Defense attorneys attempted to describe Balwani as simply an investor in Theranos, but prosecutors used the defendant’s own text messages to debunk that claim
Clinical laboratory directors and pathologists following the criminal fraud trial of ex-Theranos President and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani may be experiencing a case of déjà vu as the former executive of the now-defunct blood-testing company has his day in court.
Even as Balwani’s defense team attempted to distance their client from the company’s day-to-day decision-making activities, prosecutors followed an almost identical script from the previous fraud trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes conducted earlier this year. That trial led to her conviction on four counts of defrauding investors.
As was the case in the Holmes trial, text messages between the two Theranos top executives (Balwani and Holmes) are again center stage in the San Jose, Calif., courtroom of U.S. District Judge Edward Davila.
Balwani Texts Reveal an ‘Unhappy’ Man Under Pressure
Balwani, 56, worked alongside Holmes at Theranos from 2009 to 2016. He purchased $5 million in stock in the company and helped finance the startup by underwriting a $13 million loan. Like Holmes, Balwani faces a dozen counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Jurors in the Balwani trial were shown a collection of private text messages between Balwani and Holmes—who also was his girlfriend at the time—that shed light on their business and personal relationships.
“I am responsible for everything at Theranos,” Balwani wrote in a text exchange with Holmes, NBC Bay Area reported. “I worked six years day and night to help you … sad about where we are,” he wrote.
“I am very unhappy because my work sucks,” Balwani told Holmes in another text. NBC Bay Area also reported on other text messages that discussed meeting new investors, meeting revenue goals, and potentially buying a corporate plane.
Defense Counterattacks with Expert Testimony
Balwani’s defense team launched a counterattack the following day when witness Constance Cullen, PhD, a former immunologist at Schering-Plough, stated on cross examination that she dealt only with Holmes and never met Balwani or other Theranos executives, NBC Bay Area reported.
During Holmes’ trial, Cullen testified that Holmes had used the Schering-Plough logo without authorization on studies presented to potential investors which aimed to validate Theranos’ blood-testing technology.
Balwani’s defense team previously described him as a Theranos “shareholder” in an effort to distance him from executive decisions that allegedly misled Theranos investors about the startup’s revenues and accuracy of the company’s “revolutionary” Edison blood-testing device, which Theranos claimed could perform hundreds of clinical laboratory tests using a finger-prick of blood.
According to additional NBC Bay Area coverage of the trial, a former Walgreens executive testified he worked closely with Balwani during the drugstore chain’s failed multiyear partnership with Theranos, which included a $50 million investment to bring in-store medical laboratory testing to its pharmacies.
“As a person who was an investor and essentially serving as the chief operations officer, Sunny Balwani absolutely was intimately involved in the Walgreens relationship and all the relationships Theranos had,” chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital and editor of Today’s Esquire, Aron Solomon, JD, told NBC Bay Area in a video interview.
NBC Bay Area reported that prosecutors introduced text messages between Balwani and Holmes in which Balwani admitted he did not inform Walgreens that third-party equipment—not the Theranos Edison device—was being used for much of the actual clinical laboratory testing done in Walgreens stores.
In “Theranos Loses Its Biggest Revenue Source as Walgreens Ends Partnership and Shuts Down Blood-Collections for Clinical Laboratory Tests,” Dark Daily reported on Walgreens’ decision to sever its relationship with Theranos after federal regulators cited serious deficiencies at the Theranos lab in Newark, Calif., which led to the blood company voiding or revising thousands of blood test results delivered by its Edison device over a two-year period.
Prosecutors Claim Balwani, Holmes Worked ‘Together’ to Defraud Investors
Earlier in April, government lawyers responded to claims from Holmes’ defense team that Judge Davila should set aside the convictions in Holmes’ fraud case because evidence at trial did not support a guilty verdict, Fortune reported.
The prosecutors countered in a court filing that the “overwhelming weight of the evidence admitted at trial supports the jury’s conviction” of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and fraud on Theranos investors.
Prosecutors maintained the Holmes trial was “replete with examples” of Holmes and Balwani “working together and conspiring to effectuate a scheme to defraud investors.” The two “were constantly in communication via email, text message, and in-person meetings” about the company’s laboratories, financials, patient blood-testing, and relationships with Walgreens, investors, and visits by regulators, the Fortune article noted.
Holmes was convicted on January 3, 2022, on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Her sentencing date is September 26. She faces up to 20 years in prison but remains free on bond while awaiting sentencing. Balwani’s trial is ongoing.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists following the Theranos saga with interest should expect more revelations in the weeks to come. Balwani’s trial, which began in March, is expected to last at least three months.
—Andrea Downing Peck