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FTX's former top lawyer aided US authorities in Bankman-Fried case

FTX's former top lawyer aided US authorities in Bankman-Fried case

An FTX logo is seen through broken glass in this illustration taken on Dec 13, 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

FTX's former top lawyer Daniel Friedberg has cooperated with US prosecutors as they investigate the crypto firm's collapse, a source familiar with the matter said, adding pressure on founder Sam Bankman-Fried who was arrested on criminal fraud charges last month.

Several other former FTX executives have also engaged counsel to discuss their cooperation with prosecutors, two separate sources said.

Friedberg gave details about FTX in a Nov 22 meeting with two dozen investigators, the person said. The meeting, held at the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York's office included officials from the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the source said. Emails between attendees scheduling the meeting with those agencies were seen by Reuters.

At the meeting, he told prosecutors what he knew of Bankman-Fried's use of customer funds to finance his business empire, the source said. Friedberg recounted conversations he had with other top executives on the subject and provided details of how Bankman-Fried's hedge fund Alameda Research functioned, the source said.

Friedberg's cooperation has not been previously reported. He has not been charged and has not been told he is under criminal investigation, the source said. Instead, he expects to be called as a government witness in Bankman-Fried's October trial, the person said.

Friedberg's lawyer, Telemachus Kasulis, and FTX did not respond to requests for comment on his cooperation. The SEC, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Bankman-Fried's spokesman declined to comment.

Bankman-Fried is accused of diverting billions of dollars in FTX client funds to Alameda to bankroll venture investments, luxury real estate purchases, and political donations. On Tuesday (Jan 3), he pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court.

Manhattan US Attorney Damian Williams, who is leading the criminal case against now bankrupt FTX, said last month: "If you participated in misconduct at FTX or Alameda, now is the time to get ahead of it."

Two of Bankman-Fried's closest associates, Caroline Ellison, Alameda's former chief executive, and Gary Wang, FTX's former chief technology officer, have already pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to cooperate. A lawyer for Ellison didn't respond to a request for comment. Wang's lawyer declined to comment.

Other former FTX executives are being represented by two lawyers at US firm Steptoe & Johnson, Michelle Levin and Jason Weinstein, who are engaged in discussions with the US Attorney's Office about their potential cooperation, according to two people familiar with the talks, which have not been previously reported.

A Steptoe spokesperson did not respond to a request to comment.

MEETING WITH PROSECUTORS

FTX filed for bankruptcy protection on Nov 11.

A few days later, on Nov 14, Friedberg received a call from two FBI agents based in New York. He told them he was willing to share information but needed to ask FTX to waive his attorney-client privilege, according to a person familiar with the matter and emails viewed by Reuters.

Friedberg wrote to FTX the next day asking the company to waive his privilege so he could cooperate with prosecutors, according to the email seen by Reuters. FTX did not do so, but agreed with Friedberg on the points he could disclose to investigators, the person said.

Friedberg then wrote back to the two FBI agents, telling them in an email reviewed by Reuters: "I want to cooperate in all respects."

The US Attorney's Office set up a meeting where Friedberg signed so-called proffer letters prepared for him by the SEC and other agencies, according to the source and an email exchanged by participants. Proffer letters typically describe a potential agreement between authorities and individuals who are witnesses or subjects of an investigation.

"THROUGH THICK AND THIN"

Prior to his work advising FTX, Friedberg advised a mix of banking, fintech, and online gaming companies.

One of his previous employers, a Canadian online gaming firm named Excapsa Software, where he was general counsel, also drew controversy due to a cheating scandal involving a poker site it operated called Ultimate Bet. A Canadian gaming commission in 2008 fined Ultimate Bet US$1.5 million for failing to enforce measures to prevent fraudulent activities. Excapsa has since dissolved.

According to an audio recording available on the website PokerNews, Friedberg and some other Ultimate Bet associates privately discussed that year how to handle the scandal and minimise the amount of refunds owed to players. Friedberg previously told NBC News that the audio was illegally recorded but NBC's article did not say that Friedberg challenged its authenticity.

Friedberg first represented Bankman-Fried in 2017 as outside counsel while at US law firm Fenwick & West, where he chaired its payment systems group, the source familiar with the matter said. At the time, the source said Friedberg advised Bankman-Fried on running Alameda, which he founded that year.

In 2020, when Bankman-Fried launched a separate exchange for US customers called FTX.US, Friedberg moved in-house as FTX's chief regulatory officer.

In a now-deleted blog post published that year on FTX's website, Bankman-Fried wrote that Friedberg was FTX's legal advisor "from the very beginning," noting he had been "with us through thick and thin".

Friedberg resigned from his position on Nov 8, a day after Bankman-Fried disclosed to top executives that FTX was almost out of money, according to the source and three other people briefed on the talks, along with text messages his legal team exchanged at the time.

Source: Reuters/lk

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