By Jared Higgs, Luc Cohen and Chris Prentice
NASSAU, Bahamas/NEW YORK (Reuters) -A Bahamian judge denied FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried bail on Tuesday, hours after U.S. prosecutors accused the 30-year-old of misappropriating billions of dollars and violating campaign laws in what has been described as one of America’s biggest financial frauds.
The former CEO of the collapsed cryptocurrency exchange, dressed in a blue suit without a tie, lowered his head and hugged his parents after the judge said his risk of flight was too “great” and ordered that he be sent to a Bahamas correctional facility until Feb. 8.
The day’s events capped a stunning fall from grace in recent weeks for Bankman-Fried, who amassed a fortune valued over $20 billion as he rode a cryptocurrency boom to build FTX into one of the world’s largest exchanges before it abruptly collapsed this year.
In an indictment unsealed on Tuesday morning, U.S. prosecutors said Bankman-Fried had engaged in a scheme to defraud FTX’s customers by misappropriating their deposits to pay for expenses and debts and to make investments on behalf of his crypto hedge fund, Alameda Research LLC.
He also defrauded lenders to Alameda by providing false and misleading information about the hedge fund’s condition, and sought to disguise the money he had earned from committing wire fraud, prosecutors said.
They accused Bankman-Fried of using the stolen money to make “tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.”
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in New York said that the investigation was “ongoing” and “moving quickly.”
“While this is our first public announcement, it will not be our last,” he said.
Williams described the collapse as one of the “biggest financial frauds in American history.”
‘SHORTS AND T-SHIRTS’
Prior to his arrest, Bankman-Fried, who founded FTX in 2019, was an unconventional figure who sported wild hair, t-shirts and shorts on panel appearances with statesmen like former U.S. President Bill Clinton. He became one of the largest Democratic donors, contributing $5.2 million to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. Forbes pegged his net worth a year ago at $26.5 billion.
“You can commit fraud in shorts and t-shirts in the sun. That’s possible,” attorney Williams told reporters.
Bankman-Fried has previously apologized to customers and acknowledged oversight failings at FTX, but said he does not personally think he has any criminal liability.
He faces up to 115 years in prison if convicted on all eight counts, prosecutors said, though any sentence would depend on a range of factors.
Williams declined to say whether prosecutors would bring charges against other FTX executives and whether any FTX insiders were cooperating with the investigation.
Both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) also filed suit on Tuesday.
The CFTC sued Bankman-Fried, Alameda and FTX, alleging fraud involving digital commodity assets.
Since at least May 2019, FTX raised more than $1.8 billion from equity investors in a years-long “brazen, multi-year scheme” in which Bankman-Fried concealed FTX was diverting customer funds to Alameda Research, the SEC alleged.
Tuesday’s court hearing in The Bahamas, where FTX is based and where Bankman-Fried was arrested at his gated community in the capital, marked his first in-person public appearance since the cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse.
Bankman-Fried appeared relaxed when he arrived at the heavily guarded Bahamas court. He told the court he could fight extradition to the United States.
Bahamian prosecutors had asked that Bankman-Fried be denied bail if he fights extradition.
“Mr. Bankman-Fried is reviewing the charges with his legal team and considering all of his legal options,” his lawyer, Mark S. Cohen, said in an earlier statement.
Bankman-Fried is expected to appear in court again in the Bahamas on Feb. 8.
FTX filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 11, leaving an estimated 1 million customers and other investors facing losses in the billions of dollars. The collapse reverberated across the crypto world and sent bitcoin and other digital assets plummeting.
Bankman-Fried resigned as FTX’s CEO the same day as the bankruptcy filing. FTX’s liquidity crunch came after he secretly used $10 billion in customer funds to support his proprietary trading firm Alameda, Reuters has reported. At least $1 billion in customer funds had vanished.
The collapse was one of a series of bankruptcies in the crypto industry this year as digital asset markets tumbled from 2021 peaks. A crypto exchange is a platform on which investors can trade digital tokens such as bitcoin.
FTX’s current CEO, John Ray, told lawmakers that FTX lost $8 billion of client money, saying the company showed “absolute concentration of control in the hands of a small group of grossly inexperienced, nonsophisticated individuals.”
As legal challenges mount, U.S. Congress is looking at crafting legislation to rein in the loosely regulated industry.
FTX has shared findings with the SEC and U.S. prosecutors, and is investigating whether Bankman-Fried’s parents were involved in the operation.