Prosecutors Allege Ex-Theranos President ‘Sunny’ Balwani and Elizabeth Holmes Were ‘Partners in Everything, including Their Crimes’
Like Holmes, Balwani faces 12 counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for allegedly misleading investors, patients, and others about blood-testing startup’s technology
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists are buckling up as the next installment of the Theranos story gets underway, this time for the criminal fraud trial of ex-Theranos President and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani.
This week, jurors saw text messages between Balwani and his former business partner girlfriend, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. As Dark Daily previously reported in “Two Important Aspects for Clinical Laboratories to Consider Following Elizabeth Holmes’ Conviction,” Holmes was convicted on Jan. 3 on one count of conspiracy to defraud investors and three counts of wire fraud.
In one text to Holmes, Balwani wrote, “I am responsible for everything at Theranos,” NBC Bay Area reported.
Partners in Everything, including Crime, Prosecutors Allege
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), prosecutors are following the Holmes trial playbook. They focused their opening arguments on the personal and working relationships between the pair, tying Balwani to Holmes’ crimes at the Silicon Valley blood-testing startup.
As second in command at Theranos, Balwani helped run the company from 2009 to 2016. He also invested $5 million in Theranos stock, while also underwriting a $13 million corporate loan.
“They were partners in everything, including their crimes,” Assistant US Attorney Robert Leach told jurors, the Mercury News reported. “The defendant and Holmes knew the rosy falsehoods that they were telling investors were contrary to the reality within Theranos.”
Leach maintained that Balwani was responsible for the phony financial projections Theranos gave investors in 2015 predicting $990 million in revenue when the company had less than $2 million in sales.
“This is a case about fraud. About lying and cheating to obtain money and property,” Leach added. Balwani “did this to get money from investors, and he did this to get money and business from paying patients who were counting on Theranos to deliver accurate and reliable blood tests so that they could make important medical decisions,” the WSJ reported.
Defense attorneys downplayed Balwani’s decision-making role within Theranos, pointing out that he did not join the start-up until six years after Holmes founded the company with the goal of revolutionizing blood testing by developing a device capable of performing blood tests using a finger-prick of blood.
“Sunny Balwani did not start Theranos. He did not control Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes, not Sunny, founded Theranos and built Theranos,” defense attorney Stephen Cazares, JD of San Francisco-based Orrick, said in his opening argument, the WSJ reported.
The trial was expected to begin in January but was delayed by the unexpected length of the Holmes trial. It was then pushed out to March when COVID-19 Omicron cases spiked in California during the winter.
Balwani’s trial is being held in the same San Jose courthouse where Holmes was convicted. Balwani, 56, is facing identical charges as Holmes, which include two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 10 counts of wire fraud. He has pleaded not guilty.
Holmes, who is currently free on a $500,000 bond, will be sentenced on Sept. 26, Dark Daily reported in January.
Judge Excludes Jurors for Watching Hulu’s ‘The Dropout’
During jury selection in March, some jurors acknowledged they were familiar with the case, causing delays in impaneling the 12-member jury and six alternates. US District Court Judge Edward Davila excluded two potential jurors because they had watched “The Dropout,” Hulu’s miniseries about Holmes and Theranos. Multiple other jurors were dropped because they had followed the Holmes trial in the news, Law360 reported.
When testimony began, prosecutors had a familiar name take the stand—whistleblower and former Theranos lab tech Erika Cheung, who provided key testimony in the Holmes trial. During her testimony, Cheung said she revealed to authorities what she saw at Theranos because “Theranos had gone to extreme lengths to [cover up] what was happening in the lab,” KRON4 in San Francisco reported.
“It was important to report the truth,” she added. “I felt that despite the risk—and I knew there could be consequences—people really need to see the truth of what was happening behind closed doors.”
Nevada State Public Health Laboratory (NSPHL) Director Mark Pandori, PhD, who served as Theranos’ lab director from December 2013 to May 2014, was the prosecution’s second witness. Pandori testified that receiving accurate results for some tests run through Theranos’ Edison blood testing machine was like “flipping a coin.”
“When you are working in a place like Theranos, you’re developing something new. And you want it to work. Quality control remained a problem for the duration of my time at the company. There was never a solution to poor performance,” Pandori testified, according to KRON4.
While the defense team has downplayed Balwani’s decision-making role—calling him a “shareholder”—Aron Solomon, JD, a legal analyst with Esquire Digital, maintains they may have a hard time convincing the jury that Balwani wasn’t a key player.
“There’s no way the defense is going to be successful in painting Sunny Balwani in the light simply as a shareholder,” he told NBC Bay Area. “We know that, literally, Sunny Balwani was intimately involved with Theranos, because he was intimately involved with Elizabeth Holmes,” Solomon added.
Little Media Buzz for Balwani, Unlike Holmes Trial
While the Holmes trial hogged the media spotlight and drew daily onlookers outside the courthouse, reporters covering Balwani’s court appearances describe a much different atmosphere.
“The sparse crowd and quiet atmosphere at US District Court in San Jose, Calif., felt nothing like the circus frenzy that engulfed the same sidewalk months earlier when his alleged co-conspirator and former girlfriend, Elizabeth Holmes, stood trial on the same charges,” The New York Times noted in its coverage of the Balwani trial.
The Balwani trial may not reach the same headline-producing fervor as the Holmes legal battle. However, clinical laboratory directors and pathologists who follow these proceedings will no doubt come away with important insights into how Theranos went so terribly wrong and how lab directors must act under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA).
—Andrea Downing Peck