Against all odds, this Gawker blog, and sane legal advice, Sam Bankman-Fried showed face at the New York Times DealBook conference on Wednesday. Over the course of an hour-long conversation with finance pundit Aaron Ross Sorkin, he apologized. He denied the polycule allegations. He claimed his penthouse-sharing squad of crypto gamblers never partied, except to “play boardgames” and drink “three-quarters of a beer.” As for stimulant use, he said: “I've been prescribed various things at various times to help with focus and concentration.”
Usually, DealBook works like a mini-media Davos; attendees pay $2,499 to watch CEOs sit down with Sorkin to knock out softball questions, and a few fast ones, with business casual cordiality. But the Bankman-Fried interview was, to belabor the metaphor, a different ballgame. It was cordoned off on the packed agenda, in a section titled only “The Interview.” It was the talk guests awaited with keen interest, some more literal than others; BlackRock CEO Larry Fink told the crowd that his firm had lost some $24 million from FTX. It was also, notably, meaner. As Sorkin put it in his opener:
I think at this point, there are two ways to view what has happened at FTX. The generous view is that you are a young man who made a series of terrible, terrible, very, very bad decisions. The less generous view is that you have committed a massive fraud — that this is a Ponzi scheme.
Bankman-Fried Zoomed in from the Bahamas, where he has lived for a year and likely can’t leave without risking arrest. He sipped nervously from a LaCroix and tried to take the blame. “At the end of the day, I was CEO of FTX,” he answered. “And that means whatever happened, I had a duty to all of our stakeholders — to our customers, our funders, to our employees, to our investors, and to the regulators of the world — to do right by them, to make sure that the right things happened at the company. And clearly I did not do a good job of that.”
The next hour felt like something between a police interrogation and a furious parent grilling their son on sneaking out. “When you read the stories” about FTX, Sorkin fumed at one point, “it sounds like a bunch of kids who were on Adderall having a sleepover party.” The obvious question, and one most have been asking since SBF first started talking, is: Why would he sign up for this? Why would he disregard legal protocol and repeatedly opt into incriminating himself in public, not least in a live interview broadcast to millions by the paper of record? His lawyers clearly do not approve; several have already quit. When Sorkin asked if his new ones thought the appearance was a good idea, Bankman-Fried responded: “Very much not.”
The lawyers are almost certainly correct, as far as SBF’s chances at beating any future charges. But one possible explanation for Bankman-Fried’s persistence may lie in how he has gone about explaining himself. In most of his interviews, and DealBook most of all, Bankman-Fried has expressed convincing regret and total contrition; “Look,” he said in one much-cited sound byte, “I screwed up.”
And yet at convenient moments in the conversation, he tacitly placed blame elsewhere — specifically on his alleged ex-girlfriend, Alameda CEO Caroline Ellison, though he never mentioned her by name. In one especially revealing moment, Bankman-Fried claimed near-total ignorance of Alameda’s operations. Sorkin brought up how, earlier this year, Bankman-Fried had claimed that the nexuses between the once-linked companies had largely fallen off. “And yet it seems,” Sorkin said, “like Alameda people were living in the same penthouse where you may well be right now.” Here’s what Sam said:
Most of Alameda was not there [in the penthouse]. I don't live there now. I am not there now. I have not lived there for months. I did live with one or two members of Alameda for a little while….[But] I wasn't running Alameda. I didn't know exactly what was going on. I didn't know the size of their position. A lot of these are things I've learned over the last month. I learned as I was sort of frantically digging into this on November 6, November 7, November 8.
Perhaps that’s true. Ellison did admit to employees that she had known about the borrowed customer funds. And some insiders told New York magazine that she was more than just an Alameda spokesperson. “It’s not like she was the conservative risk manager,” one source said. “It was my sense that it was the Caroline show.” But she has also taken the opposite tack — granting no interviews and refusing to comment for any article. Her side of the story is largely blank. One result of Bankman-Fried’s apology tour is that he’s filling it in.