In the month since Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency empire crumbled into dust, the embattled executive has taken a somewhat unusual path through the fallout: a full-blown media blitz, with interviews granted to a slew of journalism outfits and crypto personalities. These interviews and appearances were as bizarre as they were ill-advised (at least to his surely frustrated legal team). Throughout, SBF revised his high image as the unkempt boy genius of cryptocurrency. No longer was he the youthful, idealistic billionaire who had built a new crypto-trading giant in order to pour the profits into public health, Democratic politics, and journalism, all while advancing the philanthropic tenets of the effective altruism movement. Now, with $8 billion of his customers’ holdings seemingly having evaporated, he was a careless naïf who just didn’t exercise proper diligence over his core business and let problems he was dimly aware of get disastrously out of hand. Most observers weren’t buying it, and they suspected something else was afoot, especially when his mostly repetitive remarks allowed a few shady confessions to slip. Some prominent crypto critics advised caution, theorizing that “every single thing he says is with the aim of not going to jail.”
If that was the play, it didn’t work. On Monday night, the Office of the Attorney General of the Bahamas—where Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange FTX is based, and where he’s been conducting all those interviews since its collapse—announced that police had arrested the businessman and placed him in custody following “receipt of formal notification from the United States that it has filed criminal charges against SBF and is likely to request his extradition.” On Tuesday morning we learned charges: from the Securities and Exchange Commission, for defrauding investors; from the Southern District of New York, for wire fraud, securities fraud, and money laundering, among other criminal charges; from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (which SBF was once quite close to), for fraud and material misrepresentations of commodities. The arrest caused him to miss out on a stateside House Financial Services Committee hearing on the FTX scandal, although the company’s current CEO, who also helped clean up the Enron fallout, showed up to testify about SBF’s business practices. (He said the word embezzlement quite a bit.) By the end of the day, Bankman-Fried had been denied bail in the Bahamas.
What did SBF really think would come from all that talking after FTX and its associated crypto hedge fund, Alameda Research, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy? In addition to all the tweets that pissed off the companies’ bankruptcy lawyers, there was one infamously softball New York Times interview, some damning Vox DMs, phone calls to Axios and crypto enthusiast Tiffany Fong and New York magazine, a DealBook Summit appearance with Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Good Morning America interview with George Stephanopoulos, a lot of hourslong Twitter Spaces hosted by crypto-industry insiders, a Bloomberg visit to SBF’s Bahamian penthouse, a conversation with Puck, a podcast interview with the Block (a website that previously received tens of millions in undisclosed funds from SBF himself), and on-camera chats with the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Oh, and finally, an interview with prominent crypto skeptic Molly White that occurred mere hours before his arrest, in which SBF predicted that he wouldn’t be arrested, just like he’d claimed on a preceding Twitter space. (I’m sure I missed a dozen others, at least.)
That’s a lot of gab for a man who, even before Tuesday, was surely aware that he was facing serious legal scrutiny. It’s even more striking when you consider how little anyone else involved with FTX or with Bankman-Fried’s hedge fund, Alameda Research, has spoken in the weeks since it all crumpled: no word from former Alameda CEO Caroline Ellison (I did try, only for her to decline), from former FTX executives Gary Wang and Nishad Singh, or from SBF’s Stanford Law School professor parents. Ellison, for her part, seems to have wisely lawyered up, while her ex-boyfriend SBF has admitted that he told his first crisis-era lawyers “to go fuck themselves” and referred to parts of FTX’s November bankruptcy filing as “false.” (Bold!)
Perhaps you and I would take a different tack if we were, I don’t know, facing serious allegations from both aggrieved customers and skeptical government officials that we mishandled billions of dollars of other people’s money, but hey, neither of us is Sam Bankman-Fried. (I’m very OK with that, to be clear.) But the disgraced genius kept saying he had a “duty” to those affected by the fall of his businesses—which were entangled with many, many key parts of the crypto economy—to explain what happened and make things right. OK, sure. But was anything he said in his million interviews helpful to anyone in that regard?
As you might have guessed, not really. Speaking in my capacity as someone who tuned in to hours of Sam Bankman-Fried’s audio and video interviews, the utility of paying attention to any of these statements fetched diminishing returns over time, as more and more people booked “exclusive” interviews with the man, and as he kept talking loud while saying nothing. (And I say this as someone who generally thinks CEOs facing criminal charges should talk to lots of journalists, like me!) There were a lot of apologies and statements of “I fucked up,” to the point where he was even planning on leading off with that in front of Congress, according to his leaked testimony. But when it came to how he fucked up, exactly, details were sparser. The overriding point SBF wanted to hammer was that he was clueless about the things that led to his companies getting exposed—that he didn’t “knowingly” exchange customer deposits between his Alameda hedge fund and the FTX exchanges in an inappropriate and secretive manner, that he didn’t “realize” how deeply the two companies he’d founded were intermingled, that he “failed” to task anyone to closely oversee all the financials, or even to do it himself.
This isn’t the most plausible story by even SBF’s own admission (and he’s also repeated time and again that “it’s all on me”), but it provides a cover if you’re trying to duck the feds: You didn’t know anything, other people messed up, but you’re not going to call them out specifically, out of personal concern. He kept saying that he didn’t have “access” to information that would allow him to be more upfront about financial specifics, thanks to the Chapter 11 proceedings. Curiously, in spite of the information deficit that allowed him to elide queries as to his business practices, he kept saying that filing for Chapter 11 was his “biggest” mistake and regret, that he would have been able to “make customers whole” had he not relinquished control of the companies, and that FTX users in the U.S. and Japan and even elsewhere would have gotten all their money back were it not for those meddling lawyers. (A constant of SBF’s public statements post-bankruptcy has been a sneering contempt for government officials and lawyers, which, while relatable, is perhaps best left unexpressed in situations like this.) There were some masterful applications of the passive voice when it came to questions about FTX’s outward loans, which used customer funds, and its collateral, which depended in large part on an illiquid in-house token as well as other coins in which SBF had personal stakes. People who wanted to wire money to FTX just happened to have their funds sent to an Alameda account instead, and that just happened not to be recorded properly on balance sheets. After a while, FTX just happened to be “exposed” to Alameda by a margin that was “bigger” and more precarious than he’d expected, and look, those ties were already shrinking throughout 2022. Such points are all moot because, as even Forbes uncovered, Bankman-Fried clearly knew about Alameda’s finances going back years, while claiming to not be so involved with the hedge fund after others were appointed as co-CEOs.
I could go through more such quotes, but that would be boring and pointless by now—no matter what, SBF was not going to say anything actually revelatory. He was merely a big dummy who let the fame and attention get to his head. That was the line he wanted to parrot, however unsuccessfully. On some of the Twitter Spaces I listened to, the more vocal SBF critics, like YouTube pundit Coffeezilla, accused Bankman-Fried of “filibustering” his way through his interviews, saying a lot of empty words so as to avoid any direct answers regarding his culpability. Writers who’d once penned fawning profiles of Bankman-Fried expressed their regrets, as did investors who’d been wowed by him. A Telegram chat consisting of aggrieved former FTX customers spent weeks in mass anger over SBF’s apparent impunity, and their hatred of the man they once trusted with their money has devolved into some rather dark places. (To put it mildly, they’re calling for his head.) If Bankman-Fried was really trying to “win in the court of public opinion,” as one podcast surmised, that didn’t seem like it was happening.
SBF’s lack of prudence has already had direct consequences, especially because of a few slip-ups he made. His comments to Tiffany Fong regarding his dark-money donations to Republicans have opened a Federal Election Commission complaint alleging campaign finance violations. His attempt to wriggle out of a summons to congressional hearings about his business only served to dial up pressure from lawmakers. And whatever attempts he made to preserve his once-shining reputation have been undermined by a pair of handcuffs; no doubt, investigators will comb bit by bit through all the interviews he gave and use them as they see fit.
It would appear, then, that the crypto wunderkind with a “savior complex,” who once said he wished to save both the entire world as well as the flagging digital-currency industry, couldn’t even save himself, no matter how much he prostrated himself before the very same journalistic complex that was once happy to gas him. Whether or not SBF is proved a criminal down the line, he’s definitely pulled off one of the biggest self-owns of all time. Put that line on his next magazine cover.
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