Disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes closed the last day of testimony in her criminal fraud trial by once again bashing her ex-boyfriend and former No. 2 executive, alleging that his emotional abuse crimped her ability to run the company.
The former CEO, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, blamed Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani for much of the deception that occurred at Theranos, even though she acknowledged that she was the ultimate decision maker.
Holmes, 37, took the stand before the defense rested Wednesday, fielding questions from her lawyer Kevin Downey and portraying Balwani as a Svengali who took advantage of her youth and inexperience.
“Who was the most important advisor to you?” asked Downey.
“Sunny was,” replied Holmes, who has spent seven days testifying in her own defense denying that she swindled patients and investors out of millions while knowingly producing a faulty testing device to enrich herself.
Holmes also told the jury that she “tried not to ignite” Balwani, who served as president and chief operating officer of Theranos, in their correspondence, which was often by text message.
“Sunny would often blow off steam or vent through text,” Holmes said. “I was trying to be supportive.”
Downey asked Holmes if Balwani criticized employees at Theranos “as being incompetent.”
“He did,” Holmes said, noting that Balwani was also critical of her own performance.
Holmes, who was romantically involved with Balwani for more than a decade, said that their breakup was “a process.”
“He showed up at the church I would go to at night and at the Dish, which is where I used to run around Stanford,” Holmes said. “The places I would go outside work.”
A key part of Holmes’ defense has been shifting blame to Balwani, 56, who Holmes claims abused her physically, emotionally and sexually. Balwani has denied those allegations. He is being tried separately next year.
Earlier in her testimony, Holmes told the jury that being raped while a student at Stanford University pushed her to drop out of school and throw herself into building the company. She testified that when she later started dating Balwani, “he said I was safe now that I had met him.”
But, she went on, Balwani allegedly perpetuated a cycle of abuse in which he controlled all aspects of her’ life, including the way she ran Theranos.
Holmes — nearly 20 years younger than Balwani — testified that Balwani coached her on how to behave and speak, and pushed her to adopt a rigorous daily schedule as well as strict diet.
“He told me that I didn’t know what I was doing in business, that my convictions were wrong, that he was astonished at my mediocrity and if I followed my instincts, I was going to fail,” Holmes claimed.
She added that he said that “who I was was never going to be a person who would succeed in life or in business, so I needed to kill that person and become a new Elizabeth.”
“He would force me to have sex with him when I didn’t want to because he would say that he wanted me to know he still loved me,” Holmes added, sobbing.
After one incident in which Balwani allegedly forced her to have sex, Holmes wrote in a document recorded on her iPhone: “Don’t enjoy literally anything about it or who I am if I did it. Hurts so much. So so much. Can’t focus on anything except why? Why hurting myself? Can’t even move let alone do sit-ups or actually sit up. Lying swollen. Literally.”
Balwani’s grasp on Holmes was broken in 2016, shortly after the Wall Street Journal published an expose that raised questions about the claims made by Theranos about its blood testing devices. Holmes testified that a 2015 internal lab inspection that she read in 2016, which detailed the threat Theranos products posed to patients, was her wake-up call.
Balwani left the company in 2016 after Holmes brought in outside advisers and lab directors.
In the last moments of her testimony Wednesday, Holmes reiterated that she never intended to mislead investors, even though she admitted that they lost money under her reign.
“I wanted to change the impact the company could make for people and for health care,” Holmes said. “There were people that were long-term investors and I wanted to talk about what this company could do a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now.”
Closing arguments in the trial are expected to begin Dec. 16.