Tether’s Secret Agent
The secretive Christopher Harborne has a mysterious past, vast wealth, and deep political connections. Is he also the brains behind the world’s largest stablecoin?
Tether, the Bahamian stablecoin issuer with some $88 billion under management, has been in the spotlight lately… and not in a good way. As the U.S. government has begun its inexorable crackdown on the vast criminality pervading the cryptocurrency industry, Tether has become a primary focus of regulators and lawmakers alike. Senator Cynthia Lummis, long a proponent of cryptocurrency and Bitcoin, had particularly harsh words for Tether a month ago:
It is well-known that Tether is knowingly facilitating violations of applicable sanctions laws and the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to conduct adequate customer due diligence and screenings despite being aware that its product is being used to facilitate terrorism and other illicit activities.
She exhorted the Department of Justice to speed up their investigation into both Binance and Tether. We know how things turned out for Binance. Shortly after Lummis’ comments, two representatives filed a bill to ban cryptocurrency entities with close ties to “foreign adversaries.” One name on their list? IFinex, the parent company of Tether and the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex.
With the growing storm around Tether and its sister company, the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex, it seem pertinent to ask: Who is actually in charge of Tether?
When people talk about the leaders of Tether, a few names typically occupy the conversation. Paolo Ardoino, recently promoted from CTO to CEO of the company, is the public face of Tether on Twitter and in the media. Giancarlo Devasini, the failed plastic surgeon, then failed software pirate, now billionaire CFO (how’s that for a career trajectory?), is widely regarded as the de facto leader of the company. And people often joke about Tether’s absentee former CEO, JL van der Velde, asking whether he even exists (he does, and he also was a serial failure before joining Tether).
However, there is one particularly fascinating character at the heart of Tether who has received relatively little attention. His name is Christopher Charles Sherriff Harborne, AKA Chakrit Sakunkrit. Styling himself a “digital nomad,” Mr. Harborne’s busy hands reach across continents, industries, and political movements. The scope of Mr. Harborne’s activities and the apparent wealth backing his activities is staggering. Among those many diverse interests, it appears that Tether has become one of his most important interests. And Mr. Harborne has been far more than a passive investor in the company. Indeed, the available evidence suggests that Mr. Harborne’s involvement in Tether is far more significant than generally recognized…
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Who is Christopher Harborne, AKA Chakrit Sakunkrit?
According to Mr. Harborne’s LinkedIn resume, he was trained as an engineer at Cambridge, followed by earning an MBA at INSEAD. He spent several years working for the global consulting firm McKinsey. After a couple short stints at other firms, he founded his own investment banking firm MCL Global in 1999. He surfaced in 1999 as a deal broker for the restructuring of a bankrupt Thai real estate company, then in 2001 as a principal in an investment fund.
From an early stage, Mr. Harborne spent a significant portion of his time in Thailand and subsequently obtained citizenship there. Journalists combing through the Panama Papers leak eventually discovered that Mr. Harborne frequently does business under his chosen Thai name, “Chakrit Sakunkrit” which roughly translates to “Intelligent One Matter of Fact.”
At least we know Mr. Harborne has a sense of humor.
Since 2000, he has been CEO and “Chief Digital Nomad” of Thailand-based Sherriff Global Group from 2000 until the present. This business reportedly engages in the sale of private airplanes. In 2006, he founded AML Global, a “ privately-owned group with focused activities and investments in the aerospace and financial / payments sector.”
Mr. Harborne has major ownership interests in other notable companies. Through a Delaware corporation he is the largest minority shareholder in QinetiQ, a major British defense contractor; this stake is worth around $200 million at present. He is also the sole owner of IFX Payments, a British fintech company specializing in moving large sums of money around the globe (hm). In total, over a dozen corporate entities spread across the globe have been linked to Mr. Harborne, with many more likely still hidden.
Despite his dominant position in many of these companies, Mr. Harborne doesn’t trumpet his involvement. He doesn’t appear on the IFX Payments website at despite owning the company and he doesn’t hold a board seat at QinetiQ despite being the largest minority shareholder.
Harborne’s Riches Sever Britain From Europe
Mr. Harborne initially gained public notoriety due to his political activities. He became the single largest donor to the successful and controversial Brexit movement, providing around £14 million. His money transformed the campaign:
Harborne’s money, meanwhile, spoke volumes: the Brexit Party was the biggest spender of the elections, amplifying its message with rallies and social media campaigns. “We could risk doing stuff that wasn’t tested, wasn’t tried,” says Towler, “we were able to go on this tour around the country, book decent venues… we were given the liberty not to worry about money.”
Despite his critical role in the campaign, Mr. Harborne remained mostly in the background:
Harborne [is remembered] as someone who “didn’t say a great deal, smiled a lot, was terribly, terribly polite and diffident”. In a populist party dominated by huge personalities, he says, Harborne “never stuck his oar in”, only volunteering opinions when consulted on matters such as freeing the UK’s financial sector from European oversight. “Obviously,” he concedes, “his discussions with Farage would have been different.”
Mr. Harborne also was a major contributor to former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, donating £1 million to his campaign funds; this was reported to be the largest single contribution to a British MP in U.K. history. He has also made news for supporting other Conservative political figures.
Christopher Harborne Tethers Himself To Bitfinex
Mr. Harborne took a circuitous route to becoming a major shareholder in the Tether empire. He first encountered Bitfinex when he became a large customer of the exchange in the early 2010’s. In 2016, Bitfinex was hacked and lost some 119,756 bitcoin. Bitfinex couldn’t cover the loss directly, instead imposing a haircut on their customers and issuing “BFX” crypto tokens as payment. These tokens were convertible for equity in the exchange. As a big Bitfinex customer, Harborne received a significant number of BFX tokens. Per the WSJ, he proceeded to purchase many more of the tokens on the secondary market. For whatever reason, he saw potential in the struggling cryptocurrency exchange. According to the WSJ, he subsequently executed additional transactions that gave him direct ownership interests in Tether as well. In total, he has been reported to own around 12% of Tether’s equity and a similar percentage of equity in Bitfinex.
Mr. Harborne popped up at another critical moment in the history of Tether. In 2019 Tether and Bitfinex faced doom after Bitfinex’s
money launderer payment processor Crypto Capital Corp was seized by the U.S. federal government. The company was desperate: Not only had they lost $850 million of commingled corporate and customer funds, but they had been entirely cut off from the banking system. The company faced imminent collapse.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Harborne stepped in with a solution: He used his fuel-selling business AML Global to obtain an account with the crypto-friendly Signature Bank. On the account application, Mr. Harborne did not disclose his significant stake in Tether, nor did he indicate the true purpose of the new account: It was intended to serve as a backdoor for Bitfinex to access the U.S. banking system. However, Signature caught on shortly thereafter and closed the account.
In other words, Mr. Harborne cared so deeply for the fate of Bitfinex and Tether that he risked the welfare of one of his primary companies, and a conviction for bank fraud, to try to save the company. It’s worth noting that Mr. Harborne received some $70 million in Tether stablecoins over 2019, making him one of the largest individual recipients of the token.
Corporate filings demonstrate that Mr. Harborne is more than just a passive shareholder in the Tether/Bitfinex enterprise. For example, he is listed as a “principal” alongside Mr. Devasini for both Bitfinex corporate entities used to obtain regulatory licenses in the Bahamas under his Thai alias:
It’s also worth briefly examining the involvement of Mr. Harborne’s son, William Marcus Sherriff Harborne, in the Tether enterprise (we will have more to say about this in a future piece). According to his LinkedIn, Will’s first real job was as a “Projects Lead” at Bitfinex. He was subsequently appointed the CEO of Ethfinex Trustless, a spinoff from Bitfinex that may have served as a safety in case impending regulatory actions shut down the original exchange. Notably, Ethfinex was launched in September 2018, just weeks before the Crypto Capital Corp catastrophe.
Harborne’s political activities likely were intended to benefit his crypto interests as well. He previously acted as a lobbyist for the Digital Currency Governance Group from 2020-2021, a cryptocurrency advocacy group that counts Tether and Bitfinex among its primary members. At least two other members of DCGG are tied to Harborne: IFX Payments is a member, as is ZKV, a crypto company partially owned by Mr. Harborne’s son William. DCGG, among other things, has campaigned for “sensible” regulations of stablecoins. Both Brexit leaders Nigel Farage and Conservatives like Boris Johnson have been very crypto-friendly in their public statements and policy proposals, going so far as to propose that Britain become a “global crypto hub.” Of course, these politician have stated that the massive donations from Mr. Harborne had absolutely nothing to do with their pro-crypto positions…
Conclusion: The Intelligent One Behind The Scenes?
We have been puzzled by Tether’s leadership for some time. The massive success of the company and the complexity of its operations seem beyond the abilities of a small-time scam operator and repeat failure (Giancarlo), an inexperienced and sweaty front man (Paolo), and another failed businessman and absentee executive (JL). Notably, none of these guys had any significant prior experience in finance, and it is unlikely that any of them had the sorts of business and political ties that would be essential for keeping a controversial company like Tether afloat.
Despite the lack of attention Mr. Harborne has received in the past, we certainly wonder if he is more than just a shareholder who happens to pop up at critical moments in Tether’s story. His many years maneuvering complex financial deals, intricate offshore corporate structures, and operating payments and financial technology firms would make him an excellent candidate for directing a company like Tether. As we have seen, he has a tendency to remain in the background, quietly adjusting events to meet his mysterious objectives. Keeping folks like Giancarlo and Paolo in front to take the credit (and blame) would be in line with his usual modus operadi.
It’s quite interesting that Mr. Harborne would take huge risks (including imprisonment) for Tether. It’s also interesting that he would risk his carefully crafted anonymity by surfacing as a lobbyist and political contributor advocating for Tether’s interests. And the fact that Mr. Harborne is listed as a principal for Bitfinex, and that his son was selected to become Bitfinex’s heir, suggests that The Intelligent One’s role at Tether is far more critical than has been appreciated.
Of course, many questions remain. How did Christopher Harborne initially earn his massive wealth? What is he working towards? How do his affiliated companies, like IFX Payments and AML Global, serve to further his murky aims?
And perhaps most importantly: Does Mr. Harborne work for Tether, or does Tether work for him?
Celsius Network. FTX. Signature Bank. Who is next?