The Theranos Story, ch. 50: DOJ indicts Holmes, Balwani for fraud (updated)

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/jacobs-well-texas-woe1.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The other shoe drops into this bottomless well. If Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani thought that the March SEC action [TTA 15 Mar] would be it, they were misinformed. Today, the Department of Justice, US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, charged them with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud. According to CNBC, they were arraigned in US District Court in San Jose Friday morning. Both were released on $500,000 bond each and ordered to surrender their passports. Holmes’ parents appeared with her in court.

If found guilty, both Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani face up to 20 years in prison, plus $250,000 in fines and clawing back of investor funds. 

“Wire fraud” in US law is fraud that is enabled and takes place over phone lines or involves electronic communications. By appearing online, making phone calls, emailing materials such as marketing materials, statements to the media, financial statements, models, and other information, Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani defrauded potential investors. Patients and doctors were defrauded by ads and other types of solicitations to use Theranos’ blood testing services at Walgreens, despite the fact that they knew the test results were unreliable.

Both Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani will have plenty of time to explain their sincere belief that their test devices and methods would be validated with time…but they had to, in Silicon Valley parlance, fake it till they made it. Indictments of this type take about two years to conclude, especially if they are big (as a formerly $9 bn valued company is) and tangled. Ms. Holmes will undoubtedly release statements on how she is being martyred like Saint Joan, how this doesn’t happen to men in Silicon Valley, and that they are allowed to fail but she can’t. Perhaps she was under the spell of the 19 years-her-senior Svengali Balwani. (Minus the Jobsian black turtlenecks, one anticipates her next choice of wardrobe. Sackcloth tied with a rope? Chain mail?)

Expect the doors to shut soon. Fortress Investment Group, which loaned Theranos $65 million (of a reported $100 million) in December 2017, was reportedly coming for the assets (as they are wont to do) by the end of July, according to the Wall Street Journal and other sources. 

Ms. Holmes is–finally–removed as CEO. Theranos announced that David Taylor, the company’s general counsel, has been appointed CEO as well as general counsel, while Ms. Holmes will remain as founder and board chair. None of this is reflected on their website. In fact, Mr. Taylor is nowhere to be found on the website’s leadership page. 

The estimable John Carreyrou, who broke the story in the WSJ and is the author of Bad Blood [TTA 13 June], on The Street’s Technically Speaking podcast at 06:00 shared this insight on how Theranos got away with bad tests. While both FDA and CMS highly regulate lab testing and the machines that perform them, neither actively police “lab-developed tests, which refer to tests fashioned with their own methods and devices” for blood testing. Basically, according to Mr. Carreyrou, Holmes and Balwani, our Bonnie and Clyde, “drove a truck right thru that loophole and took advantage of it.” Far beyond B&C, $1 bn of investors’ money is the Federal Reserve of banks.

On the indictment: WSJ, CNBC. The Northern District release on the indictment is here. Another essay by Mr. Carreyrou published 18 May is available to those who can get past the paywall. Hat tip to Bill Oravecz of WTO Consultants.

Updated: For additional coverage of what’s next in the legal vein for Holmes and Balwani, see the NY Times on potential defense strategies for the duo, including that they truly believed what they were saying to investors was true and they were bamboozled like everyone else, ‘materiality’–that investors didn’t use the statements as a basis for investing, and ‘prove it’. Will they take a plea deal? Stay tuned. 

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