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Bankman-Fried made Agriculture panel members focus of campaign support

Lawmakers returning donations since FTX executive’s arrest

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested in the Bahamas Monday. He and others at FTX spent or donated more than $70 million in the 2022 campaign cycle.
FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested in the Bahamas Monday. He and others at FTX spent or donated more than $70 million in the 2022 campaign cycle. (Mario Duncanson / AFP via Getty Images)

Sam Bankman-Fried, the former CEO of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, faces one count of conspiracy to violate campaign finance law from the indictment this week that said he exceeded limits on donations and disguised the source of some of the spending.

The indictment unveiled in the Southern District of New York didn’t provide further details, but Bankman-Fried and other employees of FTX, FTX US and Alameda Research, an affiliated hedge fund, contributed $71.5 million to campaigns in the 2022 cycle, the vast majority of it from three executives, according to Federal Election Commission filings. 

Individuals associated with the companies spent in support of or donated at least $44.2 million to Democratic candidates and affiliated PACs and at least $23.7 million to Republican candidates and committees in the most recent cycle. The donations supported at least 54 Democrats and at least 109 Republicans, including 14 senators who were not on the ballot this year.

“These contributions were disguised to look like they were coming from wealthy co-conspirators when in fact the contributions were funded by Alameda Research with stolen customer money in service of Bankman-Fried’s desire to buy bipartisan influence and impact the direction of public policy in Washington,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a press conference Tuesday. 

Lawmakers are now distancing themselves from Bankman-Fried, and many have said they plan to donate the campaign contributions they received from the former CEO. But most of the millions in political spending linked to FTX came in the form of independent expenditures from super PACs funded by the company executives, which campaigns can neither accept nor reject under campaign finance laws.

In all, individuals associated with FTX are identified as donors of at least $21.3 million spent in support of 128 winning candidates last cycle, many of whom could be involved in cryptocurrency legislation considered in the next Congress. FTX executives donated to more than 100 incumbent lawmakers of both parties, including dozens serving on committees with jurisdiction over the cryptocurrency sector. 

Members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees in particular benefited from campaign spending by the company’s leaders and staff. Those panels have oversight over the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the agency Bankman-Fried pushed to secure as the primary regulator of his industry instead of the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee and leading co-sponsor of a bill backed by Bankman-Fried, was among the top beneficiaries of that spending. Boozman had faced two Republican challengers in the May primary, but won renomination easily before taking 65 percent of the vote in November.

FTX executives and staff donated at least $1.2 million to support his campaign, mostly through independent super PACs and some direct donations to Boozman’s campaign and leadership PAC. 

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who introduced the bill with Boozman, received $17,000 in direct campaign donations from FTX executives and staff. Stabenow wasn’t on the ballot this year. 

Bankman-Fried, who was arrested Monday by Bahamian authorities at the request of the U.S., was charged with eight counts of conspiracy and fraud. The Bahamas is holding him under its extradition law. 

“Bankman-Fried violated federal campaign finance laws by causing tens of millions of dollars in illegal contributions to be made to candidates and committees associated with both Democrats and Republicans,” Williams said.

Influential incumbents

Nearly all of the donations affiliated with FTX or Alameda Research came from just three donors, according to FEC disclosures. Bankman-Fried was identified as contributing at least $39.8 million, followed by Ryan Salame, with at least $23.5 million; and Nishad Singh, with at least $8 million. Salame was co-CEO of FTX Digital Markets, the Bahamian subsidiary of FTX, and Singh was FTX’s director of engineering. 

At least $10 million spent last cycle by Bankman-Fried and other individuals associated with FTX supported incumbent candidates. About 41 percent went toward supporting newcomers, and the remainder went to party organizations and PACs that make it difficult to ascertain which individual candidates ultimately benefited. 

Party super PACs also get donations from nonprofit affiliates that do not disclose their donors, and there is no way to tell if additional funds traveled that route.

In choosing incumbents to back, Bankman-Fried, Salame and others focused on lawmakers on committees with oversight of parts of the cryptocurrency sector. 

Members of the House and Senate Agriculture panels were the biggest beneficiaries. Collectively, FTX executives and staff spent at least $6.2 million in support of Democrats and Republicans on the two panels, through direct donations to campaigns and leadership PACs and through independent expenditures from super PACs funded primarily by Bankman-Fried and Salame.

The two congressional committees would be key in advancing legislation that would give jurisdiction over the sector to the CFTC, and would have an oversight role if the agency became the primary regulator of cryptocurrency markets and trading platforms, a top policy priority of both Bankman-Fried and the sector at large. Many committee members who received donations or other financial support from FTX leadership and employees sponsored bills that would hand over substantial oversight of the sector to the CFTC.  

FTX executives spent $2.4 million in support of Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.; $1.2 million in support of Rep. Brad Finstad, R-Minn.; $1 million in support of Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio; and $150,000 in support of Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., all members of the House Agriculture Committee. 

Most of the spending to help committee members came in the form of independent expenditures by super PACs primarily funded by Bankman-Fried, Singh and Salame. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts but cannot coordinate their spending with candidates or campaigns. 

Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., who is expected to chair the House Agriculture Committee in the next Congress, captured the most direct donations to panel members from FTX executives. Thompson introduced a bipartisan bill this year that would give the CFTC jurisdiction over cryptocurrency spot markets and trading venues. 

Bankman-Fried donated $50,000 to a joint fundraising committee serving Thompson’s campaign, leadership PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Both he and Salame also donated $5,800 to Thompson’s campaign. 

FTX executives and staff gave the maximum donations allowed or nearly the maximum to several Senate Agriculture members’ campaigns, including to four of the five other co-sponsors of the Stabenow-Boozman bill. Bankman-Fried donated $10,800 to the campaigns and leadership PACs of Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; $5,800 to Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; and $5,700 to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. 

FTX executives also donated to lawmakers on other committees that could assert jurisdiction over the cryptocurrency sector, including the panels overseeing banking and financial markets, energy, tax and government spending policies. 

Salame in particular spread donations across influential committees. He donated $2,900 each to the 21 Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who ran for reelection. He also donated to 23 of the 26 Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

In all, individuals affiliated with FTX and their super PACs spent $794,000 to support House Appropriations members, $525,000 to support House Ways and Means members and $295,000 to House Financial Services members. 

‘Above the law’

Not all of Bankman-Fried’s and his associates’ political bets paid off. In some cases, Bankman-Fried and others spent big in support of candidates who lost. 

Protect Our Future, a super PAC funded by Bankman-Fried and Singh, spent $10.5 million in support of Carrick Flynn, a Democrat who lost the primary for Oregon’s 6th District. Salame’s American Dream Federal Action PAC spent $2.4 million on Davis, only for him to lose the Republican primary to fellow Rep. Mary Miller of Illinois.

Lawmakers who benefited from FTX largesse are now distancing themselves from the collapsed company and its disgraced former CEO. Some say they will return or donate the money they received from Bankman-Fried. Others have used committee hearings examining the company’s collapse to criticize Bankman-Fried, the company and the industry as a whole.

At a House Financial Services hearing Tuesday, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., denounced the entire cryptocurrency sector. The super PAC funded by Bankman-Fried and Singh spent $200,000 in support of García last cycle.

“FTX isn’t an anomaly. Its collapse isn’t just a case of one corrupt guy stealing money, it’s about an entire industry that refuses to comply with existing regulation that thinks it’s above the law,” García said.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., at a Senate Banking hearing Wednesday, called for increased oversight of the cryptocurrency sector. Menendez didn’t receive any donations from FTX affiliates, but the Bankman-Fried-funded PAC spent $250,000 in support of his son Robert Menendez’s successful House race.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., whose campaign and leadership PAC received $7,900 from Bankman-Fried, said at a Senate Agriculture hearing in November that spending by the cryptocurrency industry would make it harder for Congress to consistently fund responsible regulation of the sector, especially if oversight fell to the CFTC. 

“Mr. Bankman-Fried, my contributor, and people just like him are going to be spending a lot of money to make sure there’s as little regulation as possible,” Durbin said to CFTC Chairman Rostin Behnam. “And unfortunately, you are a captive of a process that is driven by politicians like myself.”