Elizabeth Holmes, a disgraced entrepreneur, described herself Monday as Sunny Balwani’s abused puppet in tears. This was part of her effort to deny accusations she misrepresented a blood-testing device she considered a breakthrough.
Holmes recounted how Balwani was her high school crush. Holmes later said that she finally fell in love with him when she quit Stanford University to create Theranos. This Silicon Valley startup, which she served as CEO for 15 years, she founded in 2003.
A weeping Holmes, now 37, testified she was raped at Stanford — a factor she believes played a role in what she characterized as her later subservience to Balwani, now 56. The couple fell in love and were married before Balwani was appointed chief operating officer of Theranos. This position he held for five years from 2009 through 2016.
Even before joining Theranos, Balwani was regularly berating Holmes as an inept executive who needed to “kill” her former self in an effort to become more disciplined and focused, according to her testimony and contemporaneous notes with strict instructions for Holmes handwritten by Balwani.
“He felt like I came across as a little girl and thought I needed to be more serious and more pointed,” Holmes explained as she read through Balwani’s demands. She was required to spend at least thirty minutes each day writing down her daily goals, and not meet with people for more than five minutes unless she has written a justification.
If she didn’t do what Balwani said, Holmes said, he would yell and tell her he was “so disappointed in my mediocrity.”
At other times, Holmes said, Balwani would liken her to a “monkey flying a space ship” and tried to cut her off from her family in an alleged effort to ensure that she devoted herself full-time to Theranos. She also said he controlled her diet in an attempt to keep her “pure.” Sometimes after Balwani belittled her, Holmes testified, he would force her to have sex against her will to show he loved her.
The dramatic turn came during the fourth day of Holmes’ testimony before a jury weighing fraud charges that include swindling investors and customers while putting patients at risk by telling elaborate lies about the company’s development of an allegedly revolutionary blood-testing device. Holmes faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
One of the 14 jurors was an alternate. Holmes said about Balwani’s relationship to Holmes.
Continue reading: Silicon Valley Investors Haven’t Let the Theranos Scandal Change the Way They Do Business
Balwani will face fraud charges similar to Holmes’s in a second trial that is scheduled for early next year. Holmes and Balwani ended their relationship after Holmes moved from the Silicon Valley house they had shared for many years. They kept their romance secret.
Federal prosecutors wanted to try Balwani alongside Holmes, but U.S. District Judge Edward Davila separated the proceedings because of the possibility that Holmes would blame some of her behavior on“intimate partner abuse.”
Jeffrey Coopersmith, Balwani’s lawyer, has vehemently denied Holmes’ abuse allegations. Although Coopersmith was present for Holmes’ testimony Monday, Balwani couldn’t be there because he is prohibited from being in the courtroom in Holmes’ presence.
Holmes’ portrait of Balwani stood in sharp contrast to other testimony indicating that he always deferred to Holmes—the subject of flattering business profiles likening her to a female version of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who she adopted as one of her role models.
Holmes became briefly a paper billionaire, while promising that Theranos could offer more cost-effective and convenient tests for hundreds possible health problems with just a few drops. Conventional tests require blood to be drawn from the vein.
Theranos was able to raise almost $1 billion in sophisticated investors through her pitch and attracted a formidable board of directors, including ex- Cabinet secretaries who served as Cabinet secretaries under presidents Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. The company collapsed after a series of explosive articles in the Wall Street Journal and regulatory audits revealed rampant inaccuracies in Theranos’ blood tests.,
In her testimony, Holmes said most people didn’t realize how much Balwani controlled her because most of his alleged abuse occurred outside the office. Her condemnation of Balwani contrasted with some of the treacly texts she sent addressing him as “tiger.”
Holmes quoted Maya Angelou during a series of text messages in April 2016. This was about one month after her breakup with Balwani. “In all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. In all the world there is no love for you like mine,” Holmes told him.
Holmes, under questioning from one her attorneys, acknowledged that Balwani didn’t tell her what to tell the investors. She also testified that Balwani didn’t influence her discussions with Walgreens and Safeway, two major retailers that agreed to use Theranos’ blood-testing technology before backing out after discovering it wasn’t performing as she promised.
Holmes claims that she tried her best to fix the Theranos problems in order to fulfill her dreams. But she also said she couldn’t explain all the different ways Balwani affected her during the years they were together.
“He wasn’t who I thought he was,” Holmes said, adding that Balwani “impacted everything about who I was and I don’t fully understand that.”
Holmes will be back on Tuesday’s witness stand when the prosecutors have their first opportunity to question her under oath.