Just before the House Financial Services Committee kicked off its hearing into the implosion of the Bahamas-based cryptocurrency trading platform FTX, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed its indictment of the company’s disgraced former CEO and founder Sam Bankman-Fried.
In the indictment, the federal government charged Bankman-Fried with campaign finance violations, including allegations that he gave at least $25,000 to candidates and PACs under other names. Bankman-Fried publicly contributed nearly $40 million to federal candidates and outside groups during the 2022 election cycle, and has said he gave an unspecified amount of “dark money” to groups linked to Republicans during the 2022 election.
The federal government also charged Bankman-Fried with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, commodities fraud, securities fraud and money laundering.
The former FTX CEO was slated to appear virtually before the House Financial Services Committee before he was arrested by Bahamian authorities on Monday evening. The government of the Bahamas said they had received formal notice of criminal charges against Bankman-Fried, who is expected to be extradited back to the United States.
John J. Ray III, the new CEO of FTX, appeared in person to testify before the committee. Ray fielded questions from lawmakers about the company he inherited four weeks ago, including revelations that FTX used Intuit Quickbooks, an accounting software geared toward small- and medium-sized businesses, not multibillion dollar cryptocurrency empires.
The hearing provided a glimpse into Bankman-Fried’s meetings with lawmakers, including one meeting with Rep. Bill Huizenga (R–Mich.) — a member of the House Financial Services Committee — the same day as the Dec. 8, 2021, hearing on “Digital Assets and the Future of Finance.”
“Everyone loved the exciting idea of a politically progressive, smart entrepreneur who was going to reimagine capitalism and change the world,” Huizenga said at the hearing on Tuesday, adding Bankman-Fried’s lobbying approach left everyone “feeling better about themselves all while making them gobs of money.”
“I’m glad to see it unraveling,” Huizenga said of the FTX image built as Bankman-Fried “wooed many in New York, Silicon Valley, around the world and yes, certainly here in D.C.”
FTX first reported spending on federal lobbying in 2021, and the trading platform ramped up its lobbying efforts in 2022. The company reported spending just $50,000 on federal lobbying in 2021, a total that jumped to $640,000 during the first nine months of 2022.
The most lobbied bill by FTX lobbyists so far in 2022 is the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act, as OpenSecrets previously reported. The bill would give the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission the authority to oversee the digital asset market, including cryptocurrencies.
Bankman-Fried was a vocal advocate for the act, describing his “vision for the CFTC as a digital-assets market regulator for the U.S.” during his testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee in February.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission filed a complaint against the former CEO on Tuesday in the Southern District of New York, alleging, “At Bankman-Fried’s direction, FTX executives created features in the underlying code for FTX that allowed Alameda to maintain an essentially unlimited line of credit on FTX.”
Alameda Trading LLC is the digital trading and asset firm linked to FTX. A Securities and Exchange Commission’s complaint filed on Tuesday alleges Bankman-Fried executed loans totaling more than $1.3 billion from Aladema. That included two instances where he was both the individual borrower and the lender as the CEO of Alameda, CNN reported.
Ray confirmed FTX would look into whether loans from Alameda to Bankman-Fried and other top executives immediately preceded alleged disguised political contributions.
“I have one comment for my colleagues. Don’t trash [Bankman-Fried] and then pass his bill,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D–Calif.) said during the House Financial Services Committee hearing. Sherman added, “I fear that could happen because Sam was not the only crypto bro with PACs and lobbyists, and there is no PAC or lobbyist here to work for efficient tax enforcement or sanctions enforcement.”
Bankman-Fried is not the only crypto industry actor lobbying on Capitol Hill, and the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act was not the only bill lobbied by FTX. Cryptocurrency companies spent more than $15.2 million on federal lobbying during the first nine months of 2022.
Coinbase spent $2.8 million through the same period, more money than any other cryptocurrency company reported spending on federal lobbying so far in 2022. The Blockchain Association reported spending $1.4 million during the first nine months of 2022, and the Crypto Council for Innovation reported spending $160,000.
These groups reported lobbying on the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act and the Digital Commodity Exchange Act of 2022. In addition to giving regulatory oversight of digital commodity exchanges to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the latter bill establishes conditions for the sale of digital assets, registration of exchanges and other regulatory requirements.
The cryptocurrency agency Ripple Labs spent $810,000 on federal lobbying during the same period on these two bills plus the Securities Clarity Act, which excludes the investment contract asset from being considered a security. The Chamber of Digital Commerce, which spent $686,000 on federal lobbying through the same period, and the Blockchain Association celebrated the act’s introduction before the House Financial Services Committee.
Sherman called the crypto industry “a garden of snakes,” and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he was considering a resolution to change “cryptocurrency” to “creepy dough currency.” But Amanda Russo, director of communications for the Crypto Council for Innovation, told OpenSecrets in a written statement that Bankman-Fried “never claimed to speak on behalf of anyone either, to my knowledge.”
“Policymakers understand that this was a small set of individuals playing fast and loose,” Russo wrote. “Fraud is fraud regardless of what industry you are in. The charges unveiled today are criminal, not crypto-related.”
“No industry is immune to fraud. We will not allow one bad actor to define an entire ecosystem,” a spokesperson from the Chamber of Digital Commerce told OpenSecrets in a written statement. He argued, as some lawmakers did during the hearing, that “clear, certain and consistent legal and regulatory policies for the digital asset and blockchain industry” might have helped to prevent the mismanagement and malfeasance allegedly perpetrated by Bankman-Fried.
Russo added it’s a “very fluid time” for regulations and that she hopes the 118th Congress will provide more regulatory clarity for the industry. During the House Financial Services Committee hearing, some lawmakers argued digital assets were here to stay and should be regulated as such.
Rep. French Hill (R–Ark.) pointed to other examples of historical fraudulent actors and urged his colleagues not to shy away from investing in the industry. While comparing the implosion of FTX to the downfall of American fraudster Bernie Madoff, Hill urged his colleagues to “not confuse the malfeasance and disgusting activity of FTX with the fact that we need a proper, thoughtful regulatory oversight of digital assets.”
As investigations continue into malfeasance, conspiracy and fraud, the new FTX CEO said he was focused on one thing: “Follow the money.”