Inside Sam Bankman-Fried’s Bahamas Penthouse, Before It All Came Crashing Down

OPED-BANKMANFRIED-STYLE-COMMENTARY-TB - Credit: Erika P. Rodriguez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
OPED-BANKMANFRIED-STYLE-COMMENTARY-TB - Credit: Erika P. Rodriguez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

The inside of the $40 million Bahamas penthouse where Sam Bankman-Fried lived was like a cross between a luxury dorm room and a jury-rigged trading floor. The curved marble living room was rimmed with computer desks, each supporting various configurations of conjoined monitors. Kitschy beach-themed decor lined the built-in display shelves. In the center of the room, a lumpy black beanbag lay tucked beneath a baby grand piano; it was tough to say whether the beanbag or the piano seemed more out of place.

The penthouse’s wrap-around terrace overlooked the marina of Albany Bahamas, a private luxury condominium complex partially owned by Tiger Woods and Justin Timberlake. The complex also served as the living quarters for employees of FTX and Alameda Research, the now-bankrupt $32 billion crypto exchange and hedge fund Bankman-Fried founded. Last December, Bahamian authorities plucked Bankman-Fried from his penthouse at the behest of the United States government. He was thrown into a Bahamas prison and then swiftly extradited to the United States. He pleaded not guilty, and his criminal trial is scheduled to begin next week in New York’s Southern District courthouse.

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In the months since FTX’s collapse, prosecutors have alleged Bankman-Fried stole billions of dollars from FTX’s customers and “used that money for his personal benefit.” John J. Ray III, the new FTX CEO tasked with recovering funds for creditors, called Bankman-Fried’s scheme “old-fashioned embezzlement” in testimony to Congress. FTX lawyers described the company as Bankman-Fried’s “personal fiefdom.” The alleged misappropriation of billions of dollars appeared to bankroll Bankman-Fried’s lavish lifestyle. The bankruptcy estate now plans to auction off a real-estate portfolio worth hundreds of millions to pay back victims.

When I visited Bankman-Fried in the Bahamas just two months before it all came crashing down, Albany Bahamas was a playground for the uber-rich: Well-heeled residents drove around in electric golf carts, shuttling themselves from the white-sand beaches to the fine-dining restaurants. Stadium lamps illuminated several padel courts, a sport that resembles a hybrid of squash and pickleball. A manicured lawn with a replica of Wall Street’s Charging Bull sculpture marked the complex’s financial center, which housed private banking outposts of RBC and Citi. Secretly, the complex also served as the scene of a crypto king’s alleged white-collar crimes.

IT WAS SEPTEMBER 2022, and I was a journalist for the cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk, reporting on an industry that was either the future of finance or worthless pixel art and Ponzi schemes. Several crypto shadow banks had collapsed that summer, halting withdrawals of around $10 billion of customer assets, so I was leaning more toward “Ponzi schemes.” Bankman-Fried took the opportunity to swoop in and save some of the companies, dangling bailout packages in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Media outlets dubbed him the “next Warren Buffet,” a “lender of last resort,” and the industry’s savior “white knight.” I was simply miffed that Bankman-Fried seemed to be talking to every reporter on the planet but me. Just a few months earlier, I had failed to snag an interview with him at FTX’s Crypto Bahamas conference — the four-day extravaganza where Bankman-Fried was too busy rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton, Michael Lewis, and Tom Brady. So I decided to fly down to the Bahamas again to build some rapport with the most media-friendly executive in crypto.

My trip took me into the Albany complex, FTX’s offices, and even the $40 million penthouse Bankman-Fried shared with his nine housemates. What I saw was a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what life was really like in FTX’s Bahamas.

An animated billboard flashed overhead when I arrived at the Bahamas’ Nassau Lynden Pindling International Airport: “Download the FTX App,” it said. “Start trading crypto and NFTs.” The ad was a not-so-subtle greeting card to the throngs of flip-flop-clad vacation-goers, seemingly unaware that a $32 billion crypto exchange that could not fully operate legally in the United States had planted itself in the Bahamas virtually overnight like a pop-up digital casino. It was a reminder that I had landed on Bankman-Fried’s home turf.

A glossy gray minivan picked me up from the airport, one of several shuttles in a fleet known as the “FTXpress.” My private driver, a 20s-looking, cheery Bahamian native wearing an FTX T-shirt, enthusiastically relayed how he’d been “scalp trading” $CEL tokens, the cryptocurrency of the bankrupt crypto lending company Celsius. Then he attempted to solicit some trading tips, asking me, “Which coins should I buy?” I mumbled some conservative advice about index funds and not putting more money into crypto than one could afford to lose.

Two days later, Bankman-Fried and I had lunch at Nexus Club at Vesper, a moody restaurant in Albany where an avocado toast runs $22. It was late morning, and the restaurant was almost deserted. Bankman-Fried showed up about 30 minutes late wearing a worn, blue FTX T-shirt with a football print, looking like he’d just rolled out of his beanbag bed. We talked for nearly two hours and exchanged cellphone numbers on Signal. This was the second time I’d ever dined with a billionaire and the first time I picked up the tab.

A sign from the luxury community, Albany, where former FTX owner Sam Bankman-Fried lived, in Nassau, Bahamas December 15, 2022. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona - RC2E6Y9ON3JJ
A sign from the luxury community, Albany, where former FTX owner Sam Bankman-Fried lived, in Nassau, Bahamas.

The rest of my time in Albany felt like an anthropological expedition. Bankman-Fried’s Bahamas lifestyle perplexingly shifted between that of a Forbes cover star and a broke college student. For one, he lived in a $40 million penthouse with nine other FTX and Alameda employees, in an ornate building called Orchid. Yet his schlubby demeanor seemed so out of place in Albany it was almost comical.

Bankman-Fried’s lifestyle was luxurious, but it didn’t fit the image of the Lamborghini-driving exchange founder put forth by the crypto nouveau riche. (Bankman-Fried drove a modest Toyota Corolla.) The penthouse apartment was the nicest home I’d ever stepped in. It had gleaming marble floors and a hot tub on its balcony, but the bookshelf in the hallway looked like it could have come from Ikea. Bankman-Fried and his nine roommates could’ve had a private chef — and they did, a corporate chef catered meals to the office — but their home freezer was stuffed with Trader Joe’s $2.99 microwavable vegetable biryani, flown in from Miami. A recent bachelor party lacked the usual promiscuities, instead serving up Rock Band and bughouse, a four-person variant of chess. It was a luxurious life, but a weird kind of luxury. (A spokesperson for Bankman-Fried declined to comment for this article.)

The FTX offices were in a sparse office park comprising approximately 30 small rectangular buildings called “huts.” Employees pinged a Telegram group to hail a company shuttle, which ran trips each day from the Albany complex to the office. The office park wasn’t just for FTX and Alameda; it also housed employees of projects FTX had invested in. I saw a 14-year-old developer from India who was there coding a project for Solana, a blockchain Bankman-Fried heavily promoted. Many employees arrived in the office well past noon, including Gary Wang, a FTX co-founder, whose office hours sometimes ran from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Bankman-Fried was similarly unconventional, sometimes holding important meetings with other executives in the Bahamas in the wee hours of the morning.

Some employees complained about how boring and isolating the Bahamas could be. (Sam Bankman-Fried was a vocal proponent of working in the office.) There was no one to hang out with but other coworkers. To compensate, the company also purchased a slightly less palatial unit directly below the main penthouse, mostly used to house friends and visitors. There was also nobody to date but other coworkers. Bankman-Fried himself worked with people he had been romantically involved with. One was Caroline Ellison, one of his nine roommates. Ellison was also the CEO of Alameda Research, the hedge fund he claimed was separate from FTX. In several instances, people in long-distance relationships with FTX employees found jobs at FTX and relocated to the Bahamas. Eight of Bankman-Fried’s housemates, who all worked for FTX or Alameda, were paired off in relationships. (I saw no evidence of a “polycule,” a network of polyamorous relationships, which some media reports speculated had occurred at FTX.) In all, it was a company led by an executive who seemed to thrive off of blurred lines and the lack of boundaries: social, professional, and romantic.

Sam Bankman-Fried now sits in the Metropolitan Detention Center, having traded the trappings of his life in the Bahamas for a Brooklyn jail cell. He faces an initial set of seven charges: two for wire fraud, four for conspiracy to commit different flavors of fraud, and one for conspiracy to commit money laundering. In one count, prosecutors allege Bankman-Fried provided false and misleading information regarding Alameda’s financial condition to lenders. In another, he is accused of defrauding customers of FTX and using their deposits to pay off the debts and expenses of Alameda. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. If found guilty, he could face up to 115 years in prison.

My reporting highlighted some of the issues at FTX, most notably, a breaking story that exposed the sloppiness with which Bankman-Fried ran his companies. (It also revealed he had been in a romantic relationship with Ellison.) One day after the story was published, FTX declared bankruptcy. Three of the housemates Bankman-Fried lived with in his Bahamas penthouse have now pleaded guilty and will testify against him. Ellison and Wang are two star witnesses. Nishad Singh, FTX’s former director of engineering and another Bankman-Fried housemate, is another. Our final correspondence was late last November, when Bankman-Fried told me he would “possibly” be open to an interview for what would later be known as his apology tour.

The aftershocks of FTX’s collapse eventually reached my own doorstep. A crypto-lending business owned by CoinDesk’s parent company revealed it had $175 million stuck on the defunct exchange. The business filed for bankruptcy in January and is currently embroiled in disputes with creditors. Soon after, CoinDesk was put up for sale, where it’s currently nearing a deal with its prospective owners. Doing my job well had fueled the collapse of the entire crypto industry, and inadvertently, my own company. Call it hard-hitting journalism that hits back.

Yet the story goes on. In the next chapter, Bankman-Fried sits in a New York City courtroom facing 12 jurors, awaiting their verdict. I’ll be there, notebook in hand, waiting, too.

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