Ex-Theranos executive Sunny Balwani sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison

Term slightly longer than one given to Elizabeth Holmes for defrauding investors in now-defunct blood testing firm

Sunny Balwani, the former Theranos executive and ex-romantic partner of Elizabeth Holmes, has been sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison over his role in the now-defunct blood testing firm.

The sentence is slightly longer than that given to Holmes, who was his accomplice in one of Silicon Valley’s biggest scandals, just a few weeks ago.

Balwani, who spent six years as Theranos’s chief operating officer, was convicted in July on all 12 charges brought against him for defrauding Theranos investors and patients. His sentencing comes after co-conspirator Holmes received more than 11 years on 18 November on four charges of defrauding investors. She was acquitted on patient-related charges.

Balwani’s sentence was less than the 15 years sought by federal prosecutors, who depicted him as a ruthless, power-hungry figure. But it is substantially longer than the four to 10 months sought by his lawyers.

Throughout his 13-week trial, which began in March, Balwani’s lawyers painted the executive as a tireless worker who “put his money where his mouth is”, investing $15m of his own fortune into Theranos.

Prosecutors argued Balwani, who at one point oversaw the Theranos lab, steered the company along with Holmes. “I am responsible for everything at Theranos,” Balwani’s text messages shared in court said. “All have been my decisions too.”

Lawyers for Balwani had requested he receive only probation and no prison time, arguing that his personal investment losses in Theranos constituted sufficient punishment. They also argued he did not seek the “fame or media attention” that Holmes did as head of the company.

Prosecutors meanwhile urged a sentence of 15 years and $803m in restitution. They argued that through inaccurate blood tests at Theranos, Balwani had shown “conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury” toward patients and deserved a longer sentence than Holmes.

“Mr Balwani is not a victim. He is the perpetrator of the fraud,” prosecutor Jeffrey Schenk said in closing arguments for Balwani’s trial.

The sentencing of Balwani marks the latest milestone in the years-long saga of Theranos, which Holmes founded after dropping out of Stanford at 19 years old. Promising a revolutionary technology that could run hundreds of health tests on just a drop of blood, Theranos attracted big-name backers such as the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

After years of promoting the technology, Holmes and Balwani were warned that the blood tests were inaccurate, but they continued to raise money from investors, and deployed the technology in some Walgreens stores.

The US district judge Edward Davila said the financial statements drawn up by Balwani “weren’t just projections, they were lies” and “a true flight from honest business practices”.

Theranos was at one point valued at more than $9bn, but began to crumble after reporting in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 revealed shortcomings and inaccuracies in its core technology. Holmes and Balwani were charged with fraud after the company dissolved in 2018.

The outcomes of both trials have been seen as harbingers for a new era in Silicon Valley, in which companies can no longer ride unchecked hype and make false promises to secure funding.

The former federal prosecutor Amanda Kramer said the harsher sentence seemed appropriate, given that the jury in Balwani’s trial had convicted him on every count while jurors in Holmes’ separate case acquitted her on some charges and deadlocked on others.

“It’s not surprising that he got a more severe sentence because his misconduct was more severe,” Kramer said.

Balwani and Holmes met around the same time she dropped out of Stanford University to start Theranos in 2003. While on the witness stand in her trial, Holmes accused Balwani of manipulating her through years of emotional and sexual abuse. Balwani’s attorney has denied the allegations.


Kari Paul

The GuardianTramp

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