NEW YORK – FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried testified on Thursday at his fraud trial outside the jury’s presence that lawyers at his now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange were involved in key decisions at the heart of the case, as he sought to distance himself from responsibility for any wrongdoing.
Mr. Bankman-Fried, taking the witness stand hours after the prosecution rested its case presented over 12 trial days, gave testimony that fit with the defense argument that he acted in good faith while running FTX, which collapsed in November 2022 following a wave of customer withdrawals.
But on cross-examination by prosecutors, Mr. Bankman-Fried often struggled to point to specific conversations in which lawyers approved his actions. US District Judge Lewis Kaplan said several of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s responses did not directly answer prosecutors’ questions.
“The witness has what I’ll simply call an interesting way of responding to questions,” Mr. Kaplan said.
Accused of stealing billions of dollars from unwitting customers, Mr. Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud and five counts of conspiracy. If convicted, he could face decades in prison. Prosecutors have said Mr. Bankman-Fried used the misappropriated funds to prop up his crypto-focused hedge fund, Alameda Research, make speculative venture investments and donate more than $100 million to US political campaigns.
The 31-year-old former billionaire, clad in a gray suit, was called to the stand in Manhattan federal court after his lawyers kicked off the defense case with testimony from two other witnesses.
Mr. Kaplan decided that Mr. Bankman-Fried would initially provide testimony without jurors present so he could determine which portions of it, if any, would be admissible as evidence. Prosecutors have said Mr. Bankman-Fried should not be allowed to suggest that the involvement of lawyers in decision-making showed that he lacked criminal intent.
Speaking in a confident tone, Mr. Bankman-Fried often gave lengthy responses to questions from defense lawyer Mark Cohen.
Mr. Bankman-Fried said FTX’s lawyers were involved in crafting its document-retention policies, setting up a system under which FTX customers deposited their funds into an Alameda bank account, and crafting loans that he and other executives took from Alameda.
Prosecutors have said Mr. Bankman-Fried encouraged employees to use encrypted messaging platforms such as Slack and Signal and auto-delete their communications to hide their tracks. They also have said he stole funds by having FTX customers deposit money into accounts controlled by Alameda, which then lent money to FTX executives.
Mr. Bankman-Fried is expected to testify to the jury on Friday. Kaplan said he would decide then whether jurors could hear his testimony about lawyers’ involvement.
SWAYING SIDE TO SIDE
Under cross-examination by prosecutor Danielle Sassoon, Mr. Bankman-Fried swayed slightly side to side and motioned with his hands when speaking. He frequently began responses by saying “yep.”
Much of Ms. Sassoon’s questioning focused on what FTX lawyers told Bankman-Fried about the company’s practice of having FTX customers deposit funds intended for the exchange into accounts belonging to Alameda, which Mr. Bankman-Fried testified happened for a time because FTX did not yet have its own bank account.
When Ms. Sassoon asked if he ever spoke with lawyers about the “permissibility” of Alameda spending the deposits, Mr. Bankman-Fried paused for several seconds and said, “I don’t recall any conversations that were contemporaneous and phrased that way.”
The judge sent the jurors home for the day after Mr. Bankman-Fried’s lawyers said they planned to elicit testimony from the defendant about the involvement of FTX lawyers in key company decisions.
Legal experts have said Mr. Bankman-Fried has little to lose by bucking conventional wisdom and testifying to the jury, given weeks of the testimony against him by insiders painting an unflattering portrait of his character. Cohen said Bankman-Fried’s direct testimony to the jury could last close to five hours, before prosecutors get a chance to cross-examine him.
Former close FTX colleagues who testified for the prosecution told the jury that Mr. Bankman-Fried directed them to commit crimes by diverting customer funds to Alameda and lying to investors and lenders. Mr. Bankman-Fried’s risky decision to testify gives prosecutors the chance to cross-examine him on those claims.
His lawyers have said three of his former colleagues, who have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, tailored their testimony to implicate Mr. Bankman-Fried in the hopes of receiving lenient sentences. Mr. Bankman-Fried has maintained that while he made mistakes running FTX, he never intended to steal funds.
The prosecution rested after calling one final witness – FBI agent Marc Troiano, who told jurors about Mr. Bankman-Fried’s use of Signal. The defense’s first two witnesses were Krystal Rolle, Mr. Bankman-Fried’s lawyer in the Bahamas; and database expert Joseph Pimbley. – Reuters