During the Sam Bankman-Fried trial on Wednesday, former Alameda Research CEO Caroline Ellison testified that the crypto trading firm paid Chinese officials to get their Alameda trading accounts on OKX and Huobi in China unlocked.
Judge Lewis Kaplan noted that the defendant is not charged in this case with bribery of Chinese officials, and the evidence was being offered for “limited purposes to display trust and confidence” as well as “motive” between Bankman-Fried and Ellison.
Bankman-Fried was CEO in 2020 when the accounts, valued around $1 billion, were frozen, Ellison testified. But in November 2021, Bankman-Fried said a colleague, David Ma, who was “Chinese and had connections,” found a way to get the accounts unfrozen, Ellison testified. (By the time the freeze was resolved, Ellison was co-CEO of Alameda, alongside Sam Trabucco.)
Bankman-Fried seemed slightly distracted, looking toward jurors rather than at the monitor, where a transcription of the testimony was being displayed in real time. His Poland Spring water bottle was half full and slightly crunched in from him gripping it and placing it down. Bankman-Fried’s parents sat nearby writing notes feverishly.
The accounts were reopened to Alameda after Ellison made about $100 million to $150 million in payments of “crypto transfers” to accounts, even though she “didn’t know for certain who it was,” she said. It was later revealed that the accounts were to Chinese officials. Ellison said that Bankman-Fried and Trabucco told her via a Signal chat to make the payments.
Prior to the accounts reopening, Ellison said employees tried to come up with a number of “strategies” to open the accounts, like getting their lawyers to contact the exchanges and government officials. They even considered getting Thai prostitutes to open accounts on the exchanges, in hopes that they could transfer funds to them, she testified, though these efforts didn’t work.
An Alameda trader who was called “Handi” quit in early January 2022 because she disagreed with the decision to pay bribes to Chinese officials, as her father was one himself. Prior to her transfer being complete, she argued with Bankman-Fried about it; during that argument, he allegedly told her to “shut the fuck up,” Ellison testified.
On Feb. 2, 2022, about a month after Handi quit, Trabucco wrote in a Signal chat, “Did Handi’s father immediately turn us in or something?” Bankman-Fried replied, “lol.”
Ellison shared a list with prosecutors, in which she wrote things to consider, including one note that said “150m from the thing?” referring to the money transferred to regain the accounts.
When asked in examination why she didn’t put in writing that the $150 million was a payment to China, Ellison said she “didn’t want to put in writing we paid to get the accounts unlocked,” because she “thought [it] might leak and be used against [Alameda] in a court case.”
Mark Cohen, Bankman-Fried’s main lawyer, tried to strike Ellison’s statement about not wanting the payments in writing, but it was overruled. Cohen tried again and Kaplan replied curtly: “Well counsel, when I overrule, that’s the end of discussion.”