Theranos exec Sunny Balwani sentenced to 13 years in prison for defrauding patients and investors
The former COO of disgraced blood testing startup Theranos, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani was sentenced to 155 months, or about 13 years, in prison, and three years of probation. After a three-month trial, Balwani was found guilty on all 12 criminal charges, ranging from defrauding patients and investors to conspiring to commit fraud. Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was convicted on four of these charges and was sentenced to 11.25 years in prison last month.
Despite the disparate outcomes from the two separate juries in two individual trials, Judge Ed Davila calculated Holmes’ and Balwani’s sentencing ranges to be exactly the same: 135 to 168 months, or 11.25 to 14 years. In both cases, prosecutor Jeff Schenk countered by asking for 15 years.
Balwani’s lawyers attempted to argue that he should get a more lenient sentence than Holmes, as he was not CEO.
Coopersmith: “Mr Balwani never wanted anyone to be harmed. He would never harm a fly. Instead, he wanted to give…He’s deserving of a lenient sentence…
He’s not Ms. Holmes. He did not pursue fame and fortune.”
— Evan Sernoffsky (@EvanSernoffsky) December 7, 2022
“He’s not Ms. Holmes. He did not pursue fame and fortune,” said Balwani’s attorney Jeffrey Coopersmith.
Judge Davila even noted that the court saw another side of Balwani when they were told about his charitable giving, some of which occurred after Theranos. Yet Balwani still received a severe sentence of 13 years.
Judge Davila notes that sentencing is individualized and the court was told about Balwani’s charitable gifts, some of which were before Theranos, but many were after. He also paid his relatives’ tuition and donated to his temple. “That shows another side of him,” the judge says.
— Dorothy Atkins (@doratki) December 7, 2022
Holmes and Balwani were supposed to be tried for fraud together, but the former CEO filed for a separate trial, stating that Balwani, who is 20 years her senior, had emotionally and sexually abused her during their long romantic relationship. Though the court was not ruling on those allegations, the judge granted the request.
Throughout the trial, Balwani’s lawyers attempted to make the case that even though he was an investor and executive at Theranos, he was not involved in key decision-making. The defense failed to argue for his innocence, though. In one piece of evidence, the jury was presented a text from Balwani to Holmes that read, “I am responsible for everything at Theranos.”
Balwani’s trial featured the same evidence that indicted Holmes. The prosecution focused on a key piece of evidence relating to Theranos’ relationship with Walgreens. The biotech startup’s faulty technology made its way into 41 Walgreens stores, but unbeknownst to the pharmacy giant, most of the tests were conducted on third-party equipment. Theranos’ own machines couldn’t produce accurate test results, so a lot of patients had blood drawn not with a finger prick but intravenously. So, Walgreens basically spent $140 million in its partnership with Theranos, only for the startup to use the same old tech that was already in use.
Despite claims to the contrary, a Walgreens executive testified that he worked closely with Balwani on the deal. The prosecution also displayed evidence of a text from Balwani to Holmes stating that he deliberately didn’t tell Walgreens that they were using different machines.
For patients that were unlucky enough to have their blood tested with Theranos’ technology, some got wildly inaccurate results that caused significant disruption to their lives. In one case, a mother with a history of miscarriages was wrongly informed that she would have another unsuccessful pregnancy. Another patient, Erin Tompkins, used Theranos for its low costs, got flagged as HIV-positive, and then lived in limbo for three months until she could afford a second blood test. As it turned out, she didn’t actually have HIV. Meanwhile, a patient named Mehrl Ellsworth was given a false cancer diagnosis.
Unlike the jury at Holmes’ trial, the jury at Balwani’s trial held him accountable for defrauding patients, not just investors.
Before the former COO’s sentencing hearing, Balwani’s lawyers filed 40 objections to the probation office’s pre-sentence investigation report, according to tweets from Law 360 reporter Dorothy Atkins, who was present at the hearing. Judge Davila, who also presided over Holmes’ trial, said that only four of those objections were substantive.
The attorneys are still arguing over the expert reports and loss calculation. Usually sentencing hearings are morbid regardless of the crime – like watching a car crash where you watch families and lives being destroyed in real time. This one feels more like an accounting class.
— Dorothy Atkins (@doratki) December 7, 2022
“Usually sentencing hearings are morbid regardless of the crime — like watching a car crash where you watch families and lives being destroyed in real time,” Atkins tweeted from the court room. “This one feels more like an accounting class.”
It would certainly not be unprecedented if Balwani decides to appeal this ruling. After Holmes’ own sentencing, the former Theranos CEO told a California federal judge that she would appeal her conviction. She then asked to stay out of custody while her appeal is under consideration, also citing that she is currently pregnant with her second child. As it stands, Holmes’ surrender date is April 27, while Balwani will report to prison on March 15.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.