NEW YORK — The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has charged the former CEO of failed cryptocurrency firm FTX with orchestrating a scheme to defraud investors.
An SEC complaint filed Tuesday alleges that Sam Bankman-Fried raised more than $1.8 billion from equity investors since May 2019 by promoting FTX as a safe, responsible platform for trading crypto assets.
The civil complaint says Bankman-Fried diverted customer funds to Alameda Research LLC, his privately-held crypto fund, without telling them. The complaint also says Bankman-Fried commingled FTX customers’ funds at Alameda to make undisclosed venture investments, lavish real estate purchases, and large political donations.
“Bankman-Fried placed billions of dollars of FTX customer funds into Alameda. 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. “None of this was disclosed to FTX equity investors or to the platform’s trading customers.”
Alameda did not segregate FTX investor funds and Alameda investments, the SEC said, using that money to “indiscriminately fund its trading operations,” as well as other ventures of Bankman-Fried.
“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 alleged fraud committed by Mr. Bankman-Fried is a clarion call to crypto platforms that they need to come into compliance with our laws.”
Bankman-Fried was arrested Monday in the Bahamas at the request of the U.S. government, U.S. and Bahamian authorities said.
The arrest was made after the U.S. filed criminal charges that are expected to be unsealed Tuesday, according to U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. Bankman-Fried had been under criminal investigation by U.S. and Bahamian authorities following the collapse last month of FTX, which filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 11, when it ran out of money after the cryptocurrency equivalent of a bank run.
The SEC charges are separate from the criminal charges expected to be unsealed later Tuesday.
A spokesman for Bankman-Fried had no comment Monday evening. Bankman-Fried has a right to contest his extradition, which could delay but not likely stop his transfer to the U.S.
Bankman-Fried’s arrest comes just a day before he was due to testify in front of the House Financial Services Committee. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chairwoman of the committee, said she was “disappointed” that the American public, and FTX’s customers, would not get to see Bankman-Fried testify under oath.
That hearing, however, will be held Tuesday despite the arrest of Bankman-Fried.
Bankman-Fried was one of the world’s wealthiest people on paper, with an estimated net worth of $32 billion. He was a prominent personality in Washington, donating millions of dollars toward mostly left-leaning political causes and Democratic political campaigns. FTX grew to become the second-largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world.
That all unraveled quickly last month, when reports called into question the strength of FTX’s balance sheet. Customers moved to withdraw billions of dollars, but FTX could not meet all the requests because it apparently used its customers deposits to cover bad bets at Bankman-Fried’s investment arm, Alameda Research.
Bankman-Fried said recently that he did not “knowingly” misuse customers’ funds, and said he believes his millions of angry customers will eventually be made whole.
The SEC challenged that assertion Tuesday in its complaint.
“FTX operated behind a veneer of legitimacy Mr. Bankman-Fried created by, among other things, touting its best-in-class controls, including a proprietary ‘risk engine,’ and FTX’s adherence to specific investor protection principles and detailed terms of service. But as we allege in our complaint, that veneer wasn’t just thin, it was fraudulent,” said Gurbir Grewal, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “FTX’s collapse highlights the very real risks that unregistered crypto asset trading platforms can pose for investors and customers alike.”