HomeWorld NewsHow Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and others fell for £21bn fraudster
How Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and others fell for £21bn fraudster
How Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, pop stars and supermodels all fell for the £21bn Bitcoin fraudster now facing 110 years in jail
The 31-year-old is facing up to 110 years behind bars for seven counts of fraud
Business empire went from £21 billion to virtually nothing in a matter of days
Met with A-listers such as L eonardo Di Caprio to discuss cryptocurrencies
A top firm of Silicon Valley investors once boldly predicted that Sam Bankman-Fried could become the world’s ‘first trillionaire’.
And yet the young business guru apparently disdained wealth. Pledging to give his money away, he famously only ever wore baggy shorts and old T-shirts, even when sharing a debating stage with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
But now, the heady talk of trillions and saving the planet has imploded in one of the biggest financial frauds on record. And the sloppily dressed cryptocurrency entrepreneur has a new uniform — a prison-issue one.
In an extraordinary fall from grace for a tech-world golden boy whose business empire went from £21 billion to virtually nothing in a matter of days, 31-year-old ‘SBF’, as he’s known, is facing up to 110 years behind bars.
After a month-long trial, a jury in Manhattan took just over four hours to find him guilty on all seven counts of stealing from customers of his now- bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange, FTX.
Sam Bankman-Fried is facing up to 110 years behind bars, having one held a business empire of £21 billion
Bankman-Fried may well be followed to prison by three of his colleagues — including his on-off girlfriend Caroline Ellison (pictured above)
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair fawned over SBF and happily loaned their star power to his fraudulent enterprise
there were also the celebrities — from Clinton and Blair to pop star Katy Perry (pictured) and supermodel Gisele Bundchen —who fawned over SBF and happily loaned their star power to his fraudulent enterprise, though there is no evidence they were aware it was acting criminally
Prosecutors demolished his claims that he was just a clueless ‘altruist’ who naively over-trusted his colleagues — he was disorganised, incompetent and even irresponsible, he’d insisted, but not a swindler.
‘The crypto industry might be new, the players like Sam Bankman-Fried may be new, but this kind of fraud is as old as time and we have no patience for it,’ senior prosecutor Damian Williams intoned outside court after the verdict came down on Thursday evening.
The court heard that SBF stole as much as $10 billion (£8.2 billion) from users of FTX, an online exchange where customers banked cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, and spent it on lavish properties, political donations, risky investments and paying himself huge sums of money.
Asked what he knew about cryptocurrencies, the one-time darling of the financial technology world replied: ‘Basically nothing.’ He said he knew they existed but ‘had absolutely no idea how they worked’.
Bankman-Fried may well be followed to prison by three of his colleagues — including his on-off girlfriend, Caroline Ellison — who have pleaded guilty and are yet to be sentenced.
But there are others who many believe also have a case to answer over the scandal, though not a criminal one. The judge let FTX’s investors off the hook, saying they weren’t relevant to the charges against SBF.
However, there were also the celebrities — from Clinton and Blair to pop star Katy Perry and supermodel Gisele Bundchen —who fawned over SBF and happily loaned their star power to his fraudulent enterprise, though there is no evidence they were aware it was acting criminally.
The glitter of stardom was a crucial ingredient of the operation. For all his professed cluelessness, SBF understood the power of celebrity endorsement. He needed stars on board to drum up excitement about cryptocurrencies — an industry based on secrecy that was struggling to break free from its association with drug-traffickers and money launderers.
Bankman-Fried is pictured standing as the verdict is read out
FTX had agreed a deal to pay the superstar singer Taylor Swift between £20 million and £25 million a year just to plug the company
He lavished eye-watering sums on stars — paying American football icon Tom Brady £45 million and his then-wife, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, another £16 million for just 20 hours of their time making adverts for FTX.
He also splashed out £8 million on actor Larry David, star of the comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, to appear in a 60-second commercial that was shown on U.S. TV during the Super Bowl.
According to SBF biographer Michael Lewis, FTX had agreed a deal to pay the superstar singer Taylor Swift between £20 million and £25 million a year just to plug the company, but Bankman-Fried eventually backed out of it.
The A-listers who attended the FTX dinner party
Leonardo Di Caprio
Four members of the Kardashian family
Lewis detailed how SBF first met many of his future A-list pals at a dinner party in February 2022, held at the Beverly Hills mansion of Hollywood agent turned investor Michael Kives.
The guest list — Hillary Clinton, Leonardo Di Caprio, Katy Perry, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, actors Orlando Bloom and Kate Hudson and at least four members of the Kardashian family — was so impressive (and unlikely) that SBF’s staff thought it might be a ruse.
Many of the celebrities would have already heard that the wild-haired Silicon Valley whizz-kid, a childhood maths genius, was being hailed as the future of finance, a man who could bring respectability to the shady world of cryptocurrencies — and make them even richer.
But his colleagues instead convinced themselves the dinner could be a kidnap attempt by criminals who knew SBF was a billionaire with no bodyguards.
After flying out with him from the Bahamas, where SBF lived in a £25 million apartment, a senior FTX executive, accompanied by a small ‘rescue team’, duly waited outside the party in a car ready to ‘storm’ the house and extract him if necessary.
In the event, he was led out to the back lawn, dressed, of course, in his customary cargo shorts and T-shirt, and found that the 50-strong guest list was just as billed. ‘I think it’s real,’ he texted his team outside.
The socially awkward SBF emerged from his shell sufficiently to chat with Clinton and Perry who — during a karaoke session that evening — sang a song whose lyrics had been changed to mention FTX. The next day Perry jokily gushed on Instagram she was leaving music to become an FTX intern.
The charm offensive appeared to pay off. Two months later, when FTX held a four-day conference in April at a luxury resort in the Bahamas, some of those he’d met at the party — or other celebrities associated with them — flocked to attend the $3,000-a-ticket event.
Attendees of Crypto Bahamas, held at the luxury Grand Hyatt Baha Mar hotel, could enjoy anything from ‘sunrise’ beachside yoga sessions and late-night partying to high-minded seminars on the future of crypto, world affairs and philanthropy.
Everyone seemed to want to pose for a selfie with SBF, who took part in many of the debates.
Those who agreed to sit down and solemnly chat with the conman must cringe with embarrassment now.
Blair and Clinton, former world leaders who have both made fortunes since leaving office, joined him on the FTX stage for a discussion that was entitled The World Today.
The talk was technically ‘off-the-record’, but a few details emerged: SBF joked that he felt ‘a little over-dressed’ while Clinton, rather presciently, warned of the ‘temptation to abuse’ emerging technologies such as cryptocurrencies.
Gisele Bundchen, who had been signed on rather preposterously as FTX’s head of ‘environmental and social initiatives’, sat down with Bankman-Fried for a talk entitled ‘Effective Altruism: Education, Empowerment and Environment’.
(SBF claimed to be a disciple of a ‘effective altruism’, a philanthrophic movement that came out of Oxford University and which encourages people to make as much money as possible so that they can then donate it to good causes.)
Bundchen’s then-husband, sports star Tom Brady, who like her had signed a ‘long-term’ partnership with FTX and was one of its ‘ambassadors’, gave a talk with SBF on ‘Winning’.
Predictably, those involved in the event had little to say when, just a few months later, FTX collapsed and SBF was arrested. Although they clearly had no idea about the fraud, no one came out of the incident looking good.
A spokesman for the former prime minister simply said: ‘Tony Blair did an event for FTX organised through his speakers’ organisation and that is all.’
Others were even less forthcoming than that, while some cannot comment, even if they wanted to, because they are already embroiled in legal action. Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen and Larry David are among those being sued for promoting FTX.
The FTX exchange was based out of the Bahamas penthouse, which went up for sale in November 2022 after the company filed for bankruptcy
The view from the FTX Bahamas penthouse
The property is decorated with venetian plaster walls with matching italian marble accents, on top of an LED lighting system and a private garage
Also embarrassed by their links with SBF are the U.S. Democratic Party, who took millions of dollars of his money and later allowed him to help steer legislation on cryptocurrencies.
The great and the good were often anxious to court SBF — and ignore the experts who have long warned that the cryptocurrency industry is a warren of knaves and chancers — either for his money or simply to just look like they were ahead of the curve. And they didn’t come much more eager than Vogue queen Anna Wintour who, author Michael Lewis revealed, had a humiliating encounter with SBF during a Zoom video chat.
The pair had been put in touch with each other by Gisele Bundchen. If the notoriously haughty magazine editor knew that SBF was actually playing a video game while pretending to listen to her wittering on about her annual, celebrity-packed Met Gala charity ball in New York — which she wanted him not only to attend but to finance — it appears that she didn’t let on.
SBF had flown by private jet from the Bahamas to Los Angeles in February 2022, taking with him just his laptop and a change of underwear, for a string of business meetings and parties.
One morning, while he was staying in LA’s Beverly Hilton hotel, British-born Wintour popped up on his screen.
‘Sam didn’t really know who Anna Wintour was,’ writes Lewis. ‘Natalie [his assistant] and others had briefed him, but he hadn’t paid attention.’
‘He knew that Anna Wintour edited a magazine. He may or may not have been dimly aware that Meryl Streep had played her in The Devil Wears Prada, and that she’d ruled the treacherous world of women’s fashion since . . . before Sam was born.’
SBF was, however, contemptuous of the fashion world. As Wintour began to speak, ‘he clicked a button and she vanished from his screen’. Instead, he started playing his favourite video game, Storybook Brawl, in which fantasy creatures battle for supremacy.
Still able to hear her on his headphones, he would answer ‘Yup’ to everything she said. ‘Unless she watched his eyes, she had no reason to think that he wasn’t paying attention,’ Lewis said.
SBF ended the call leaving Wintour under the distinct impression he would not only be her special guest on the red carpet but ‘might even pay for the entire thing’.
Over the ensuing weeks, his staff asked Louis Vuitton to come up with a high-fashion version of his ubiquitous T-shirt and cargo shorts and also paid Tom Ford to design a ‘more conventional outfit, complete with £53,000 cufflinks’.
When, at the last minute, SBF’s assistant told the notoriously formidable Wintour’s office he wasn’t going, they were reportedly furious, shouting that ‘Sam will never set foot in fashion again’.
That surely didn’t bother SBF at the time, but as he heads to prison and a new circle of acquaintances, the dethroned ‘King of Crypto’ may well yearn for the time when the world’s glamorous elite clamoured for both his approval and his cash.