CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A New Hampshire man accused of running an unlicensed bitcoin exchange business catered to romance and imposter scammers who conned their victims into wiring him money that he shared as virtual currency with the criminals after taking his cut, a prosecutor alleged during opening statements in his trial Tuesday.
But Ian Freeman, who also is accused of money laundering, conspiracy, and four counts of tax evasion, actually warned people of scams and he helped businesses in the community, his lawyer said in the federal trial in Concord.
Some of what the prosecution is saying is “absolute nonsense,” defense attorney Mark Sisti said. Freeman has pleaded not guilty.
Freeman, of Keene, was arrested last year, accused of running the unlicensed business and avoiding taxes from 2016 to 2019, said Georgiana MacDonald, assistant U.S. attorney. She said Freeman designed his business so the ill-begotten gains could be hidden and the scammers could buy bitcoin anonymously.
She said Freeman operated by a “golden rule” that she described as: “’What you do with your bitcoin is your business. Don’t tell me what your plans are.'” She said the transactions were handled at bitcoin kiosks in bars, online, and through an app.
MacDonald said Freeman found himself in dispute with some banks over the transactions, so he hired people to open new accounts in the names of churches that acted as “little more than letterhead” for what he said were donations.
But Sisti said the church activity was “real,” and that Freeman’s activities ranged from helping the homeless in Keene to setting up an orphanage in Uganda.
“He helps,” Sisti said. “He doesn’t hurt.”
Freeman and five others were arrested in March 2021. Three pleaded guilty to wire fraud in opening accounts at financial institutions in their names or in the names of churches to allow someone to use the accounts to sell virtual currency. They received light sentences. A fourth pleaded guilty to operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business and awaits sentencing. Charges were dismissed against the fifth person.
Freeman, in his 40s, became active in the Free State Project, a 20-year-old political experiment that promotes a mass migration of 20,000 libertarians to New Hampshire. Fewer than 6,500 have arrived so far, but they have made inroads everywhere from school boards to the legislature.
Freeman, who changed his last name from Bernard, has run unsuccessfully for several legislative offices over the last decade. He hosts a radio talk show, “Free Talk Live,” and writes for the “Free Keene” blog. He also says he’s been a minister and co-funder of the Shire Free Church.
His trial is expected to last two weeks.