The fallen crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried was freed on $250m on Thursday, a day after agreeing to be extradited from the Bahamas.
The 30-year-old faces eight charges connected to his role in the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX, which carry a maximum sentence of 110 years. Judge Gabriel Gorenstein said Bankman-Fried would have to remain under strict supervision at his parents’ home in Palo Alto, California.
Bankman-Fried appeared gaunt and tired in a dark blue suit and ankle chains a day after being transferred from Bahamian to FBI custody and flown directly to an airport north of New York City.
The hearing comes after federal prosecutors revealed that Caroline Ellison, 28, former CEO of the crypto hedge fund company Alameda Research and Bankman-Fried’s ex-girlfriend, and Gary Wang, 29, a co-founder of FTX, had pleaded guilty to criminal offenses connected to the collapse.
The charges filed against the pair were “in connection with their roles in the frauds that contributed to FTX’s collapse”, US attorney Damian Williams said. “Both Ms Ellison and Mr Wang have plead guilty to those charges and they are both cooperating with the southern district of New York.”
Ellison pleaded guilty to seven charges of defrauding customers and investors of both FTX and Alameda, according to the agreement. The charges against her carry a maximum penalty of up to 110 years. As part of the plea deal, she was released on a $250,000 bond.
Wang faces a similar set of charges. Ilan Graff, his lawyer, said in a statement: “Gary has accepted responsibility for his actions and takes seriously his obligations as a cooperating witness.”
Defense lawyers have speculated that, with Bankman-Fried’s close associates pleading guilty to criminal charges and cooperating with investigators, he may have little choice but to follow suit.
The criminal charges were paired with civil charges from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), accusing Ellison and Wang, as well as Bankman-Fried, of securities violations related to the group’s in-house “FTT” cryptocurrency.
According to the SEC’s complaint, between 2019 and 2022, Ellison, “at Bankman-Fried’s direction”, furthered the scheme by manipulating the price of FTT, an FTX-issued exchange crypto-security token, by purchasing large quantities on the open market to prop up its price. FTT served as collateral for undisclosed loans by FTX of its customers’ assets to Alameda, which is owned by Wang and Bankman-Fried.
The complaint underscores the picture given by multiple investigations of a tight link between Alameda, which had no outside investors, and FTX. The two companies shared bank accounts and key staff members, commingled funds and were both ultimately under the direct control of Bankman-Fried, according to the complaint, despite the nominal authority of Ellison, his sometime girlfriend.
FTX secretly advanced Alameda “a virtually unlimited ‘line of credit’ funded by the platform’s customers”, the SEC says, despite reassuring investors and depositors that it had “sophisticated automated risk measures” that would prevent any individual trade from losing customer funds. The unlimited line of credit ensured that when Alameda bets paid off, it profited, but when they failed, it was FTX customers who ultimately lost out.
The complaint also alleged that Wang created FTX’s software code that allowed Alameda to divert FTX customer funds, and Ellison used misappropriated FTX customer funds for Alameda’s trading activity. Bankman-Fried has previously dismissed allegations of a secret “backdoor” in FTX’s software by noting that he did not “even know how to code”.
If the SEC’s complaint is upheld in court, it is likely to have ramifications for the crypto-industry beyond FTX. As part of its legal case, the SEC is arguing that FTT, created by FTX with the promise the holders would share in the company’s profits, “was offered and sold as an investment contract and therefore a security”.
“The publicly available information led FTT holders to reasonably expect to share in FTX’s growth and future earnings, and from appreciation in the value of FTT,” the SEC says, arguing that the cryptocurrency thus violated US laws around the issuance of unlicensed securities. If the argument is accepted in court, it could have a significant impact on other cryptocurrencies, which thrive in the regulatory uncertainty around their legal status.
A separate civil case accuses Bankman-Fried of illegally using investors’ money to fund Alameda Research and buy property for himself and his family.
Williams, who has described the collapse of FTX as one of the “biggest financial frauds in American history”, has said the investigation is ongoing and once again called for former employees of FTX to come forward.