Former FTX crypto executive pleads guilty to making millions in illegal campaign contributions

NEW YORK (AP) — A former top executive at the failed FTX cryptocurrency exchange pleaded guilty Thursday to making tens of millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to U.S. politicians and engaging in a criminal conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transfer business.

Ryan Salame, the former co-chief executive of FTX Digital Markets, is the fourth high-ranking official at the company or its affiliates to plead guilty to criminal charges.

Under a deal with prosecutors, he agreed to forfeit up to $1.55 billion in assets. He could also be called as a witness to testify at the trial of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who was arrested last year in the Bahamas and extradited to the U.S. to face charges that he committed a host of crimes while running the popular digital currency trading platform.

Salame, 30, entered his plea before a judge in Manhattan, admitting to the court that he illegally used millions of dollars from a hedge fund controlled by Bankman-Fried to make political contributions in 2020 and 2021 to both Democrats and Republicans.

The purpose of those donations, he said, was to fund political initiatives supported by Bankman-Fried. In a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday, prosecutors said they had obtained private messages in which Salame wrote that Bankman-Fried wanted to support politicians in both parties who were “pro crypto,” while working to get “anti crypto” lawmakers out of office.

In an emailed statement, a lawyer for Salame, Jason Linder, said his client "looks forward to putting this chapter behind him and moving forward with his life.”

Salame's sentencing was tentatively scheduled for March. He was ordered released from federal custody until then and left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.

Bankman-Fried is awaiting trial on charges that he defrauded customers by diverting their money to cover his expenses, make illegal campaign contributions and make trades at a separate crypto hedge fund he founded, Alameda Research.

Three other executives close to Bankman-Fried have already pleaded guilty: Caroline Ellison, Nishad Singh and Gary Wang.

Bankman-Fried’s trial is scheduled for October.

Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty. He was free on bail while awaiting trial, but he was recently jailed after a judge ruled that he had tried to influence potential witnesses in the case, including by giving Ellison's private writings to news organizations.

Before FTX collapsed and declared bankruptcy in November, Bankman-Fried had been one of the best-known U.S. crypto entrepreneurs. His company hired celebrities, including “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Larry David, to appear in TV ads.

Bankman-Fried and people associated with his companies, including Salame, were also heavy givers to political campaigns.

Salame was one of the top donors to conservatives during the last election cycle, contributing more than $20 million to Republican candidates and causes, according to federal election records. In a private message sent to a confidant, Salam said the donations routed through him were intended to “weed out” the cryptocurrency opponents on the Republican side, prosecutors said in a court filing.

After the criminal charges against Bankman-Fried became public, many lawmakers rushed to return donations. Prosecutors haven't accused recipients of the donations of any wrongdoing.