Inside S.B.F.’s “Woke Shit” Influence Scheme

aHigh-ranking FTX executives Ryan Salame and Nishad Singh appear central to an alleged straw-donor scheme quarterbacked by S.B.F.
High-ranking FTX executives Ryan Salame and Nishad Singh appear central to an alleged straw-donor scheme quarterbacked by S.B.F. Photo: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
February 28, 2023

In the weeks before Vermont’s primary election last August, operatives working for the Democratic congressional candidate Molly Gray began to grow concerned about seven figures worth of political spending mysteriously accumulating behind her rival, Becca Balint. A super PAC that appeared to have no money had suddenly injected more than $1 million—a massive sum in the tiny Vermont media market—to ensure that Gray, the state’s lieutenant governor, didn’t make it to Congress.

Unbeknownst to Gray’s team, they were fighting against Sam Bankman-Fried and one of his top deputies, Nishad Singh, whose political aides had hatched a then-creative, now-legally-explosive plan to defeat her. S.B.F.’s team had initially been excited about Gray’s commitment to pandemic preparedness, the core mission of Guarding Against Pandemics, a dark money group run by Sam’s brother, Gabe. But Gabe & Co. soured on Gray after what they felt was a muffed Zoom call in January with the once-favored candidate, who bristled at the notion that the group had a super PAC that might spend in the race. They next interviewed Balint, who struck the GAP folks as technocratic and impressive, and who, unlike Gray, was willing to explicitly endorse GAP’s policy platform on her campaign website. GAP, under the direction of the Bankman-Fried brain trust, decided to endorse Balint, and to spend big.

After what S.B.F. aides admit was a debacle in Oregon with Carrick Flynn, the brothers also wanted to massage the optics for an ultra-progressive Vermont electorate that would likely recoil at any outside spending, especially after Gray asked Balint in a debate to publicly swear off any super PAC support. So they came up with a plan within their Signal groups and conference calls to shop for an unrelated super PAC, eventually picking a seemingly unassailable outside group through which to funnel their money: a pro-gay rights entity called LGBTQ Victory Fund. 

The decision to disguise the pandemic money inside a more progressive-friendly vehicle was no accident. In fact, Gray’s team believes that operatives working for S.B.F. even fielded a poll in the lead-up to their independent expenditure to assess which of several hypothetical super PACs, from the Equality PAC to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, would cause the least backlash from Vermonters, according to screenshots I’ve seen. Knowing the quants at GAP, that would be totally plausible. (GAP declined to comment.) They eventually landed on the LGBTQ Victory Fund, figuring that if Gray attacked the group for backing Balint, then Balint supporters could easily portray them as homophobic or anti-gay. That is, predictably, exactly what happened: Gray attacked the outside spending; supporters of Balint, an openly lesbian candidate, cried foul; and Balint handily won the race.

It was also no accident, I’m told, to time the donation so the identity of the donor would not be revealed until after Election Day. Nor was it an accident, as we now know, that the donation came from Singh as opposed to Sam himself. Singh, the 27-year-old FTX co-founder who pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges including securities fraud, money laundering, and campaign finance violations, was essentially selected to be the face of the “woke shit” political donations at FTX, according to the recent superseding indictment of S.B.F. (He was also likely one of the sources behind the new charges levied against S.B.F., as part of his plea deal with the government.) That 39-page document, which I reported on last week, describes how Singh was allegedly reimbursed for the LGBTQ Victory Fund donation by S.B.F. himself as part of a straw-donor scheme, while a second unnamed co-conspirator—Ryan Salame, another high-ranking FTX executive—was allegedly tapped to serve as the conservative face of S.B.F.’s influence operation. S.B.F. was no political chump—he understood the value of having Robins to his Batman, to execute political plays that only they could while keeping his own nose clean.

The fact that S.B.F. and his deputies were extensively coordinating their political expenditures was not unknown to people in his orbit, as I have reported over the last several months. Nor was the fact that many of their donations were advised or overseen by Sam’s brother, Gabe. None of that is illegal, of course—in fact, it’s how much of Washington fundraising works. But the allegation of an illegal reimbursement scheme between S.B.F. and his two co-executives, allegedly paid via FTX’s investment arm, Alameda Research, using customer deposits, has changed the game entirely. It also raises questions about other shoes that could still drop against GAP and others. Given the Justice Department’s interest in all of this, I’ve talked to more sources to uncover how exactly the whole Singh-and-Salame operation worked.

How Salame Got Made

On the surface, Salame shared very little with S.B.F. and his world view. Salame dressed, er, normally, and always struck people as far more interested in his burgeoning restaurant empire in the Berkshires than he did in politics. “I really like being involved as the second or third person instead of being the front face,” he said when asked by the Berkshire Eagle if he would ever run for office. Salame was arguably not even in Sam’s innermost circle, joining Alameda a few years later than its other executives, in 2019. Trained as an accountant, he has served as a bit of a utility player in S.B.F.’s crew, bouncing around from job to job at Alameda and FTX.

His political journey began in late 2021 when he decided to co-lead the creation of a crypto-lobbying super PAC, called GMI PAC, that would funnel a few crypto leaders’ money toward industry priorities. But by early the following year, Salame broadened his remit and began engaging in a more diverse slate of political projects. In March, as the Republican primaries heated up, he and a New Hampshire Republican activist named Brinck Slattery decided to start a super PAC called American Dream Federal Action and an affiliated nonprofit, focused on pandemic prevention and a battery of center-right priorities, with a board of some top G.O.P. consultants. 

Over the next three months, Salame would back A.D.F.A. with $15 million, making the group one of the single biggest kingmakers in 15 different Republican primaries. In June, his girlfriend, the crypto lobbyist Michelle Bond, announced her own run for Congress, in Long Island, and Salame threw himself into the campaign, frequently traveling with Bond across the district that summer. Several existing super PACs that Salame donated to ended up supporting her run, and Salame single-handedly funded a super PAC that was created to back her bid, Stand for New York, with about $1 million. Bond lost, despite receiving the endorsement of Trump Jr.—there is a photo of the crypto couple with “our friends” Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle at a fundraising dinner—but Salame’s connections and stature within G.O.P. circles continued to rise. 

That spring, Salame began looking to establish himself as a veritable power player in D.C., and within a few months he hired a donor-advisor named Tyler Deaton to consult on his political giving, I’m told. Deaton, based in Georgia, has a history of working with center-right politicians and donors, especially those who are supportive of gay marriage, like Paul Singer. He was without a doubt well-connected, and several people described him as a “straight-shooter.” 

Deaton also sometimes represented himself, as donor sherpas are prone to do, as something of a do-it-all fixer. One source who interacted with him was rubbed the wrong way when he boasted that he was a McConnell guy who knew that world extraordinarily well, or as a dark-money guy who knew how to make political money disappear. Who really knows, but Deaton and Salame were undeniably joined at the hip beginning that summer, with the former introducing Salame to senior Republican elected officials and their super PACs, sources tell me. Sources say he struck them as very protective of Salame, his big-fish client. He made himself the gatekeeper between Guarding Against Pandemics, the Bankman-Fried operation, and Salame himself, who was fine maintaining his ties with Sam’s political orbit but clearly had ambitions of his own. 

Over the fall, Salame and Deaton would take steps to become bigger players in G.O.P. establishment fundraising: Salame donated $700,000 to a group blessed by Kevin McCarthy to take out Madison Cawthorn in his G.O.P. primary; $2 million to McCarthy’s own super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund; $2.5 million to McConnell’s super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund; and $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association. Deaton was delivering on the promise of influence, and earning his keep. 

Should Deaton, as Salame’s proxy, have suspected that some of the money Salame donated may have been illegally loaned to him from S.B.F., via Alameda, as prosecutors allege? If he didn’t, it certainly raises questions about the level of candor in the broker-client relationship. (Deaton didn’t return requests for comment, and Salame hasn’t been charged with anything.) At the same time, there was no reason for the Republican committees that were taking Salame’s money to believe that there was anything unusual about the source of his money—or to suspect that he wasn’t a billionaire. Salame flaunted his wealth ostentatiously, with his love of linen shirts and loafers, private planes and mansions. “There was no cause for me to even pause,” one recipient told me. The name on the checks said Ryan Salame, and they came from Ryan Salame, or so recipients believed. Did he actually care about politics? Well, he cared about it enough. But he definitely cared about the game, and he was having fun.

“Nishad Didn’t Fit In”

Compared to Salame, Singh struck people as both more earnest and more ideological—someone who genuinely cared about ideas like effective altruism, and issues like climate change. He was also strong-willed: Despite having asthma, Singh decided to become an ultra-marathon runner in high school, at one point setting the world record for the fastest 100-mile run by a sixteen-year-old (23 hours, 33 minutes and 57 seconds). His mom had previously done it, and he wanted to follow in her footsteps. “Initially when you’re running, you might be thinking about your pace, or how long you have to go, how much time that will take. All this mind chatter,” he told one interviewer a decade ago, alongside his parents. “And at some point, it just stops.”

His best friend at the time was Sam’s brother Gabe, and after Berkeley he followed the Bankman-Frieds to Alameda and then to FTX, where he built a reputation as the softie of the inner circle. One FTX employee described him as having “a hippie kind of warmth,” an outgoing brainiac who gave “big hugs.” “People’s heads were spinning when the implication came up that he had deeper, sketchier ties to the whole scandal,” the employee told me. “He was seen as the most honest, the most decent, the most lovable.” 

Singh and Sam, despite their mind-meld over writing code, were pretty different people. “Nishad didn’t fit in with the archetype of the hyper-nerd from M.I.T. He was almost more of a tech bro in that sort of way,” the employee said. But Singh, like Sam, was a true believer in effective altruism, and he relied on Sam’s braintrust to guide his own political donations. Gabe played a role in steering Singh’s early donations as early as 2018, I’m told, and by the time 2022 rolled around, other S.B.F. aides like Elizabeth Edwards-Appell and Michael Sadowsky were helping move his money. (Some people would refer to the collective of Gabe, Elizabeth and Michael as “GEM.”) 

Singh’s political war chest, which was apparently drawn directly from FTX and Alameda, was also deeply intermingled with the Bankman-Fried brothers’ organization. I’m told that Guarding Against Pandemics staff effectively spoke for Singh’s money in conversations with fundraisers, and that he would sometimes make donations in connection with GAP events in turn—regardless whether he actually attended. Singh also had a close relationship with Mind the Gap, the donor-advisory firm founded by Sam’s mother, Barbara. One recipient of a Singh gift told me that they received the donation from him after first cultivating a relationship with Mind the Gap.

The revised indictment against S.B.F. alleges that, around this time, Singh became the face of FTX’s “transactional woke shit” donations, such as the $2.5 million that he gave to an arm of EMILY’s List, or the $4 million he donated to a ballot initiative to protect abortion access in the state of Michigan. There were also plenty of less “woke shit” gifts, including to more generic effective-altruist targets such as the super PAC Future Forward or to Mind the Gap itself, or the money he gave to the New York Democratic Party that prosecutors allege was reattributed from Sam to Singh at the very last minute.

But it was the Vermont check that was the most politically controversial donation by Singh, who even himself was allegedly uncomfortable with the check. Ever since Gray lost, her allies have been apoplectic, arguing that they were hoodwinked by a political operation that schemed and plotted their way into buying a congressional seat in their small state. It was only over the last week, though, that they’ve arrived at a darker conclusion: That the buying wasn’t even done by the donor who claimed to be doing the buying.

On Tuesday morning, Singh walked into a federal courthouse in New York and admitted to everything that the Southern District had alleged—including that his donations were reimbursed by Alameda Research, and that the money was effectively laundered through his own name. Singh said that he supported the type of candidates he backed in general, but did not select the specific recipients. Singh’s plea, of course, will significantly strengthen the campaign-finance charge against S.B.F himself, and perhaps against Gabe Bankman-Fried as well, who I’m told by sources remains in the crosshairs for prosecutors, possibly as a way to pressure Sam on the other dozen or so charges he is facing, including securities fraud and wire fraud against FTX customers and lenders. “I’m unbelievably sorry for my role in all of this and the harm that it has caused,” Singh said on Tuesday. His lawyers said in a statement that he would do everything he could to make things right—by cooperating against Sam.