In a last-minute gamble, alleged crypto conman Sam Bankman-Fried testified at his multi-billion dollar fraud trial on Friday, telling a Manhattan federal court jury he didn’t defraud his customers — many lost their life savings because of “significant oversights.”
The embattled entrepreneur faces steep prison time if convicted of charges alleging he siphoned billions from FTX customers. The feds say the now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange and its sister hedge fund, Alameda Research, presented as separate entities, but the money was in one pot — exposing unwitting customers to massive risk.
“Did you defraud anyone?” Bankman-Fried’s lawyer, Mark Cohen, asked his client shortly after his testimony began.
“No, I did not,” Bankman-Fried said.
The former billionaire made the risky decision to take the stand earlier this week. Over five and a half hours, he described his alleged crimes — characterized by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams as one of the largest financial frauds in history — as a series of errors and lapses in judgment.
The son of Stanford Law professors founded FTX in 2019, where millions worldwide bought and sold digital currency until it imploded in late 2022, short some $8 billion.
He denied knowing about the mechanism the feds allege he employed to funnel customer deposits from FTX to Alameda, saying he wasn’t “entirely sure what was happening.”
“I made a number of small mistakes and a number of large mistakes,” Bankman-Fried testified, noting the biggest one “by far” was not having a dedicated risk management team.
“There were significant oversights.”
Williams’ office says Bankman-Fried used his customers’ stolen money to fund a lavish lifestyle in the Bahamas, where FTX was based, pay back Alameda’s lenders, court celebrity endorsements, and funnel $100 million to Democrats and Republicans to further his crypto agenda in Washington.
On the stand, he denied his political contributions were to boost his company’s image — claiming the intention was to save humanity.
“I had come to the belief that I could have a substantial impact on the world,” he testified. “I believed that the most effective way to help prepare the world for future pandemics was policy and through discussions and conversations with congress and the executive branch.”
FTX took off quickly, seeing endorsements from some of the most famous people on the planet, including supermodel Gisele Bündchen, comedian Larry David, and sports stars Tom Brady, Shaquille O’Neal, Steph Curry and Naomi Osaka. It was worth $32 billion at its peak.
The Palo Alto, Calif., man testified that he understood “basically nothing” about digital currency before starting Hong Kong-based Alameda Research in 2017.
“I had absolutely no idea how they worked,” he said of Bitcoin, the most popular type of digital currency. “I just knew they were things you could trade.”
Amid “a ton of excitement, a ton of demand,” but virtually no infrastructure, the MIT grad saw an opportunity.
“We thought that we might be able to build the best product on the market,” Bankman-Fried testified.
“It turned out basically the opposite of that,” he added, noting it ended up in bankruptcy and customers getting hurt.
Bankman-Fried, who goes by his initials “SBF,” met jurors on the trial’s third week. During the government’s case, the jury reviewed a mountain of incriminating evidence and heard damning testimony from convicted Alameda CEO and his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Caroline Ellison. They also heard from two more of his convicted associates — FTX co-founder Gary Wang and FTX head of engineering Nishad Singh — who, like Ellison, are cooperating in the hopes of receiving lenient prison terms.
Wearing a grey suit and a purple tie, Bankman-Fried, speaking confidently under questioning by his lawyer in front of the jury Friday, said as a customer of FTX, Alameda was permitted to borrow from it. He said FTX didn’t generally restrict what people could do with borrowed funds so long as their assets were greater than their liabilities.
“We didn’t care if the user, you know, withdrew funds and used them to buy muffins, to pay business expenses, to invest or anything else.”
Ellison, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and related charges shortly after her ex’s arrest, told jurors Bankman-Fried continuously directed her to secretly pay off Alameda’s sky-high debts through a backdoor line of credit from FTX and had her draw up dishonest balance sheets when Alameda’s lenders asked to see its books.
His lawyers have sought to cast blame on the woman he put in charge for not hedging against market crashes. Bankman-Fried communicated that to the jury Friday, testifying he worried there “might not be great management in place” at Alameda amid a downturn in the crypto market in September 2022, shortly before FTX’s collapse.
He didn’t have nice things to say about the romantic side of his relationship with Ellison either, telling jurors he didn’t “have the time or the energy to put in what I think she wanted from a relationship.”
“She wanted more from it than I was willing to give.”
Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to seven counts, including wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He also faces civil charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission and potentially a second trial next spring. The one-time wunderkind was arrested in the Bahamas in December and extradited to the U.S. Judge Lewis Kaplan revoked his staggering $250 million bond in August after learning he’d leaked Ellison’s personal writings to The New York Times.
Prosecutor Danielle Sassoon, who subjected “SBF” to brutal questioning outside the jury’s presence on Thursday, told the court she expects a “significant cross-examination” likely to stretch from midday Monday into Tuesday. His lawyers told Kaplan they’ll present a “brief” rebuttal. The jury could get the case as soon as next Thursday.