire, which is registered in Australia and is in the hands of administrators attempting to unravel disputes with the Australian Tax Office (ATO).

The collapse of Mt. Gox and the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of bitcoin coincided with a decision by the ATO, according to the documents, not to regard Wright's bitcoin as money and that the digital currency therefore was taxable like any other commodity.

This punctured Hotwire's hopes it could recover more than A$3 million in tax credits and helped sink the company. "Their cash flow disappeared right around the time Mt. Gox collapsed," the former employee told Reuters, adding that staff at Hotwire were told that Wright had funds in a bitcoin trust, in which he was a beneficiary along with other unnamed parties.

"When they were trying to find cash flow after they were hit by Mt. Gox, they couldn't sell the bitcoins in the trust to get the cashflow because they couldn't break this wallet as there are other trustees." Wright has not commented publicly on the Wired and Gizmodo reports, and Reuters' attempts to contact him using various listed email addresses were unsuccessful.

Wright's blog was taken down on Wednesday, his Twitter and Google+ accounts were deleted and access to his full LinkedIn profile restricted.

Attempts to reach Wright's lawyer were unsuccessful and another former Hotwire employee said all staff had been instructed not to speak to the media. Wright's whereabouts are unknown.

The landlord at his rented Sydney home told a Reuters reporter that Wright had been due to move out with his family before Christmas to move to London, where he recently attended a conference and was, according to his LinkedIn profile, enrolled for a Master's degree at University of London.

The ATO was behind raids by Australian police on Wednesday on Wright's home and office in Sydney. It declined to provide any further detail on the raids, citing legal confidentiality.

Administrator McGrath Nicol told creditors last month that the ATO slapped a A$1.7 million fine on Hotwire over its tax refund claims. The former Hotwire employee said Wright once paid in bitcoin to buy a banking platform from a Middle Eastern seller. He then sought to claim a goods and services tax return, or import credit, in cash worth millions of dollars which the ATO denied.

Bitcoin experts say that unmasking Satoshi Nakamoto would be significant for the industry. Not only would the proven founder likely hold some sway over the future of the bitcoin protocol, but Nakamoto may also hold enough bitcoin to influence the price of bitcoin.

"What people are looking for essentially is the Bill Gates of bitcoin," said David Glance, a director of innovation at the University of Western Australia and noted bitcoin expert, who doubts that Wright is Nakamato, pointing to pro-capitalist, anti-hacking columns Wright wrote for The Conversation, a local publication, in 2011.

After ditching several directorships in July, Wright remains a director of three companies, including Hotwire, which had sought to launch the world's first bitcoin bank. McGrath Nicol noted in one report that the merging of bitcoin and cash transactions in the web of companies involving Wright "has made our review more difficult."

Wright's attempt to go offline in recent days contrasts with the outgoing, self-promoting figure painted by former employees, neighbouring businesses at his Sydney offices and other acquaintances.

His Youtube account, now also deleted, contained videos of him rowing in the gym attempting to break records, while his LinkedIn profile contained a long list of academic qualifications.

Asked about a statement on that profile that Wright was"engaged as digital forensic expert and trainer with the Australian Federal Police", the AFP said Wright was engaged to provide a technical report to support an investigation.

"He was really outgoing, we used to call him Mr. Bitcoin,"said an employee of a neighbouring business while Wright's offices were searched.