S.B.F.’s Unsolved Dark-Money Mysteries

Since last November, any exposure to Sam or his money has been like a scarlet letter, forcing nearly all of his political aides to lawyer up and play defense against federal investigations—and FTX itself.
Since last November, any exposure to Sam or his money has been like a scarlet letter, forcing nearly all of his political aides to lawyer up and play defense against federal investigations—and FTX itself. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
February 14, 2023

There used to be a joke I’d hear around Washington, that everyone in town with an ounce of ambition was, in some way or another, on the payroll of Sam Bankman-Fried. And if you hadn’t figured out how to get on the gravy train, well, that was on you. Like all good jokes, there was more than a kernel of truth to all of it: I’ve covered the S.B.F. political machine as closely as anyone over the last few years, and I still encounter new names of lobbyists who were secretly on Sam’s retainer, of data savants who found a way into D.C.’s greatest donor-fueled growth industry, and amazingly, nonprofits that were moving millions of FTX-connected dollars without a scintilla of public knowledge.

Since last November, of course, any exposure to Sam or his money has been more like a scarlet letter, forcing nearly all of his political aides to lawyer up and play defense against federal investigations and by FTX itself. Which is why I was particularly interested when it emerged that FTX—or rather the carcass of FTX, now led by former Enron bankruptcy executive John Ray III—had expressed its intention in a legal filing to subpoena Gabe Bankman-Fried, Sam’s well-connected and once sneakily powerful younger brother. Gabe, as I reported earlier this month, is under pressure by FTX and its attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell to comply with document requests and fork over any information pertaining to his work as a political operative and aide for his brother.

Complaints from FTX debtors should be a comparatively minor worry for Gabe, who is also being scrutinized by federal prosecutors for campaign-finance violations and has to triage. But something in FTX’s filing caught my attention. Buried on the 100th page of the filing was a single paragraph that enumerated all of the corporate and nonprofit entities that FTX believes Gabe could speak to, ones that Sam or Gabe “founded, directed, advised or were otherwise involved with.” Nine entities were listed: Some were well-known, like Gabe’s lobbying group, Guarding Against Pandemics. Others weren’t exactly prominent, but have previously appeared in my coverage, such as Planning for Tomorrow, a civic fellowship program for effective altruists supported by GAP. (FTX also missed some organizations I’ve reported on, such as The Center for The Future.) But there were three groups that, I’ll admit, I had never heard of in my years covering the Bankman-Frieds. Those bread crumbs, left by Sullivan & Cromwell, have led me to some new revelations about the FTX dark-money machine.

Inside the Dark Money

The first group that caught my eye is Prosperity Through Enterprise, which has zero public profile, save for its founding by an agent-registration company in Delaware last July. But according to its articles of incorporation filing in the state, which I obtained this week, P.T.E. is a New Hampshire-based 501(c)4 created by Keenan Lantz, a top Gabe Bankman-Fried aide who served as the chief of staff for GAP and succeeded Gabe as the organization’s leader after Gabe stepped down. Lantz, a graduate of alternative academic monasteries like Deep Springs College and Shimer College, appears to have been trusted by Ryan Salame, the suave, loafered, linen-wearing FTX executive who served as the company’s most high-profile Republican. Salame, I’m told, worked closely with a G.O.P. donor consultant to guide him on his giving, named Tyler Deaton, along with the head of his super PAC, New Hampshire Republican activist Brinck Slattery. (Neither Slattery nor Deaton returned requests for comment.)

Over the course of the midterms, Salame put $25 million of his own money into that super PAC, American Dream Federal Action, which supported Republican candidates in primaries (the group also had a 501(c)4). But two days after Election Day—and just as FTX was imploding, on November 10— the super PAC moved all of its remaining money, about $1.2 million, into Prosperity Through Enterprise. According to the FTX legal filing, investigators appear to believe that Lantz’s 501(c)4 was very much a part of the Salame and FTX political operation. Given his managerial skills and his role as chief of staff, I’m told Lantz often had his name attached to a good number of entities that were broadly part of GAP’s work. And P.T.E was not so much a Lantz-specific pet project but a part of that galaxy of lobbying groups that GAP was building, a source told me.

A second fresh clue emerged from a group named People for Progressive Governance, which is mentioned in the document request to Gabe and similarly had zero public profile before it was flagged by FTX. The only thing I could learn about the group was that it had made a $20,000 donation to a ballot initiative in Vermont last cycle that codified the right to abortion in the state. But I have since learned, from a separate Delaware filing I obtained, that it was incorporated by none other than Michael Sadowsky, one of S.B.F.’s top political aides. 

Sadowsky, an effective altruist with a long history of waging his own personal E.A. ballot initiatives across the country, is a whip-smart, earnest, low-profile figure, but he has played an important part in the S.B.F. political story. Sadowsky, after all, was the head of one of Sam’s super PACs, Protect Our Future, the group that spent upwards of $40 million on congressional races across the country, including the disastrous campaign for Carrick Flynn in Oregon. Alongside Gabe, Sadowsky was broadly seen as one of the two heads of Sam’s political operations. 

People for Progressive Governance, incorporated in mid-2021, could be more of a Sadowsky project than a Sam project. (Sadowsky didn’t return a request for comment.) But Sam has long supported many of Sadowsky’s personal expeditions—I wrote the other month about a ballot initiative back in 2020 run by Sadowsky and funded by Sam, back when he was hardly a somebody. And clearly, FTX suspects that group may have been part of the broader S.B.F. political empire, fairly or not.

But the group that most captured my interest, among the dozen listed by FTX debtors, is an organization called Defending America Together. (I know, I know—all these political groups sound the same.) This dark-money group caught my eye because it had already attracted attention for being a mysterious funding source in various Republican primaries, spending a combined $5 million to back G.O.P. Senate candidates Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania and Michael Durant in Alabama. 

Now, there are no public links I can find between Sam Bankman-Fried’s inner circle and this group, which was founded by a Puerto Rico resident named Erick Todd (he didn’t return a request for comment). But FTX seems to think there are indeed connections between the two. I was reminded of the now-infamous claim made by S.B.F., in an unintentionally public interview, that he was one of the biggest dark-money conservative donors of the 2022 election. Based on my reporting, I’ve always been skeptical that Sam donated as much to Republican causes as he’s boasted, in an apparent attempt to diffuse the partisan heat. 

Was Defending America Together the G.O.P. dark-money entity that Sam has been talking about, heretofore undisclosed? An S.B.F. spokesperson declined to comment. If it was essentially an S.B.F. entity, that could have made him one of the biggest pro-McCormick donors during the Senate primary, for instance.

An argument I frequently hear from S.B.F. allies and political aides is that none of this is terribly unusual: Every special interest, be it Big Pharma or ethanol or pandemic-prevention, involves a labyrinth of dark-money groups, super PACs, think tanks and corporations that make political donations, curry favor, punish enemies and exploit every inch of the nonprofit tax code in order to twist arms in Washington. And many lobbyists get paid big salaries with the expectation that they use some of that salary to cut checks and build relationships with legislators—so why are people carping on S.B.F.’s aides for doing the same? 

What differentiated S.B.F.’s influence shop from other lobbying networks is the speed of his ascent. The pace at which FTX world extended its tendrils into Washington sometimes led to real sloppiness, as many in S.B.F.’s orbit have privately admitted. But, thanks to S.B.F.’s implosion, it’s also inadvertently provided an unusual look behind the curtain at how these D.C. money games really work.