Partners at a16z, which has raised $7 billion for crypto investments, held a fundraiser for a New York congressman. Soon after, he pressured an industry group that threatened to derail a portfolio company.
In April, Andreessen Horowitz partners Ben Horowitz, Anthony Albanese, and Chris Dixon threw a fundraiser for Bronx congressman Ritchie Torres at the New York nightclub Zero Bond. They encouraged guests to donate between $500 and $5,800 in U.S. dollars or Ether to support Torres’ congressional run for New York’s 15th district. In the days leading up to the event, the partners themselves had contributed $17,000.
Just a few months later, Torres Zoomed into a panel hosted by Andreessen Horowitz portfolio company Flowcarbon, throwing his political support behind the fledgling cryptocurrency startup, which has been called a “hammer in search of a nail” and “scam” by critics. The slick new venture, which was cofounded and backed by WeWork’s Adam Neumann and into which Andreessen Horowitz led a $32 million funding round in May, aims to bring carbon credits onto the blockchain.
“Tokenization has the potential to magnify the power that the private sector can play in combating catastrophic climate change,” Torres told attendees, heralding crypto as “the best hope for de-concentrating power in both finance and technology.” He did not disclose that Andreessen partners had helped him raise money until it was reported by CNBC.
Since Andreessen Horowitz announced a crypto lobbying blitz in Washington a year ago, dispatching its team on a week-long tour last October, the firm’s leaders have donated almost $2.2 million to financing the campaigns of more than a dozen lawmakers and a political action committee (PAC) that supports them, according to a Forbes analysis of Federal Election Commission data. The bulk of these contributions, $2 million, went to a single super PAC, GMI, which poured money into other PACs that paid for ads and canvassing on behalf of crypto-friendly lawmakers.
Torres in particular has emerged as a crypto cheerleader, aligning himself with Andreessen Horowitz, or a16z. In March, Torres declared on Twitter that “crypto is the future,” sharing an op-ed he penned titled “A liberal case for cryptocurrency” that hailed a16z Web3 chief Chris Dixon as a “powerful thought leader on crypto.” (No other crypto bigwigs were mentioned in the piece.) It marked the first time the young lawmaker had publicly taken a position on the issue, demanding that “New York City should and must embrace crypto.”
Shortly after, Torres appealed to carbon registries that had hit pause on tokenization and brought companies like Flowcarbon to a screeching halt. In May, the organization Verra banned projects from converting retired credits into cryptocurrencies, in order to investigate ways for preventing massive fraud. To the ire of Flowcarbon’s community, the company has delayed its token launch for months, citing Verra’s decision as a source of uncertainty, and has yet to debut a public product.
Forbes obtained a letter the congressman sent in July to Verra and the American Carbon Registry — another standards body that also paused tokenization of credits — in which he stated he was “very concerned” by their recent decisions, and urged the groups to reverse their mandates. “As someone who developed asthma because of the toxic air I breathed growing up in public housing, I am painfully aware that environmental justice is racial justice. Stifling innovations that can unlock carbon markets and stimulate climate action is the exact opposite of what we should be doing during a crisis,” Torres wrote. He declined to comment on the letter.
“I can assure you, it was only because they knew I was in town and asked me to.”
What compelled Torres to advocate for the carbon credit blockchain market, a relatively small niche of the cryptosphere, remains unclear. “It doesn’t look good,” says Michael Gilbert, the vice dean of University of Virginia Law, where he researches campaign finance law. “This firm shows up and says, ‘Hey, we’re entering this political market,’ they drop a whole bunch of money, you have evidence they support him and look, suddenly, he’s all over their issues.”
In response to questions about whether employees of a16z discussed Flowcarbon or the carbon registries with Torres, a16z spokesperson Kim Milosevich declined to answer, but told Forbes in an emailed statement that a16z’s efforts are to seek “regulatory clarity and thoughtful web3 legislation.”
Torres didn’t respond to questions about his relationship with a16z and Flowcarbon, or his communication with the carbon registries. In a statement, Torres said he has held “hundreds” of fundraisers, and two of them have been connected to crypto. “There’s nothing shocking about individuals supporting candidates who share their policy views,” he said. “That is what voters and donors typically do.”
On behalf of Flowcarbon, Sharron Silvers, a senior director at communications firm APCO Worldwide, said in an email that the company “did not ask the Congressman to write letters” to the carbon registries. Silvers added that Torres was invited to its event because “he is a prominent proponent of using technological innovations to protect the environment.”
Campaign financing is just one of several ways a16z is pushing its agenda in Washington, both directly and indirectly. In the past year, it has published more than a dozen blog posts, whitepapers, and studies that promote its crypto motivations and those of its portfolio companies. It has sent letters to federal agencies, organized fundraisers for lawmakers, and hired former SEC officials to further its concerns. (The firm told the New York Times last October that its team does not register as lobbyists, and disclosures show it has not reported any lobbying activity this year.)
In an open letter published last month, Neel Maitra, a partner with Wilson, Sonsini, and Scott Walker, a16z’s chief compliance officer — both who previously oversaw blockchain technologies at the Securities and Exchange Commission and now represent a16z — called on the agency to adopt new rules allowing investors to enhance their crypto holdings through staking. “If the SEC really wants to protect investors in crypto assets in the same way it protects investors in more conventional investments,” the co-authors wrote, “implementing the suggestions set out above would allow the commission to demonstrate that in a meaningful way.” The SEC did not respond to a comment request.
Such revolving door appointments — hiring former federal agency officials to represent a firm’s interests before that agency — are common practice in Washington. “That’s how lobbying works,” says Carol Goforth, a law professor at the University of Arkansas, who researches regulation of crypto assets. “That means that the person, or the entity with the most money, gets the most access, gets the most time, gets the most attention.”
“Campaign donations do not have any influence on legislation Sen. Lummis introduces or cosponsors.”
While other venture firms have poured similar campaign financing dollars into this election cycle — employees of Sequoia Capital contributed $7 million, while Founders Fund employees contributed $3.5 million (excluding Peter Thiel) — few of a16z’s peers have mirrored its strategy and solely targeted crypto-friendly candidates.
And it’s clear why: A16z has raised $7.6 billion for Web3 investments, making it the largest fund of its kind, and has more than 80 portfolio companies, making it uniquely vested in political outcomes related to crypto. The firm has seemingly gained allies in the House and Senate, where a roster of friendly lawmakers have introduced pro-crypto bills and advocated on behalf of the industry.
In June, Senators Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, introduced a novel bill that would enshrine the crypto industry’s belief that digital assets are commodities and not securities. As a result, the bill would also delegate its regulation to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission instead of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has helmed the crypto enforcement push. “We met with industry leaders, they basically said, ‘we just need to know what the rules of the road are,’” Gilibrand said in a CNBC interview. “We’ve been seeking regulation from various regulators and the delays and response have been unconscionable.”
Each senator received $11,600 in campaign donations from Chris Dixon and Ben Horowitz a week before their announcement, according to FEC data. Dixon and Horowitz also gave a combined $23,200 to the Financial Innovation Victory Committee, a joint fundraising committee that has almost exclusively supported Lummis and Gillibrand since its registration in May, and was the focus of a fundraiser organized by crypto investor Multicoin Capital that month where both candidates were guests. Gillibrand did not respond to a request for comment.
It is notoriously difficult to determine the full extent of who gave what to which candidate, as contributions can be made through PACs that distribute funding to multiple campaigns or even other PACs. Since individual donations are capped by federal law at $2,900 per person, these donations may also seem small. But collectively, a16z’s leaders have given millions of dollars to pro-crypto candidates and PACs that wound up supporting them.
GMI, a crypto-specific PAC that has raised $11 million since January, received $2 million from Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. The political committee, whose crypto moniker “Gonna Make It” underscores its optimism, is also backed by FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried and President Donald Trump’s former press secretary Anthony Scaramucci, and has been steadily funneling money to two other crypto PACs, Web3 Forward and Crypto Innovation. Web3 Forward has received $4.5 million from GMI since February, and has supported Democratic candidates in Texas, Hawai’i, Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania. Crypto Innovation, meanwhile, has overwhelmingly backed Republicans, including North Carolina crypto allies Rep. Ted Budd, who voted against certifying the 2020 election, and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who told crypto conference guests last month that he would prioritize their needs if elected.
Some candidates had familiarized themselves with crypto before linking up with a16z. In March, Anthony Albanese and Chris Dixon contributed a total $7,800 to Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who was a crypto project investor prior to entering Congress and has called the current Web3 regulatory landscape “not fair.” In July, the Democrat joined Dixon in a Twitter Spaces discussion on Web3 policy, and again on a16z’s crypto podcast, in which he asked Dixon for suggestions on how to regulate NFTs. “Chris, I’m interested for your thoughts on the potential of NFTs and what type of regulatory architecture might help them thrive, and help the creator economy do better with them.” Auchincloss spokesperson Matt Corridoni told Forbes the congressman “approached Mr. Dixon about doing the Twitter spaces — we go anywhere and talk to anyone in order to reach a broad audience.”
Other major crypto stakeholders have bolstered a16z’s beltway efforts. FTX’s Bankman-Fried, for example, had promised to spend up to $1 billion on American politics ahead of the 2024 election. (He recanted the pledge this month, telling Politico “That was a dumb quote on my part.”) In April of this year, he gave $16 million to super PACs largely backing Democrats, and has described his ambitions as “bipartisan.” Bankman-Fried did not respond to a comment request.
Measuring the success of donations and lobbying can be challenging. That said, it’s perhaps worth noting that Senator Lummis held a “crypto education dinner” for senators in February at DC restaurant La Vie, and one month prior spent nearly $700 on “crypto books” from publishing house Wiley for her congressional colleagues, according to campaign expenditure records. In July, 68-year-old Lummis tweeted: “Fight the FUD” — an acronym for ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt,’ and a pejorative used by crypto believers to dismiss naysayers and skeptics. “Campaign donations do not have any influence on legislation Sen. Lummis introduces or cosponsors,” Lummis spokesperson Stacey Daniels told Forbes. The senator did not respond to questions about which books she purchased; Wiley has numerous crypto titles including Cryptocurrency Investing For Dummies, Cryptocurrency All-in-One For Dummies, Bitcoin For Dummies, Cryptocurrency Mining For Dummies, and Blockchain For Dummies.
Whether Torres’ petition to carbon authorities will have a material impact on companies like Flowcarbon remains to be seen. In its response to the congressman, the American Carbon Registry wrote that while it’s interested by the promise of blockchain technologies, the group is “committed to a rigorous assessment process to ensure that they don’t undermine the foundations of carbon market integrity.”
Verra spokesperson Anne Thiel told Forbes the organization did not directly respond to Torres, “but are definitely taking the content of his letter into consideration as part of our public consultation and greatly appreciate them.”
Last month, however, Verra financial innovations director Benoit Clement spoke at the same Flowcarbon event that Torres attended. In a panel discussion, he told audience members that he was interested in “opportunities around transparency and liquidity,” and how tokenization can assist this effort. Verra media relations manager Steve Zwick told Forbes that “Benoit participated in that event because he was in town for Climate Week and was invited.”
Zwick added that he too moderated a panel at the event. “And I can assure you, it was only because they knew I was in town and asked me to.”