Mar 28, 2024 - Business

"It haunts me every day": Inside SBF's courtroom reckoning

Drawing of a courtroom scene, as a judge listens to a man speaking from a podium.

Judge Lewis Kaplan listens as Sunil Kavuri gives his victim impact statement in court. (Drawing: Brady Dale/Axios)

Judge Lewis Kaplan made clear Thursday morning that he didn't buy any of the defense's arguments for a lighter sentence for Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced founder of FTX who now faces nearly three decades behind bars.

Why it matters: The court's analysis meant that SBF — convicted in November of crimes including fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering — qualified for the highest possible level of sentencing guidelines, with the maximum score of 43.

  • If the judge had followed these guidelines, Bankman-Fried would have been sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.
  • Instead he was sentenced to 25 years, plus three years of probation, an $11.2 billion forfeiture of property and a $700 fine.

In the room: Bankman-Fried came into the room, with chains jingling as he walked. He was wearing a loose fitting beige shirt rather than the suits he wore during his trial. He also let his hair grow back out to its trademark unruliness.

The big question going into the sentencing was whether or not the judge would be persuaded that SBF deserved less prison time.

  • After all, it looks like FTX's claimants are likely to get repaid the dollar-value of their assets on the day of the crypto exchange's bankruptcy.

Kaplan found these arguments unpersuasive.

  • He described them as "misleading, logically flawed and speculative."
  • The defense conceded the point from there.

Having watched SBF on the stand, it seemed clear that the facts of the trial undermined a variety of statements he had made. In other words, the court could find he committed perjury.

  • In fact, the judge enumerated instances when SBF perjured himself, such as when he said he hadn't known that the firm he also co-founded, Alameda Research, was using customer funds for its investments until late in 2022.
  • Kaplan said he only enumerated as many instances of lies as he felt necessary for the proceedings.
  • "When he wasn't outright lying, he was evasive, hair splitting and dodging questions," the judge said.
  • In 30 years on the bench, he added, "I've never seen a performance quite like that."

One victim came to court to testify, Sunil Kavuri, who told the BBC that he lost $2.1 million when the exchange went down.

  • While he began soft-spoken and demure, thanking the court for its work, he grew impassioned as he began to tell his story. "The money I wanted to spend on a family home, taken away," he told the court.
  • He said that he'd been spending his time since then helping other victims work their way through the bankruptcy process.

Friction point: The defense got the first turn to make their case for what they believed should be SBF's sentence. Marc Mukasey, his attorney, mainly argued that the ex-mogul's mistakes were not born of greed, but from the desire to to do the most good in the world.

  • "Sam Bankman-Fried doesn't make decisions with malice in his heart. He makes decisions with math in his head," Mukasey told the court.

However, Roos directly countered that point, calling it a nice turn of phrase, but "what it says is that if Mr. Bankman-Fried thought the mathematics would justify it, he would do it again."

  • Judge Kaplan seemed to agree. He took a dim view of SBF functioning on "expected value," which he said could just as easily be called cost-benefit analysis.

Zoom in: In particular, Judge Kaplan homed in on a comment ex-Alameda Research CEO Caroline Ellison made about the way SBF thinks about the world. He would take a coin flip bet that would, in theory, choose between destroying the world, or making it at least twice as good.

  • Kaplan seemed convinced that that line of thinking justified that he needed to render a sentence that would be sufficient to specifically deter him from committing further crimes.
  • "That's really a leitmotif of my judgement of this entire case," Kaplan said.

The bottom line: SBF also spoke, in a tone that seemed contrite but in a practiced way, like that of someone years younger than his 32 years. "I'm sorry about what happened at every stage," he told the judge before sentencing.

  • He took time to thank the key members of the FTX and Alameda teams by name. "They all built something really beautiful," he said. "And then I threw all of that away. It haunts me every day."

What we're watching: SBF has said multiple times that everyone who was owed money by his companies could be paid back today, in full, and that they could have been at any time. He appeared to suggest there was no actual hole in the balance sheet.

  • It was a remarkable claim, but one that he didn't substantiate. "This isn't the time or the place to tell that story," he said.
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