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Sam Bankman-Fried lawyer says government portrayed FTX founder as a ‘monster’

FTX Founder Sam Bankman-Fried leaves Manhattan Federal Court after a court appearance on June 15, 2023 in New York City.

Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

As lawyers in Sam Bankman-Fried’s criminal trial presented their closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutors reminded jurors of the mountain of evidence provided by key witnesses, while defense counsel accused the government of portraying the FTX founder as a “monster.”

The prosecution kicked off the proceedings, trying to give the 12 jurors a clear sense of why they’ve spent the past four weeks sitting in a lower Manhattan courtroom.

“Almost a year ago, thousands of people from all over the world who deposited money with FTX started withdrawing funds,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos told the court.

Roos said there’s “no serious dispute” that $10 billion in customer money that was sitting in FTX’s crypto exchange went missing, with some of it going to to pay for real estate, investments, loan repayments and political donations.

The main thing the jury has to decide, Roos said, is whether Bankman-Fried knew that taking the money was wrong.

“The defendant schemed and lied to get money, which he spent,” Roos said.

Bankman-Fried, the 31-year old son of two Stanford legal scholars and graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faces a potential life sentence if convicted on charges, which include wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering, all tied to the collapse late last year of FTX and sister hedge fund Alameda Research. He pleaded not guilty.

The trial, which began in early October and is set to wrap up in the coming days, has largely pitted the testimony of Bankman-Fried’s former close friends and top lieutenants against the sworn statements of their former boss and, for many of them, former roommate.

The government’s key witnesses included Caroline Ellison, Bankman-Fried’s ex-girlfriend and the former head of Alameda, and FTX co-founder Gary Wang, who was Bankman-Fried’s childhood friend from math camp. Both pleaded guilty in December to multiple charges and cooperated as witnesses for the prosecution.

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried is questioned by prosecutor Danielle Sassoon (not seen) during his fraud trial over the collapse of the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange at federal court in New York City, U.S., October 31, 2023 in this courtroom sketch. 

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

When it was time for Bankman-Fried’s team to mount a defense, lead counsel Mark Cohen left the bulk of the case to his client, who spent three days on the stand telling the jury that he didn’t defraud anyone, didn’t take customer money and tried to work with his deputies to keep FTX from failing.

Roos spent Wednesday morning asking the jury to look at the evidence. At one point, he asked, “Who is responsible? He then stepped out from behind the podium and towards the defense table, pointed at the defendant and said, “This man, Samuel-Bankman-Fried.”

“A pyramid of deceit was built by the defendant,” Roos said. “That ultimately collapsed.”

The facts, as listed by Roos, were that customers believed their deposits were their own and not to be used by anyone else; that FTX ads continually said the exchange was the safest and easiest way to buy cryptocurrency; and that $10 billion was missing.

‘Uncomfortable to hear’

Roos told the jury that Bankman-Fried lied to them, reminding them how smooth the defendant was in answering questions from his own attorney but how “he was a different person” when it was the prosecutors’ turn. He had a perfect memory on Friday, Roos said, telling the jury that Bankman-Fried knew the details about the layout of his Airbnb office in California, the reason he went to Hong Kong and why he picked the Miami Heat arena as the one for FTX to sponsor.

That all changed when the government was asking the questions.

“It was uncomfortable to hear,” Roos said, adding that Bankman-Fried said “I can’t recall” over 140 times during questioning by the government.

“To believe his story, you’d have to ignore the evidence,” Roos said. “You’d have to believe the defendant, who graduated from MIT and built two multibillion-dollar companies, was actually clueless.”

Sam Bankman-Fried walks jury through final days of FTX: CNBC Crypto World

Critical to the failure of FTX was the use of customer funds to cover losses in Alameda’s books following the plunge in crypto prices last year. Roos said Bankman-Fried is the one who gave special privileges to Alameda, which he started before founding FTX, allowing it to siphon customer money. He knew it was wrong, Roos said, which is why he kept it secretive.

Roos said Bankman-Fried had been lying to the public about Alameda’s “secret advantages,” and was being untruthful when he told the public and the media that Alameda was just like everyone else.

“Those were lies,” Roos said. Had they known the truth, “investors would have run for the exits,” he said.

Bankman-Fried blamed “messy accounting,” Roos said, adding “give me a break.” He said those comments contradicted what he told Congress, that he’d reconciled the books.

Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over the trial, started court almost a half hour late on Wednesday because a juror was stuck in traffic. Then there were technical issues, as the second row of monitors in the jury box stopped working. That led to a 1- minute break.

Later in Roos’s closing, he brought up the infamous spreadsheet of the seven alternate versions of Alameda’s finances that Ellison had put together when third-party lenders were asking for an update. Bankman-Fried testified that he’d seen a spreadsheet but didn’t remember the details and didn’t ask Ellison questions about it. Roos called the explanation “implausible.”

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried is questioned by defense lawyer Mark Cohen as he testifies in his fraud trial over the collapse of the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange, at federal court in New York City, U.S., October 30, 2023 in this courtroom sketch. 

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

Roos referred to metadata showing that Bankman-Fried was part of a meeting for about 30 minutes where the hole in FTX’s balance sheet and repaying lenders were discussed. Metadata shows he was studying the Google Doc of the company’s finances, with numbers indicating the billions in borrowing from FTX.

Roos brought up testimony from three firsthand witnesses who said that they’d spoken with Bankman-Fried about the giant hole in the balance sheet. Ellison said there was no way to repay it, and Singh testified that Bankman-Fried admitted to him that “we are a little short on deliverables.”

Bankman-Fried “had the arrogance to think he could get away with it,” Roos said.

Spending freely

Another point speaking to the defendant’s intent, Roos said, was his tweeting.

Bankman-Fried’s plan last November, when he knew there was only enough money to process one-third of client assets, was to send a confident tweet thread. Singh testified that he wasn’t comfortable with the plan, yet Bankman-Fried went on to tweet that “assets are fine” as the bank run was underway, Roos said.

Bankman-Fried knew Alameda had a negative net asset value of $2.7 billion, Roos said, but wanted to make another $3 billion in venture investments. The only way to do that was with FTX customer funds, he said.

Additionally, Roos told the jury, client money went to $100 million in real estate expenses, including a $30 million penthouse in the Bahamas and $16 million for his parents’ home.

In referencing the Super Bowl picture with Katy Perry and others, Roos called Bankman-Fried a “celebrity chaser.”

Roos walked the jury through a timeline of key moments, as follows:

  • On Sept. 1, Bankman-Fried saw that FTX had a $13.7 billion hole.
  • On Sept. 7, Bankman-Fried wrote a long memo proposing the shutdown of Alameda. Still, he spent $45 million for a stake in Skybridge Capital.
  • Then, on Sept. 22, he paid $4 million to himself.
  • Four days later, he sent $250 million to Modulo Capital, a hedge fund in the Bahamas.
  • And on Oct. 3, he funneled $6 million for political donations.

“That’s all you need to know to find him guilty,” Roos said.

In closing the prosecution’s case, Roos referenced the seven charges facing Bankman-Fried and why he can be convicted of each.

In highlighting counts three and four, which charge the defendant with wire fraud against Alameda’s lenders, Roos emphasized the importance of Bankman-Fried’s knowledge of the alternative balance sheet. For count five, conspiracy to commit securities fraud on FTX investors, the primary evidence came from investors who expressed concern about a conflict of interest between Alameda and FTX and who said they wouldn’t have put in money if they knew the truth. Bankman-Fried also lied about revenue, Roos said.

The prosecution reminded the court that Bankman-Fried directed losses to be shifted to Alameda and that FTX’s insurance fund had made up numbers. Add it all up, Roos said, and it debunks the defense’s main argument that Bankman-Fried acted in good faith and believed everything would work out.

“This was a fraud that occurred on a massive scale,” he said.

‘Every movie needs a villain’

Following the government’s closing argument, Cohen began his statements at a little before 3 p.m. He said the government is portraying Bankman-Fried as a “monster” and depicting him as a “villain” and a “bad guy.” Lawyers brought out testimony about his sex life and showed photos of him “looking awkward with celebrities,” Cohen said.

He said Bankman-Fried would talk to just about anyone who would listen, behavior that could make life messy but isn’t criminal. He said the prosecution has made the case into a “movie,” and the defense is showing what it’s like in the real world, where things are messy.

“Every movie needs a villain,” Cohen said.

He claimed the case against his client was built on the false premise that FTX was a fraudulent enterprise to intentionally steal customer funds.

Cohen broke the case up into two time periods. The first was 2019 to 2021, when there’s no indication of criminal intent. Up until June 2022, everyone involved thought they were operating the most successful crypto exchange in the world, Cohen said.

The second period was from June to November of 2022. Crypto winter had led to the failure of a number of businesses in the industry. That’s the first time it became clear that Alameda was using customer funds. In the fall of that year, Bankman-Fried saw a liquidity problem, not a solvency problem, Cohen said. He always thought there were sufficient funds on and off the exchange.

While FTX’s lack of a risk management system or chief risk officer reflected poor system controls, bad business decisions aren’t crimes, Cohen said.

The government carries the heavy burden of proving Bankman-Fried operated with criminal intent, and “it has not,” Cohen said. He said that prosecutors called Bankman-Fried “evil” and “arrogant” and described him as a “criminal mastermind.” But in getting into specific actions, “there’s nothing wrongful about margin trading,” he said.

Cohen said his client provided the court with good faith answers about what he remembered, and asked why a criminal mastermind would go speak in front of Congress. He described the government’s assumptions as “heads I win, tales you lose.”

With the defense continuing its closing argument, Judge Kaplan said the jury will likely be asked to stay late on Wednesday. Kaplan said he wants jurors to come to a verdict by Thursday evening, and is willing to stay late and pay for their dinner and ride home to make it happen.

— CNBC’s Dawn Giel contributed to this report.

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