the money game

Crypto’s Most Powerful Regulator Is Here

Adrienne Harris, New York’s financial watchdog, has enormous sway over the industry’s future.

Photo: Victor Llorente
Photo: Victor Llorente

Thirteen years after the birth of cryptocurrency, it was supposed to be time for Washington to rein it in. Instead, the White House punted, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is still hashing out how it’s going to oversee the $2 trillion industry. State watchdogs have filled that vacuum, making Adrienne Harris, the head of the New York State Department of Financial Services, by default the most powerful crypto regulator in the country.

While states such as Florida and Wyoming have adopted a laissez-faire approach to regulation, attracting a sizable chunk of the booming industry, more money and jobs are still flowing into New York than any other city, making it the de facto crypto capital of the U.S. “There’s a misconception that having rigorous regulation turns off innovative companies,” Harris tells me during an hour-long interview at her office looking out onto the Statue of Liberty last month. “That hasn’t been our experience here.”

Harris was tapped as the first Black woman to lead DFS last year. She came into her position after a turn working in Silicon Valley and representing Wall Street banks, a résumé that critics have used to paint her as too close to the industries she is regulating. She’s eager to dispel any criticism that she’s soft as a regulator, especially when it comes to crypto. Harris says she’s looking to expand the agency’s remit, hire new regulators, and possibly watch over lending and asset management in decentralized finance, a.k.a. DeFi, one of the fastest-growing crypto industries, which has been prone to very large hacks.

The agency’s power over the industry lies mostly with the BitLicense, a required if unloved permit for crypto exchanges to operate within state lines. When it was first introduced in 2014, it was meant to be a model for the country, but the crypto industry has attacked the license for being too strict, limiting what people can trade, and requiring expensive anti-money-laundering operations, which, it should be noted, most traditional financial institutions are required to maintain. For Harris, the problem isn’t that it’s too restrictive — it’s that the process of getting one, which has stretched years for some companies, is too slow. “If you think about the companies that are BitLicensees, and even the companies in the queue, having the imprimatur of ‘Have you passed regulatory muster with a stringent regulatory regime?’ — I think the good actors see that as a good thing,” she says.

Created in 2011, DFS has been a regulator feared more than any of its counterparts in other states for the power it has over banks, insurance companies, and a host of other financial institutions. It brought ambitious money-laundering cases against banks like BNP Paribas (a settlement that resulted in several bankers losing their jobs), fined Deutsche Bank for its relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and levied a $2.5 million fine on the National Rifle Association for selling its so-called murder insurance in the state. “DFS has a lot of teeth, and the sky’s the limit if the agency is exercised properly,” says state Sen. John Liu of Queens, a member of the state finance committee. “DFS compelled multinational banks to cough up $15 billion. We were able to build a couple bridges with that money. We still have much infrastructure in the state of New York that might benefit from DFS’s vigorous functions.”

But part of DFS’s mandate is to keep the state’s economy healthy, a balancing act when it means protecting consumers from predatory, but also lucrative, companies. “For me, it’s an opportunity to bring my lived experience as a woman of color,” Harris says. So far, she has established the agency’s first climate division, frozen fees for check-cashing businesses that target the poor, and looked into non-bank lenders for evidence of redlining. “It’s important to me that those voices are at the table and being heard,” she says. “I bring a sort of pragmatism. It’s one thing to sit in our offices with nice views and make policy, but it’s another thing, in my mind, to really run the water through the pipes.”

In 2008, Harris joined Sullivan & Cromwell, a law firm so close with Goldman Sachs that it has long sent its lawyers to work in-house at the investment bank. It was there that she worked for H. Rodgin “Rodge” Cohen, then the law firm’s chairman and the so-called trauma surgeon of Wall Street. Cohen remembers Harris working late into the night writing near-flawless memorandums so they’d be ready on his desk in the morning. “She just brought what I’d call a penetrating intelligence to the problems that were at hand,” Cohen tells me. “Many of the problems we get, you cannot just look up the answer in a book. It’s a question of judgment and trying to apply rules written often for other circumstances.” Still, it was clear that corporate law wasn’t for her. “Her heart was really in public service,” he says. From there, she went on to work for the Treasury Department, then the Obama White House, where she focused on policies around the then-upstart fintech industry.

After the administration turned over, Harris took a spin through the revolving door between government and business. Her New York financial-disclosure forms show a superabundance of work with the tech and finance industries: She sat on the boards of six companies and nonprofits, including LendingClub, which had recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission over claims it had misled users on fees. She also advised 11 companies, owned two, and invested in or on behalf of two others. “I just thought, well, if you’re going to make policy about it, you should do the thing — run the company, build the company,” she says. “At the time, I felt very comfortable going to a start-up because I thought, well, coming out of government, you’re not making a ton of money. And if this start-up blows up, I’ll probably be no worse off, financially speaking.”

It seems Harris did well enough. One real-estate tech company at which she worked went public last summer, and Harris appears to have cashed out. Since the disclosures were for 2020, they didn’t include her stake in Forethought, a private A.I.-based customer-service company that announced in December that it had attracted such investors as Harris, Ashton Kutcher, and Gwenyth Paltrow. When I asked her about Forethought, Harris said her investment in the company predated her time at DFS, that all her investments are now in a blind trust, and that she would recuse herself from any dealings with companies she has conflicts with.

So when Hochul appointed Harris to lead DFS, she was attacked by the left. Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon both criticized Harris as being insufficiently independent, thanks to her connections in tech and finance. The American Prospect dug up a speech in which she characterized regulators as looking for “no-nos” and “icky things.”

Harris has also advised the cash-advance companies Earnin, Brigit, and SmartWage (based in South Africa), according to her disclosures. In 2019, DFS led a multi-state investigation into the cash-advance industry over whether they created debt traps and state banking and anti-usury laws, since equivalent interest rates for the fees they charged would reach as high as 469 percent. A person directly familiar with the investigation told me that Harris’s predecessor was presented with multiple options for furthering the investigation, including reaching a settlement, but ultimately never made a decision. DFS wouldn’t comment.

So, of all the companies to work for, why them? “My role, when I was working with those companies, was not to dictate price pricing or business model. It was more to say: Here’s how regulators would view this. Here’s why you should engage with them. Let me help you engage with them and figure out these issues and how you can also serve customers. Less pricing and business model, but, as an adviser who’s not in the day-to-day, helping to sort of guide a culture and mentality,” she says.

Did she disagree with those arguing that these companies created debt traps for consumers?

“I think it’s hard to paint with a broad brush,” she says. “I think we should always always be careful with any new products and services, that they are affordable and non-predatory, not creating debt traps, and that they’re solving a real problem for consumers. And I think some do that and some don’t.”

Last summer, after Andrew Cuomo resigned as governor, many of his appointees went with him, including then-superintendent of DFS, Linda Lacewell. Soon Harris’s old boss, Cohen, had recommended her to Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York, a business-advocacy group that has advised DFS. “The folks at Sullivan & Cromwell thought that Adrienne would be a terrific candidate to field for that job given her eight years of experience in the Obama administration and the fact that she was somebody who understood industry,” Wylde says. “On the theory that a regulator should know something about the industries they’re regulating — which may be a novel concept but struck me as a valid one — I thought she sounded like a terrific candidate.” Harris sailed through her confirmation, with 63 senators voting for her and nine against. “When the regulated are complaining that the regulator is being too aggressive, that generally means the regulator is doing their job.” said Michael Gianaris, the state senator from Queens who voted against Harris’s nomination and, in 2019, tanked Amazon’s proposed HQ2 in New York. “Cuomo was a prick, and the people he appointed tended to share his bare-knuckles approach to the world. In some cases, that’s actually not a bad thing.”

While the crypto industry doesn’t appear to be getting the reprieve it had been hoping for, other industries will surely lobby Harris to make similar gestures toward the business community. For instance, Wylde says that insurance companies are hoping that Harris will lower the reserves they are required to have on hold, which they claim are higher than what’s required by other states. “There are some long-standing issues that the industry has that they feel that they’ve got a fresh start on with Adrienne’s leadership,” she says.

Still, crypto is going to play a major part in how Harris’s tenure is defined. “It’s clear that New York is doing well now and the companies that came and started here five to ten years ago are doing well,” says Matt Homer, a former deputy superintendent at DFS and the current executive-in-residence at the venture-capital fund NYCA Partners. “It’s not totally clear what the future will look like five to ten years from now.” New York is the home base for major exchanges such as Coinbase and Gemini, and it’s also home to shady NFT front-running scandals and alleged rapping billionaire money launderers. That such a volatile industry could implode and damage New York’s economy is apparent. “I understand that other states may have gone the opposite way of the BitLicense, but there are things we can do here in New York that will hopefully inform the federal regulators as they continue to think about this space,” Harris said. “It’s a new world with crypto, with DeFi, with NFTs.”

Crypto’s Most Powerful Regulator Is Here