Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
Elizabeth Holmes’ defense continues its strategy of deflection, diffusion of blame, and now psychological abuse. Ms. Holmes and her defense hit its stride today with Holmes recounting, in this lurid Mercury News headline, “Theranos president Balwani forced sex on Holmes, she testifies” (PDF attached if paywalled). This is far more interesting and clickbaitable than, say, her fan dance around regretting tacking on Pfizer and Schering-Plough logos on falsified reports, or denying that she ever said to investors, repeatedly, that the Theranos labs were being used by the US military in medevacs and in the field. The jury, ground down to numbness by the prosecution’s mile-high-pile of false documents and claims, surely woke up with Holmes’ upset and tears on the stand.
It started with her meeting Sunny Balwani on a trip to China when she was 18 (and he was 38), entering and then departing Stanford because she had been raped, compensating by dedicating herself to developing her high school idea on blood testing, and moving in with him. There was more than a bit of Svengali dynamic here, with her quoting Balwani’s rough talk of transforming her into ‘the new Elizabeth’ who’d be savvy about business and successful, versus “I didn’t know what I was doing in business, that my convictions were wrong, that he was astonished at my mediocrity and that if I followed my instincts I was going to fail, and I needed to kill the person who I was in order to be what he called the new Elizabeth”. She needed to work seven days a week, eat prescribed crunchy vegetables and grains (reading like a trendy SF restaurant menu), and see her family less. He would guide her and tell her what to do.
Holmes looked up to Balwani as a successful entrepreneur; he had joined a reverse auction startup called CommerceBid, eventually becoming president, and cashed out with $40 million as part of its $200 million sale to Commerce One in 2002. Between that and Theranos a few years later, however, Balwani left nary a shadow on Silicon Valley. At Theranos, Holmes became the public founder/face and Balwani the behind-the-scenes business planner–plus a bare knucks ‘enforcer’ on the daily life of the company, according to John Carreyrou. Business Insider
The rest of the story is about Balwani’s getting rough with her when she ‘displeased’ him, rough enough to be hurt, swollen, and not able to get up, in her account from a 2015 incident. She moved out the following year and he left the company in May 2016. Not all Pygmalion stories end well and all too often, they end like this.
Yet the prosecution has provided another pile–of texts between Holmes and Balwani which, in between the mundane, are effusive in pronouncements of eternal love and support. These continued after his departure. Business Insider and full texts here
The defense has its own pile of deflection going, with the aim of creating doubt that Holmes was really at the center of the fraud, and more of a pawn, in Holmes’ own words:
- Balwani was in charge of the financial projections and operations. Holmes testified that Balwani’s financial modeling produced discrepancies in revenue projections in 2014 and 2015. The Walgreens relationship also cratered at that time. This reinforces the defense opening back in September that relying on Balwani as president was one of her mistakes.
- Validation? Adam Rosendorff, a former lab director, was less than competent [TTA 6 Oct]
- Not disclosing about using third-party devices? A ‘trade secret’ recommended by legal counsel.
- And the marketing/PR claim about Theranos using only ‘a single drop of blood’? (And all that ‘passionate intensity’ Holmes exhibited at investor conferences and interviews?) Blame TBWA/Chiat/Day, the ad agency! And Patrick O’Neill, who went from executive creative director there to creative director of Theranos and prepped her for the press including her 2014 TED speech. (Take a trip back and watch a few Theranos spots, courtesy of Refinery29. High on image, low on reality.)
Diffusion of responsibility is common in fraud cases. Wired quoted David Alan Sklansky, a professor of criminal law at Stanford. “It’s probably the most common kind of defense mounted in cases involving allegations of large-scale financial fraud,” he says. “Whether it works depends on how credible it seems to the jury.”
The hazard is that it makes Holmes appear incompetent, but incompetence beats 11 counts and 20 years in Club Fed.
What is the jury to believe about her competence? From the Mercury News again: “Asked by Downey whether Balwani ever forced her to make statements to investors or journalists that the prosecution has focused on, or whether he controlled her interactions with board members or executives from companies Theranos sought to work with, she said no. Asked what impact her relationship with Balwani had on her work, she responded, “I don’t know. He impacted everything about who I was, and I don’t fully understand that.” Holmes made statements on her own, frequently and over many years. She stated she wasn’t controlled by Balwani when it came to the board or business partnerships–and continued running the company after his departure and attempting to fix a myriad of problems. But what will the jury take away from this day? This, or Sunny getting blue on her?
To be continued…