Sam Bankman-Fried Draws From Vast Vocabulary of Weasel Words During Cross-Examination

Former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried Appears In Court For Bail Hearing Ahead Of His October Trial - Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried Appears In Court For Bail Hearing Ahead Of His October Trial - Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Sam Bankman-Fried’s cross-examination Monday afternoon in his ongoing criminal fraud trial provided little satisfaction to those hoping for a mea culpa from the disgraced FTX founder. During an approximately four-hour cross-examination led by prosecutor Danielle Sassoon, Bankman-Fried appeared to suffer from memory loss, evaded questions, and gave downright unhelpful answers.

In one instance, Sassoon brought up a prior statement made by Bankman-Fried to a journalist suggesting that Alameda, his trading firm, did not have special privileges on his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX. A CNBC news article was pulled up from evidence, quoting Bankman-Fried misleadingly calling Alameda “a neutral piece of market infrastructure.” Sassoon asked, “Do you deny saying it?” Bankman-Fried responded, “I’m not saying I didn’t say that.” Spectators in the courtroom groaned.

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When confronted with a difficult question, Bankman-Fried would often rely on his vast vocabulary of weasel phrases. They included: “I don’t recall,” “I’m not entirely sure,” “that’s not how I thought of it,” “depends on the context,” “it’s possible,” “something to that effect,” “not to my memory,” “it could have been,” “I wouldn’t phrase it that way,” “to some extent,” “no, but I may have,” “I don’t know,” “that wasn’t how I understood it at the time,” “depends on how you define it,” or “that’s a hypothetical.” Several times, Judge Kaplan sternly reminded Bankman-Fried: “Answer the question you were asked.”

Bankman-Fried’s somber cross-examination is a distinct shift from his earlier direct testimony, where he seemed almost chipper. On Friday, Bankman-Fried eagerly answered softball questions lobbed by his defense attorney. He even cracked sly jokes, including when asked about his uniform of T-shirts and cargo shorts (“I found them comfortable”). Today, for the first time, Bankman-Fried looked anxious on the stand, rocking back and forth in his chair like a schoolboy getting a stern scolding from his teacher. His dodgy antics did not bode well. At times, Sassoon’s voice turned argumentative, ringing with a shrill impatience. (“That’s not my question, Mr. Bankman-Fried,” she said with exasperation.)

Defendants do not often testify in their own trials because getting on the stand would subject them to a brutal cross-examination. Sam Enzer, a partner at law firm Cahill and a former prosecutor, called Bankman-Fried’s decision to testify especially “foolish.” “By speaking to the press, he created a record of statements that the government had a year to put under a microscope,” Enzer tells Rolling Stone. “Now his statements will be used as a weapon against him as evidence that he was lying to conceal the fraud.” If convicted, Bankman-Fried could also receive a longer prison sentence if Judge Kaplan determines that he perjured himself in his testimony, Enzer says.

Last Thursday, Bankman-Fried took to the stand in a dry-run testimony without the presence of the jury. The goal was to let the judge decide whether or not to let the jury hear certain lines of questioning. Even then, Bankman-Fried’s verbal antics were clear. In the words of Judge Kaplan: “The witness has what I’ll simply call an interesting way of responding to questions.”

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