Much of the government’s case against Sam Bankman-Fried hinges on the testimony and text messages from those in his crypto inner circle who turned against him late last year after the implosion of FTX and sister hedge fund Alameda Research.
Of the dozens of items entered into evidence in the first three weeks of the trial, a bank of messages on encrypted app Signal paint perhaps the clearest picture of Bankman-Fried’s alleged crimes.
Bankman-Fried faces seven criminal counts, including wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering, that could land him in prison for life. Bankman-Fried, the son of two Stanford legal scholars, pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In trying to prove its case to a Manhattan jury, the government has presented a series of Signal exchanges involving Bankman-Fried; Caroline Ellison, his ex-girlfriend and the ex-CEO of Alameda Research; and former friends and top business execs Gary Wang, Nishad Singh and Ryan Salame. They date back to November 2021.
The messages gave jurors a rare look inside the casual conversations that culminated in a scheme described by U.S. Attorney Damian Williams as “one of the biggest financial frauds in American history.”
CNBC is quoting directly from the Signal messages that were entered as evidence and did not make spelling or grammatical changes in them.
‘Small group chat’
The Signal thread dubbed “small group chat” includes Ellison, Bankman-Fried, and Joe Bankman, the defendant’s father, who advised the company on tax-related issues and other things. Also in the group were Ramnik Arora, a former product lead for FTX; Ryne Miller, who was the company’s general counsel; and Constance Wang, ex-operating chief; as well as Salame, Singh, Wang and four others.
The thread begins with two messages from Bankman-Fried posted at 3:47 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2022, the day FTX announced a liquidity crisis and began searching for cash to plug the gaping hole in its balance sheet.
At the time, Bankman-Fried pretended in public that all was well.
“FTX is fine. Assets are fine,” he wrote in a tweet that day. The post has since been deleted.
But as Bankman-Fried was tweeting reassurances and promising that customer funds were safe, executives were growing increasingly alarmed at the expanding shortfall, according to prosecutors.
In the “small group chat” thread, Bankman-Fried put forth some “potential todos,” including halting withdrawals, sending a “confident tweet thread” and reaching out to firms such as Silverlake, Sequoia, and Apollo as they “wake up over the next few hours” to try to shore up cash.
Later that morning, at about 5:22 a.m., Salame linked to a tweet from an anonymous crypto trader saying, “cant wait for my FTX airdrop for not moving any of my funds.”
Bankman-Fried chimed in with different ideas about how to take advantage of the post in an apparent effort to provide false hope to FTX customers that they’d receive free tokens if they kept their funds on the platform.
The next day, Nov. 8, Ellison appealed to the group for help on optics and public messaging.
She wrote, “multiple people internally asking me whether they should continue to make statements to external parties like ‘Alameda is solvent.’ should i suggest they stall instead? just stall on responding to their messages? or what?”
That’s the same day FTX issued a pause on all customer withdrawals. The price of FTT, FTX’s native token, plummeted by over 75%, and a high-tech bank run was in full force. Out of options, Bankman-Fried turned to Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, who announced he’d signed a nonbinding letter of intent to acquire FTX.
On Nov. 9, Ellison again looked to the group for guidance about how to handle the now infamous all-hands meeting of Alameda’s roughly 30 employees.
She proposed saying, “Alameda is probably going to wind down” and that there was “no pressure” to stay but help with “stuff like making sure our lenders get paid” would be “super appreciated.”
Bankman-Fried suggested she say something about there “being a future of some sort for those who are excited.”
Ellison ended up divulging a lot more than that in the staff meeting.
“Alameda borrowed a bunch of money,” which it used to make investments, Ellison said at the meeting, a secret recording of which was played by the prosecution. But as crypto prices fell, “FTX had a shortfall of user funds” and then “users started withdrawing their funds” and they “realized they would not be able to continue.”
When she was asked by a staffer whose idea it was to plug Alameda’s loan losses with FTX customer money, she said, “Um, Sam, I guess,” and giggled.
“FTX basically always allowed Alameda to, like, borrow user funds, as far as I know,” Ellison said on the recording.
Meanwhile, a day after signing the nonbinding purchase agreement, Binance withdrew the offer, citing reports of “mishandled customer funds” and federal investigations.
‘Lots of withdrawals’
Zhao, an early investor in FTX before becoming a principal rival, had made himself a central character in the FTX downfall days earlier.
On Nov. 6, he tweeted that because of “recent revelations that have came to light, we have decided to liquidate any remaining FTT on our books.”
In a group chat with Bankman-Fried, Ellison, and Singh starting that day, Singh wrote “lots of withdrawals on ftx are queueing up,” with net changes of $1.25 billion in the last day, $230 million in the last three hours, and $120 million in the last hour.
Ellison responded with a “:(” and Bankman-Fried with an “oof” after first mistakenly writing “of.”
The three continued to strategize. Singh suggested a few hours later that they reach out to Zhao privately and “ask for a truce” to “stem the bleed,” though he and Bankman-Fried both worried that Binance wouldn’t deescalate in public.
Ellison separately tried to figure out what to tell Salame about whether FTX could meet all withdrawals. Bankman-Fried suggested she write, “we can meet a ton, though it’s already getting large.”
Later, Sam Trabucco, who had already departed as co-CEO of Alameda Research in August 2022, as well as Ellison, Bankman-Fried, and Ben Xie, Alameda’s head of trading, were in a group chat discussing how to respond to Zhao’s threat to liquidate his FTT tokens.
Ellison, who told jurors that she largely avoided social media, said she would tweet at CZ, a nickname for Zhao, that FTX would buy his entire stake at $22 per coin. Ellison also testified about the practice of using FTX customer funds funneled through Alameda to buy FTT to buoy the price during times of market volatility.
Bankman-Fried weighed in within minutes, writing, “I think the main point is just to counter the PR/narrative here — and Binance probably won’t take us up on it; I also think FWIW that the market is likely to buy more if we tweet it, but idk.” FWIW is an abbreviation of “for what it’s worth,” and idk stands for “I don’t know.”
The author’s visit
Author Michael Lewis, whose book profiling Bankman-Fried was published the day the trial began, was also the subject of some Signal exchanges.
In a chat on Jan. 5, 2022, Bankman-Fried alerted a group that included Ellison and Singh that Lewis would be coming to the Bahamas the next month to do reporting.
Ellison said her “instincts are more toward under the radar.” Bankman-Fried, a notorious press hound, responded, “same, except exactly the opposite.”
‘People of the House’
Adam Yedidia, one of the prosecution’s lead witnesses, met Bankman-Fried in college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the pair remained close friends.
In his testimony, Yedidia referred to a Signal thread called “People of the House,” referring to Bankman-Fried’s $35 million penthouse, where many employees lived.
In terms of who was paying the rent, Yedidia recalled Bankman-Fried saying he “assumed it’s just alameda paying for it in the end.”
The subject of campaign donations was pivotal to Singh’s testimony. The former FTX engineering chief, who pleaded guilty to six charges in February, alleged that his former boss was behind much of the scheme to funnel money to political campaigns.
Singh testified that Bankman-Fried directed that money held in accounts belonging to Alameda Research be used for political donations. That continued even after Bankman-Fried was apparently aware that his crypto hedge fund couldn’t pay back the $13 billion in FTX customer funds it had borrowed.
While Bankman-Fried doesn’t face charges for campaign violations in this trial, a superseding indictment alleged he used customer funds to make more than $100 million in campaign contributions for the 2022 midterm elections. The government has incorporated that accusation within two of the charges that are still standing: wire fraud and money laundering.
Singh walked the jury through how the process worked.
He described a Signal chat dubbed “Donation Processing” that included Bankman-Fried; his brother, Gabe; Salame, and a political consultant named Michael Sadowsky, among others. Singh testified that Bankman-Fried or his brother would use this chat to request donations be made in Singh’s name. Salame, who had access to Singh’s bank account at Prime Trust Bank, would set up the transfer and then message Singh in the channel to prompt him to go to his email and approve the wire request.
“My role was to click a button,” Singh said of the operation, adding that Salame had other ways to make the transfer from Singh’s funds that did not involve Singh having to do anything at all.
In a separate Signal chat between Singh and Sadowsky, Singh wrote on July 5, 2022, that he was “averse” to “explicitly-woke stuff” but added that it was “hard to interact productively with democrats without that.”
Sadowsky called Singh the “center left face of our spending,” meaning that he would be “giving to a lot of woke s—.”
So, “if you’re not comfortable about it, you should think about that a lot,” wrote Sadowsky.
Singh responded, “don’t love boxing myself into only associating with people i don’t like” and said he would look to see if there were “other viable people at FTX for it.”
In questioning witnesses, the government homed in on loans made to Wang and Singh in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Direct messages between Singh and Bankman-Fried showed an attempt by the witness to be cleared of these debt obligations.
In a direct appeal to Bankman-Fried, Singh wrote on Nov. 6, 2022, “one thing that’d seriously help me is if I didn’t have debts.”
He wrote, “I think most of them are loans: 500m for me exercising, more for US investments. I hope we can unwind these but not sure.” He said he would return anything he had in his bank account, but there wasn’t much there.
Bankman-Fried replied: “(will think about this).”
In the same thread, on Nov. 8, Singh wrote that Ryne Miller, FTX’s general counsel, seemed “super on edge” and “likely to resign” if they didn’t get it right.
Singh wrote, “this is wildly selfish of me, but they may need to know that it wasn’t a ton of people orchestrating it.” He added that, “it makes them more likely to want to be here to help save the situation and the others at least.”
As the grand scheme collapsed, Ellison expressed a great deal of relief in a private chat with Bankman-Fried.
Ellison wrote, “this is the best mood I’ve been in in like a year tbh” (“tbh” is short for “to be honest”).
In three consecutive messages, Bankman-Fried responded, “wow,” “uh,” “congrats?”
Ellison wrote, “I think I just had an increasing dread of this day that was weighing on me for a long time, and now that it’s actually happening, it just feels great to get it over with one way or another.”
— CNBC’s Dawn Giel contributed to this report.