Text Messages Between Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes and Ex-Boyfriend Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani Grab Headlines in Early Days of Fraud Trial
Romantic musings between the now-defunct Theranos’ CEO and COO may be introduced to undercut Holmes’ claims of ‘intimate partner abuse’
Medical laboratory professionals did not have to wait long for the first prosecution bombshell to explode during the opening week of the federal criminal fraud trial of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.
In court filings leading up to the September 8 trial in San Jose, Calif., Holmes’ defense team revealed plans to claim “intimate partner abuse” by Holmes’ then boyfriend, Theranos Chief Operating Officer Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. The plan was for Holmes to testify that Balwani threw “sharp” objects at her and controlled how she ate and dressed, impacting her “state of mind” at the time of the alleged crimes.
But prosecutors countered that claim by releasing six pages of text messages between the former couple, which took place between May 2015 and July 2015, as Theranos became the target of whistleblower accusations and a company employee who began secretly speaking to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Later that year, the WSJ published an investigative report that brought to light questions about Theranos’ blood-testing technology and the faulty clinical laboratory test results it reported to physicians and patients.
Holmes and Balwani kept their relationship hidden from the public, but their private text messages reveal intimate exchanges that likely will be introduced by prosecutors to undercut Holmes’ claims of abuse.
Within the 164 text messages were these exchanges:
- “You are breeze in desert for me” [Holmes]
- “My water” [Holmes]
- “And ocean” [Holmes]
- “Meant to be only together tiger” [Holmes]
- “Madly in love with you and your strength” [Holmes later that day]
The following day:
- “On route to dinner. Missing you” [Holmes]
- “Missing you too” [Balwani]
- “You more” [Holmes]
Balwani then turned his attention to the whistleblower within Theranos:
- “I’m narrowing this down in CLIA. Down to 5 people. Will nail this mother [explicative omitted]” [Balwani]
- “Who do u think” [Holmes]
- “Now we have legal grounds” [Holmes]
- “Yes” [Balwani]
Later Holmes texted:
- “Feel like the luckiest person in the world BC I have you” [Holmes]
- “We will come up with good responses to the questions and we will turn this around” [Balwani]
- “Love” [Balwani]
- “Transcend” [Holmes]
- “We will” [Balwani]
The following month:
- “Onboard. Love.” [Balwani]
- “Taking off baby” [Balwani]
- “Missing you” [Holmes]
- “Missing you too baby. Just arrived at the office. Will prepare” [Balwani]
- “Xxx” [Holmes]
Does Affection Rule Out Abuse?
In San Francisco, KPIX 5 television reported that legal experts predict the texts may not have the impact in the trial that outside observers expect, since, they said, expressions of affection do not rule out the possibility of an abusive relationship, which is expected to be one aspect of Holmes’ defense strategy.
Holmes, 37, who according to court documents faces 10 counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, is alleged to have misled investors, clinical laboratories, patients, and healthcare providers about Theranos’ proprietary blood-testing technology, which Holmes claimed could perform hundreds of medical laboratory tests using only a finger-prick of blood. If convicted, Holmes could face up to 20 years in prison, fines, and payment of restitution. She has pleaded not guilty.
Testimony of Theranos’ Corporate Controller
The prosecution opened the trial with questioning of Theranos’ longtime corporate controller Danise Spivey Yam. According to The Wall Street Journal, Yam testified she provided revenue projections to a company hired to value Theranos stock that ranged from $50 million in 2013 to nearly $132 million in 2016. Those numbers were much more modest than company projections of $140 million in revenue in 2014 and $990 million in 2015, which were given to investors.
“Do you have any idea where that number came from?” Assistant US Attorney Robert Leach asked Yam.
“No,” Yam replied, adding that she hadn’t helped prepare it.
Former Theranos employee Erika Cheung, who according to court testimony worked in the company’s laboratory testing blood samples, testified that she left Theranos after six months because of concerns over Theranos’ blood-testing practices and data manipulation when machines failed quality tests.
Cheung ultimately alerted federal regulators to the company’s failure to meet industry standards and expressed her concerns about Theranos’ Edison mini-blood-lab machine.
“You’d have about the same luck flipping a coin as to whether your results were right or wrong,” Cheung testified about the accuracy of the Edison, CNBC reported. “It was concerning to see this degree of failure; this was not typical for a normal lab.”
After leaving Theranos, Cheung co-founded the nonprofit Ethics in Entrepreneurship.
During cross examination, CNBC noted that one of Holmes’ defense attorneys highlighted the professional qualifications of Theranos lab directors and other scientists at Theranos, including 52 scientists with PhDs and 10 medical doctors. He also noted that the validation reports for assays that Cheung had testified were problematic had been approved for lab use by a lab director and vice president, not Holmes.
With more than 200 witnesses expected to testify, the ongoing Holmes fraud trial is estimated to last three to six months. Pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists who are following the Theranos fraud trial with keen interest can look forward to more Dark Daily coverage. Click here to read our previous coverage of the Holmes/Theranos medical laboratory fraud saga.
—Andrea Downing Peck