In May, the founder of a Chicago nonprofit that works with recently incarcerated people got an email from the father of Sam Bankman-Fried, offering to make a donation on behalf of his son’s cryptocurrency exchange.
Soon after FTX pledged to give the nonprofit $600,000, a consulting firm hired by the exchange blasted the news to members of prominent think tanks, urging them to praise the program publicly on Twitter. At least two email recipients did so.
The money never made its way to the nonprofit, called Equity and Transformation. But the pledge — and its attendant publicity — provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the sprawling influence campaign that Mr. Bankman-Fried shaped before it all came to a halt this month when his company was forced to file for bankruptcy, prompting a criminal investigation.
In the three years since Mr. Bankman-Fried launched FTX, the company, its executives and its philanthropic arm spent or pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in political and charitable contributions, consulting fees, investments in media outlets and even real estate.
A network of political action committees, nonprofits and consulting firms funded by FTX or its executives worked to court politicians, regulators and others in the policy orbit, with the goal of making Mr. Bankman-Fried the authoritative voice of crypto, while also shaping regulation for the industry and other causes, according to interviews, email exchanges and an encrypted group chat viewed by The New York Times.
Politicians, advocacy groups and fund-raisers are now distancing themselves. Some lawmakers are offloading campaign contributions from Mr. Bankman-Fried and his allies by making donations to charity in the same amounts they received. Lawmakers are calling for hearings.
In some ways, FTX followed the playbook of larger and more established corporations that spend years carefully spreading money through the political system to cultivate relationships and build clout. But FTX’s influence operation launched faster and was more frenzied.
It blurred the lines between corporate affairs and political activity, and prompted concerns among some involved about whether the money was being spent effectively and in compliance with strict campaign finance laws, while leaving some potential beneficiaries feeling like there was a quid pro quo.
“It was relentless and all-encompassing,” said Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, a nonprofit that fights for more regulation of financial firms.
When FTX was seeking regulatory approval for some of its activities from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a company official asked around about whether a donation would help secure the support of Better Markets, according to Mr. Kelleher and a second person with knowledge of the inquiry who did not want to be identified. FTX did not donate to Mr. Kelleher’s group.
In an interview on Sunday night, Mr. Bankman-Fried said he strongly believed in the charitable causes he funded. But he acknowledged that some of his political work around the world was a public-relations exercise.
“All people running especially regulated businesses had to spend time thinking of what ribbons we had to place around the business to cloak it in a sense of we-wish-they-could do-gooderism,” Mr. Bankman-Fried said. “We all end up playing that same game.”
Mr. Bankman-Fried and Ryan Salame, another FTX executive, burst onto the big-money political scene during the 2022 election campaign. As their net worths soared, they established themselves and FTX as influential cross-partisan givers.
The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections
To determine where to spend their money, representatives for a newly formed super PAC operation that received money from FTX executives sent questionnaires to dozens of candidates to assess their stances on cryptocurrency.
In early March, representatives for one super PAC, Web3 Forward, were pleased when the campaign of John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Senate candidate, returned a completed questionnaire expressing support for the cryptocurrency industry, according to people familiar with the situation.
“Need nothing further from Team Fetterman. Thrilled he is pro crypto,” a consultant for Web3 Forward emailed an ally of Mr. Fetterman.
About two months after the email, Web3 Forward began airing an ad casting Mr. Fetterman as a working class champion who was not “gonna get schmoozed by lobbyists.” The super PAC spent nearly $4.7 million boosting Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, mostly in their primary campaigns, including more than $212,000 supporting Mr. Fetterman, who won his race and is set to begin his term Jan. 3.
Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Mr. Fetterman, sought to distance the newly elected senator from the disgraced crypto entrepreneur. “Sam Bankman-Fried must be held fully accountable,” Mr. Calvello wrote in an email.
In a statement, Adam Goldberg, a spokesman for Web3 Forward, said that neither Mr. Bankman-Fried, Mr. Salame “nor anyone else at FTX or representing its interests had any role in deciding the candidates we supported.”
But campaign filings show that Web3 Forward received almost all of the roughly $5.9 million it raised in 2021 from GMI PAC, a super PAC for which Mr. Salame was a founding board member. GMI, in turn, received about 32 percent of its nearly $11.6 million from Mr. Salame, Mr. Bankman-Fried and an FTX affiliate.
Mr. Goldberg said that although Mr. Salame was involved in GMI, not everyone who donated to the super PAC or sat on its board supported FTX’s specific agenda, and in fact some opposed elements of it. Mr. Salame resigned from the board of GMI PAC on the day this month that FTX filed for bankruptcy, according to a person familiar with the super PAC.
Mr. Salame did not respond to requests for comment.
In the months leading up to the 2022 elections, Mr. Bankman-Fried donated about $40 million to federal campaigns and committees that primarily supported Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission records — including $27 million to a super PAC called Protect Our Future that said it focused on helping candidates who support pandemic preparedness.
That made him the party’s second biggest single donor behind George Soros, the billionaire financier who has been among the leading funders on the left for decades. Mr. Soros is 92, and some Democratic fund-raisers had high hopes that Mr. Bankman-Fried, 30, could play a similar role financing the left well into the future.
In a podcast interview earlier this year, Mr. Bankman-Fried said he expected to spend “north of $100 million” in the 2024 presidential election.
Republicans also had high hopes for Mr. Salame, who donated nearly $24 million in the 2022 campaign, mostly to Republicans and groups that support them, including $15 million to a super PAC he launched called American Dream Federal Action. It spent nearly $517,000 supporting the successful Senate campaign of Representative Ted Budd of North Carolina.
Mr. Budd was also the beneficiary of more than $400,000 in spending by a super PAC called Crypto Innovation devoted to helping Republican congressional candidates. Crypto Innovation in turn received $2.8 million from GMI, the PAC connected to Mr. Salame.
Mr. Budd did not respond to a request for comment.
A week before Election Day, a group funded by Mr. Bankman-Fried and formerly run by his brother, Gabe Bankman-Fried, Guarding Against Pandemics, hosted separate cocktail receptions for Democrats and Republicans at a townhouse near the Capitol. The group, which focused on pandemic preparedness, paid nearly $3.3 million in April for the house, where it hosted events. An invitation to the Republican reception hailed Mr. Salame as a “budding Republican megadonor.”
Some people in Mr. Bankman-Fried’s orbit were worried that FTX and its executives were being sloppy in their political spending, diminishing its effectiveness and potentially courting violations. Those concerns are reflected in messages to an encrypted group chat called “Political FTX comms alignment,” which also reveals a blurry line between FTX and some of the political and advocacy efforts funded by its executives.
An official at Guarding Against Pandemics texted the chat in late October, concerned that a $500,000 donation to a Democratic Party PAC in Oregon from Nishad Singh, an FTX executive, had been misattributed to a cryptocurrency payment processing firm.
“I don’t want FTX to get less than fully value from the contribution,” the official wrote, asking company executives to confirm “1) whether this is an FTX advocacy contribution, and 2) if so, who it is supposed to be from.”
The official appeared to reference a similar occurrence earlier in the year, when a $14 million contribution had been listed on F.E.C. filings as having come from the same payment processing firm. It was subsequently re-attributed mostly to Mr. Bankman-Fried and partly to Mr. Singh. The donation to the Oregon PAC was also reclassified to reflect that it was from Mr. Singh, according to state campaign finance records.
Mr. Singh did not respond to requests for comment.
The shifting filings underscored concerns about crypto money financing political donations, which are tightly regulated by laws that carry stiff penalties for masking the source of funds.
The Oregon Elections Division is investigating the donation as a possible campaign finance violation at the request of Shemia Fagan, Oregon’s secretary of state, according to Ben Morris, a spokesman. He said that if the agency found sufficient evidence of a criminal violation, it would refer the matter to law enforcement.
To burnish his intellectual profile in public, Mr. Bankman-Fried often participated in events to demystify the cryptocurrency industry. On Oct. 12, he sat down for a “fireside chat” with Jason Grumet, the president of the think tank the Bipartisan Policy Center — at Mr. Grumet’s invitation — to discuss “recent movements in the crypto market, the role of regulation, and the long-term future of the industry.”
Mr. Bankman-Fried could be charming in private meetings, disarming his audience with his directness and excitement about crypto, said one person who…