Jurors reject claim he never meant to cheat customers before cryptocurrency exchange collapsed

Posted: November 02, 2023
Last Updated: November 03, 2023

Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX, arrives at court in New York on Aug. 11. After a month-long trial, a New York jury convicted him of fraud Thursday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried’s spectacular rise and fall in the cryptocurrency industry — a journey that included his testimony before the U.S. Congress, a Super Bowl advertisement and dreams of a future run for president — hit a new bottom Thursday when a New York jury convicted him of fraud in a scheme that cheated customers and investors of at least $10 billion US.

After the month-long trial, jurors rejected Bankman-Fried’s claim during three days on the witness stand in Manhattan federal court that he never committed fraud or meant to cheat customers before FTX, once the world’s second-largest crypto exchange, collapsed into bankruptcy a year ago.

“His crimes caught up to him. His crimes have been exposed,” assistant U.S. attorney Danielle Sassoon told the jury of the onetime billionaire just before they were read the law by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan and began deliberations. Sassoon said Bankman-Fried turned his customers’ accounts into his “personal piggy bank” as up to $14 billion US disappeared.

She urged jurors to reject Bankman-Fried’s insistence when he testified that he never committed fraud or plotted to steal from customers, investors and lenders and didn’t realize that his companies were at least $10 billion US in debt until October 2022.

The judge set a sentencing date of March 28 for the seven counts of fraud and conspiracy.

FTX founder liked ‘celebrity chasing,’ prosecutors said

The trial attracted intense interest with its focus on a fraud on a scale not seen since the 2009 prosecution of
Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme over decades cheated thousands of investors out of about $20 billion US. Madoff pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 150 years in prison, where he died in 2021.

The prosecution of Bankman-Fried, 31, put a spotlight on the emerging cryptocurrency industry and a group of young executives in their 20s who lived together in a $30-million luxury apartment in the Bahamas as they dreamed of becoming the most powerful players in a new financial field.

WATCH | Sam Bankman-Fried’s conviction is a ‘warning’ to fraudsters, U.S. attorney says:  

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FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried’s conviction is a message to fraudsters who think they can evade justice, says U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. ‘Those folks should think again and cut it out, and if they don’t — I promise we’ll have enough handcuffs for all of them.’  1:03

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said they engaged in one of the biggest frauds in U.S. history.

Prosecutors made sure jurors knew that the defendant they saw in court with short hair and a suit was not the man with big, messy hair and shorts that became his trademark appearance after he started his cryptocurrency hedge fund, Alameda Research, in 2017 and FTX, his cryptocurrency exchange, two years later.

They showed the jury pictures of Bankman-Fried sleeping on a private jet, sitting with a deck of cards and mingling at the Super Bowl with celebrities including the singer Katy Perry. Assistant U.S. attorney Nicolas Roos called Bankman-Fried someone who liked “celebrity chasing.”

In a closing argument, defence lawyer Mark Cohen said prosecutors were trying to turn “Sam into some sort of villain, some sort of monster.”

“It’s both wrong and unfair, and I hope and believe that you have seen that it’s simply not true,” he said. “According to the government, everything Sam ever touched and said was fraudulent.”

Inner circle testified against him

The government relied heavily on the testimony of three former members of Bankman-Fried’s inner circle, his top executives including his former girlfriend, Caroline Ellison, to explain how Bankman-Fried used Alameda Research to siphon billions of dollars from customer accounts at FTX.

With that money, prosecutors said, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate gained influence and power through investments, contributions, tens of millions of dollars in political contributions, congressional testimony and a publicity campaign that enlisted celebrities like comedian Larry David and football quarterback Tom Brady.

Caroline Ellison, former CEO of Alameda Research and Sam Bankman-Fried’s on-and-off girlfriend, is seen after testifying in Manhattan federal court on Oct. 10. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/The Associated Press)

Ellison, 28, testified that Bankman-Fried directed her while she was chief executive of Alameda Research to commit fraud as he pursued ambitions to lead huge companies, spend money influentially and even finance a presidential run. She said he thought he had a five per cent chance to be U.S. president someday.

Customers demanded their money back

Becoming tearful as she described the collapse of the cryptocurrency empire last November, Ellison said the revelations that caused customers collectively to demand their money back, exposing the fraud, brought a “relief that I didn’t have to lie anymore.”

FTX co-founder Gary Wang, who was FTX’s chief technology officer, revealed in his testimony that Bankman-Fried directed him to insert code into FTX’s operations so that Alameda Research could make unlimited withdrawals from FTX and have a credit line of up to $65 billion. Wang said the money came from customers.

Nishad Singh, the former head of engineering at FTX, testified that he felt “blindsided and horrified” at the result of the actions of a man he once admired when he saw the extent of the fraud as the collapse last November left him suicidal.

Ellison, Wang and Singh all pleaded guilty to fraud charges and testified against Bankman-Fried in the hopes of leniency at sentencing.

Bankman-Fried was arrested in the Bahamas last December and extradited to the United States, where he was freed on a $250 million personal recognizance bond with electronic monitoring and a requirement that he remain at the home of his parents in Palo Alto, California.

WATCH | The Naked Emperor podcast revisits what led to Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial:

Today we bring you a bonus episode of The Naked Emperor. As Sam Bankman-Fried’s criminal trial kicks off in New York, host Jacob Silverman is back to bring you up to speed on the latest. What’s happened at the courthouse in the lead-up to the trial? And what’s expected in the weeks to come? Joining Jacob is Zeke Faux, an investigative reporter at Bloomberg, and the author of “Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall.”  25:48

His communications, including hundreds of phone calls with journalists and internet influencers, along with emails and texts, eventually got him in trouble when the judge concluded he was trying to influence prospective trial witnesses and ordered him jailed in August.

During the trial, prosecutors used Bankman-Fried’s public statements, online announcements and his Congressional testimony against him, showing how the entrepreneur repeatedly promised customers that their deposits were safe and secure as late as last Nov. 7, when he tweeted “FTX is fine. Assets are fine” as customers furiously tried to withdraw their money.

He deleted the tweet the next day. FTX filed for bankruptcy four days later.

In his closing, Roos mocked Bankman-Fried’s testimony, saying that under questioning from his lawyer, the defendant’s words were “smooth, like it had been rehearsed a bunch of times?”

But under cross examination, “he was a different person,” the prosecutor said. “Suddenly on cross-examination he couldn’t remember a single detail about his company or what he said publicly. It was uncomfortable to hear. He never said he couldn’t recall during his direct examination, but it happened over 140 times during his cross-examination.”