NEW YORK - The U.S. government charged Samuel Bankman-Fried, the founder and former CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, with a host of financial crimes on Tuesday, alleging he intentionally deceived customers and investors to enrich himself and others, while playing a central role in the company's multibillion-dollar collapse.
Federal prosecutors say that beginning in 2019 Bankman-Fried devised "a scheme and artifice to defraud" FTX's customers and investors. He illegally diverted their money to cover expenses, debts and risky trades at his crypto hedge fund, Alameda Research, and to make lavish real estate purchases and large political donations, prosecutors said in a 13-page indictment.
Bankman-Fried, 30, was arrested Monday in the Bahamas at the request of the U.S. government, which charged him with eight criminal violations, ranging from wire fraud to money laundering to conspiracy to commit fraud. If convicted of all the charges, Bankman-Fried — referred to by crypto enthusiasts as "SBF" — could face decades in jail.
At a press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams called it "one of the biggest frauds in American history," and said the investigation is ongoing and fast-moving. He urged anyone who believes they were victims of the alleged scheme to contact his office.
Bankman-Fried has fallen hard and fast from the top of the cryptocurrency industry he helped to evangelize. FTX filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 11, when it ran out of money after the cryptocurrency equivalent of a bank run.
Before the bankruptcy, he was considered by many in Washington and on Wall Street as a wunderkind of digital currencies, someone who could help take them mainstream, in part by working with policymakers to bring more oversight and trust to the industry.
Bankman-Fried had been worth tens of billions of dollars -- at least on paper -- and was able to attract celebrities like Tom Brady or former politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to his conferences at luxury resorts in the Bahamas.
Sporting shorts and t-shirts to contrast himself with the buttoned-down world of Wall Street, he was the subject of fawning profiles in media, was considered a prominent advocate for a type of charitable giving known as "effective altruism," and commanded millions of followers on Twitter.
But since FTX’s implosion, Bankman-Fried and his company have been likened to other disgraced financiers and companies, such as Bernie Madoff and Enron.
The criminal indictment against Bankman-Fried and "others" at FTX is on top of civil charges announced Tuesday by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The SEC alleges Bankman-Fried defrauded investors and illegally used their money to buy real estate on behalf of himself and his family.
U.S. authorities said they will try to claw back any of Bankman-Fried’s financial gains from the alleged scheme.
A lawyer for Bankman-Fried, Mark S. Cohen, said Tuesday he is "reviewing the charges with his legal team and considering all of his legal options."
At a congressional hearing Tuesday that was scheduled before Bankman-Fried's arrest, the new CEO brought in to steer FTX through its bankruptcy proceedings leveled harsh criticism. He said there was scant oversight of customers' money and "very few rules" about how their funds could be used.
John Ray III told members of the House Financial Services Committee that the collapse of FTX, resulting in the loss of more than $7 billion, was the culmination of months, or even years, of bad decisions and poor financial controls.
"This is not something that happened overnight or in a context of a week," he said.
He added: "This is just plain, old-fashioned embezzlement, taking money from others and using it for your own purposes."
Before his arrest, Bankman-Fried had been holed up in his luxury compound in the Bahamas. U.S. authorities are expected to request his extradition to the U.S., although the timing of that request is unclear.
At a court hearing in the Bahamas on Tuesday, prosecutors argued that Bankman-Fried was a flight risk and should be held without bail, according to Our News, a broadcast news company based there. His lawyers said he is likely to request a formal extradition hearing.
Bankman-Fried's was previously one of the world’s wealthiest people on paper; at one point his net worth reached $26.5 billion, according to Forbes. He was a prominent personality in Washington, donating millions of dollars to Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Attorney Williams said Tuesday that Bankman-Fried made "tens of millions of dollars" in illegal campaign donations.
His wealth unraveled quickly last month, when reports called into question the strength of FTX’s balance sheet. As customers sought to withdraw billions of dollars, FTX could not satisfy the requests: their money was gone.
"We allege that Sam Bankman-Fried built a house of cards on a foundation of deception while telling investors that it was one of the safest buildings in crypto," said SEC Chair Gary Gensler.
The SEC complaint alleges that Bankman-Fried had raised more than $1.8 billion from investors since May 2019 by promoting FTX as a safe, responsible platform for trading crypto assets.
Instead, the complaint says, Bankman-Fried diverted customers' funds to Alameda Research without telling them.
"He then used Alameda as his personal piggy bank to buy luxury condominiums, support political campaigns, and make private investments, among other uses," the complaint reads.
In the weeks after FTX's collapse, but before his arrest, Bankman-Fried gave interviews to several news organizations in which he grasped for ways to explain what happened.
For example, Bankman-Fried said he did not "knowingly" misuse customers’ funds, and that he believes angry customers will eventually get their money back.
At Tuesday's congressional hearing, the new FTX CEO bluntly disputed those assertions: "We will never get all these assets back," Ray said.
Jack Sharman, an attorney at Lightfoot, Franklin & White, said Bankman-Fried's recent comments to the media could be damaging, admissible evidence in court. "Those statements in that speaking tour were in no way helpful to his cause," Sharman said.
In its complaint, the SEC challenged Bankman-Fried's recent statements that FTX and its customers were victims of a sudden market collapse that overwhelmed safeguards that had been in place.
"FTX operated behind a veneer of legitimacy," said Gurbir Grewal, director of the SEC’s enforcement division. "That veneer wasn’t just thin, it was fraudulent."
The collapse of FTX — which followed other cryptocurrency debacles earlier this year — is adding urgency to efforts to regulate the industry.
Yesha Yadav, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in financial and securities regulation, said U.S. lawmakers and regulators have been too slow to act, but that is likely to change.
"Lawmakers are clearly under pressure to do something, given that so many people have lost their money," she said.
Hussein contributed to this report from Washington.