Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced former cryptocurrency executive, was granted release from federal custody in a Manhattan court on Thursday under highly restrictive bail conditions, including a $250 million bond secured by his parents’ interest in their California home and a requirement that he remain in home detention with them.
It was the latest twist in a swiftly unfolding saga that has turned one of the crypto world’s most recognizable paper billionaires into its most prominent villain within weeks, drawing comparisons to Bernie Madoff, the notorious fraudster whose money management operation turned out to be the largest Ponzi scheme in history.
Mr. Bankman-Fried, 30, appeared in federal court just hours after his extradition from the Bahamas, where he was arrested at a luxury apartment complex on Dec. 12. FTX, the exchange that Mr. Bankman-Fried founded, was based in the Caribbean nation.
His release also followed an announcement by Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, on Wednesday night that two former executives of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s businesses, Caroline Ellison and Gary Wang, had pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and were cooperating with prosecutors. The charges against the executives are likely to further complicate Mr. Bankman-Fried’s defense.
The criminal investigation into FTX and its related entities has moved with startling speed. In under two months, FTX went from a flourishing exchange to a bankrupt entity whose executives are facing criminal charges for some of the financial world’s most serious violations. Prosecutors have said Mr. Bankman-Fried’s crimes led to the implosion of his exchange and billions in customer losses.
Just a few months ago, cryptocurrency enthusiasts hailed Mr. Bankman-Fried as the savior and spokesman of the shambolic industry, willing to bail out other companies and vouch for crypto’s legitimacy to lawmakers and regulators. Now, with his fortune gone and charges mounting, Mr. Bankman-Fried faces what is likely to be a colossal legal fight with few good outcomes.
On Thursday, the judge, Gabriel W. Gorenstein, warned Mr. Bankman-Fried that if he failed to appear in court or violated any of the other bail conditions, a warrant would be issued for his arrest and he and his parents would be responsible for paying the hefty bond.
The $250 million personal recognizance bond — a written promise to appear in court as needed — will be secured by the parents’ Bay Area home, the judge said. Mr. Bankman-Fried was also required to surrender his passport and to receive mental health evaluation and treatment. Any expenses above $1,000 will require prior approval by the government or the court.
As part of the bail arrangement, Mr. Bankman-Fried will live with his parents, the Stanford Law School professors Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried. He will be under strict electronic monitoring, including a bracelet that was to be placed on him before he left the courthouse.
Asked whether he understood, Mr. Bankman-Fried responded, “Yes, I do,” the only words he uttered in the hearing, which lasted less than an hour.
Discussions about a bail deal had begun even before Mr. Bankman-Fried was extradited. In court on Thursday, Nicolas Roos, an assistant U.S. attorney, described the proposed package that had been worked out with the defense lawyers.
Mr. Roos said that Mr. Bankman-Fried had committed crimes of “epic proportions” and that the case against him involved cooperating witnesses, encrypted text messages and tens of thousands of pages of financial records. But he noted that Mr. Bankman-Fried had family and community ties and that his wealth had “diminished significantly.”
What to Know About the Collapse of FTX
What is FTX? FTX is a now bankrupt company that was one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges. It enabled customers to trade digital currencies for other digital currencies or traditional money; it also had a native cryptocurrency known as FTT. The company, based in the Bahamas, built its business on risky trading options that are not legal in the United States.
He also pointed out that Mr. Bankman-Fried had consented to extradition. Had he resisted the process, leading to a drawn-out legal fight, it was “a near certainty” the government would have opposed any pretrial release, Mr. Roos added.
Mr. Bankman-Fried was escorted into court by federal marshals. He was wearing a dark suit, his ankles were shackled, and he was seated between his lawyers, Mark Cohen and Christian Everdell. He sat hunched over, with his head tilted down slightly.
Mr. Cohen argued that Mr. Bankman-Fried was not a flight risk and had agreed to return to New York to face the charges. “He wants to address them,” Mr. Cohen said.
Judge Gorenstein appeared to agree. “It would be very difficult for this defendant to hide without being recognized,” he said. “So I believe that the risk of flight is appropriately mitigated.”
Mr. Bankman-Fried has been charged with two counts of wire fraud and six counts of conspiracy related to securities and commodities fraud, money laundering, and violations of campaign finance laws.
Last week, Mr. Williams, the U.S. attorney, called FTX “one of the biggest financial frauds in American history.” The charges against Mr. Bankman-Fried could carry what would amount to a life sentence if he was convicted.
When Mr. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme unraveled after customers tried to retrieve their funds during the 2008 financial crisis, thousands of victims lost their savings, although much of the money was clawed back. Mr. Madoff was serving a 150-year sentence when he died last year in a federal prison.
The case against Mr. Bankman-Fried echoes another financial scandal from more than a decade ago — the fall of MF Global, a commodities brokerage firm that collapsed after revelations that it had misused customer funds to prop up its business. Customers lost more than $1 billion.
Mr. Bankman-Fried is accused of funneling billions of dollars of FTX customer deposits to Alameda Research, a crypto hedge fund that he also founded and owned. Regulators and prosecutors say he used customer funds to finance lavish real estate purchases, investments in other companies, political contributions and a celebrity-driven marketing campaign.
In the Bahamas, Mr. Bankman-Fried lived in a luxurious penthouse before his arrest landed him in the island’s notorious Fox Hill prison. Now, he is set to live with his parents.
Mr. Bankman-Fried’s father and mother have served on the Stanford Law School faculty since the 1980s. Mr. Bankman-Fried and his younger brother, Gabe, grew up on Stanford’s campus, in a house next to a student-run cooperative where undergraduates often threw raucous parties.
When Mr. Bankman-Fried started FTX, his parents were enthusiastic supporters. Mr. Bankman was an employee for 11 months, focusing on the company’s charitable work. Both parents were in court on Thursday, Ms. Fried dressed in all black and Mr. Bankman with an emotionless expression.
The Aftermath of FTX’s Downfall
The sudden collapse of the crypto exchange has left the industry stunned.
Mr. Bankman and Ms. Fried are not actually paying $250 million to have Mr. Bankman-Fried released. But in theory, they would be liable for that amount if their son fled, and their house could be seized.
Mr. Bankman-Fried’s legal jeopardy is growing by the day. The plea deals with the two former executives, Ms. Ellison and Mr. Wang, appear to significantly strengthen the case against him. Both were part of his inner circle in the Bahamas; they lived with Mr. Bankman-Fried in a luxury penthouse with seven others, and Ms. Ellison and Mr. Bankman-Fried have dated at times.
Ms. Ellison, 28, became the chief executive of Alameda after Mr. Bankman-Fried started FTX. Mr. Wang, 29, helped Mr. Bankman-Fried found Alameda and FTX, before serving as the exchange’s chief technology officer. The charges against the two were “in connection with their roles in the frauds that contributed to FTX’s collapse,” said Mr. Williams, the U.S. attorney.
“The cooperation deals make it significantly harder for Bankman-Fried to argue that he didn’t know what was going on at FTX,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who is now a professor at New York Law School.
Mr. Wang and Ms. Ellison also agreed to settle civil charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Both agencies are pursuing cases against Mr. Bankman-Fried.
The S.E.C. complaint against Ms. Ellison and Mr. Wang provides one of the most detailed accounts to date of the alleged fraud at FTX, claiming that the two cooperators were closely involved in a scheme dating back to the company’s founding in 2019.
In 2019 and 2020, the complaint said, Mr. Bankman-Fried instructed Mr. Wang and other FTX engineers to write software code that effectively allowed Alameda to borrow an unlimited amount of money from FTX. That software loophole was the technological basis for Alameda to misuse billions of dollars in FTX customers funds, the complaint claims.
According to the S.E.C. complaint, Mr. Bankman-Fried also worked closely with Ms. Ellison to manipulate the price of FTT, a cryptocurrency that FTX created and that Alameda used as collateral to borrow funds. In 2019, the complaint said, Mr. Bankman-Fried grew concerned about “the psychological effect of the price of FTT dropping below a certain threshold.” So he instructed Ms. Ellison to have Alameda purchase FTT to support the price — a directive that he repeated two years later, in 2021.
In an interview on Thursday, Gary Gensler, the chair of the S.E.C., compared crypto tokens such as FTT that exchanges create to micro-cap fraud schemes, saying they resemble the thinly traded micro-cap stocks of dubious value that insiders control and manipulate.
“This leads to distorted incentives and puts the public further at risk,” Mr. Gensler said.
Ephrat Livni, Lora Kelley and Liset Cruz contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.