The following is an excerpt from a memoir and should be viewed as opinion.
Martin Shkreli was always eager to talk, even when it wasn’t in his best interest. That was clear from the very first conversation I had with him.
It was January 2015. He was still a virtual unknown outside of hedge fund, trader and biotech circles. It was still many months before his company Turing Pharmaceuticals would hike the price of a toxoplasmosis treatment, Daraprim, by 5,000% — turning him overnight into a global symbol of a greed, the “Pharma Bro,” and the “most hated man in America,” even though he pledged to guarantee access to the treatment and use the profits to research new cures.
I was a legal reporter for Bloomberg at the time, and I had gotten a tip that the feds were looking into him for fraud. Before publishing a story about the investigation, I did what was ethically required and reached out to him for comment. I hadn’t anticipated that he, and not a lawyer or some crisis PR representative, would call me back.
“Hi, this is Martin Shkreli,” he announced when I answered my cell phone. He paused for effect.
He was sorry to tell me that I had “no story.” Yes, there was trouble at his first pharmaceutical company, Retrophin, but that was old news. He had already moved on — after being ousted as CEO by the Retrophin board — and had started a new drug company, Turing.
He asked me who told me about the criminal probe; I refused to answer.
“Oh,” he hissed. “I bet I know.”
He had many enemies, and I would be a fool to trust any of them, he assured me. I told him politely but firmly that I was sure the information was correct, and I would be running the story. I wrote down his infuriated reaction, and added it to my piece. He tweeted later that I had "confused a situation that was no longer relevant."
I didn’t hear from him again until almost exactly a year later, after his arrest.
Getting to the bottom of the story
What I didn’t realize then was that he did take my reporting seriously…eventually.
Days after I published that piece, he did something wildly unwise for anyone who might possibly be the target of a criminal probe: He trekked down to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn with copies of my story in hand and demanded to “get to the bottom of it.”
For multiple hours and without a lawyer to protect him from himself, he talked to two assistant U.S. attorneys, two FBI agents and a paralegal. FBI records reflect that he attempted to convey his side of the story — or really his side of every possible story. He didn’t seem to know which of his many messy or controversial business moves might be considered a crime, so he rambled on about them all.
He also touched on his disagreements with Retrophin’s board and being ousted from the company in September 2014: The board “wanted Shkreli to stop tweeting online and he refused,” was the explanation Martin offered to the FBI.
While the FBI notes of the conversation indicate Martin was full of chest-thumping confidence, Martin later confessed to me that he left that day feeling uneasy. The prosecutors and the agents did not give an impression that they were actually weighing what he said with an idea that he might be innocent. He said it was more like they had already made up their minds, and the information he provided only served to flesh out their case.
He trekked down to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn with copies of my story in hand and demanded to “get to the bottom of it.”
A month after I broke the story of Martin’s arrest in December 2015, unleashing a giant wave of schadenfreude throughout the internet, he called me again. I was away from my desk and he left a voicemail. When I called back, I braced myself, assuming I was about to endure a confrontation — which is typical when journalists speak to the subjects of negative media articles.
But when he answered, his tone was warm. He assured me he wasn’t mad about anything.
“It’s been about a year since we last talked, hasn’t it?” he said. “I should have listened to you.”
“That’s what I tell people,” I muttered.
Words poured out of him. He had “no intention” of pleading guilty. He wasn’t guilty, he said. He was doing his own legal research. He had already studied “50 to 60” securities fraud cases. He’d read thousands of pages of legal documents. He was making charts and graphs for his attorneys.
The investigation was “vague,” he insisted. “Fraud, are you fucking crazy?” he asked rhetorically. “The government doesn’t want to believe I created a successful company. I’m being victimized unfairly. It’s a political thing.”
Chatting "off the record"
Finally, he drifted toward the reason he had called me.
“I would love for someone to do an in-depth legal analysis,” he said, explaining that other reporters just wanted to do a profile of the world’s most hated man. “My dream headline is ‘Martin Shkreli is a jerk, but he’s innocent.’”
“Huh, I’m not sure,” I replied, knowing my editors would never approve that headline. “But maybe we could try to do something along those lines.” I asked if he would meet with me to talk through the possibilities.
Sure, he said. I could come to his office at Turing.
When I arrived at the building, located near Times Square in Manhattan, a secretary showed me into an empty conference room, and Martin Shkreli soon appeared. He was wearing a black hoodie and a wide smile. His dark hair looked uncombed. I asked if we could speak on the record, but he suggested we talk “off the record” first. (We have since dispensed with these distinctions and I am free to use what I please.)
Immediately, he launched into a vivid narrative, and showed me a spreadsheet detailing what happened to his investors’ shares. He allowed me to take notes, and my hand soon cramped from writing so quickly.
Back at my office, I looked over my notes and realized I had his entire defense, complete with theories and references to likely witnesses and pieces of evidence. Nothing about him had seemed cagey or manipulative. It was possible his version of events wasn’t accurate, but he just seemed like an earnest nerd who believed what he said, and was trying to set the record straight.
We had a few more brief conversations over the phone after that, but he still declined to do an “on the record” interview with me. Instead, he seemed to always be too busy with ever-intensifying drama.
“I would love for someone to do an in-depth legal analysis...My dream headline is ‘Martin Shkreli is a jerk, but he’s innocent.’”
In February, he — or, at least, the “Pharma Bro” of public imagination — was subpoenaed to testify before Congress. After all, lawmakers want to look like heroes to their constituents, and what better way was there to do that than by dragging a villain into the Capitol and tearing into him on live television?
Martin’s lawyers strenuously advised him against testifying because of how it might complicate the ongoing criminal case. The committee members were aware he would likely plead the Fifth Amendment and decline to answer questions if he was made to appear. Apparently, this was all the better, in their view, as they’d have more camera time to opine.
Because I had established a rapport with the infamous “Pharma Bro,” and many of my colleagues at Bloomberg were curious about what he might say or do at the hearing, I called him to talk about it. I was surprised when his voice sounded loose and uncontrolled. He didn’t want to go to Washington to be a “punching bag for a bunch of politicians,” he said.
One of the Bloomberg legal editors had been insisting from the start that he would “blow up” from the pressure, meaning either skip town or commit suicide.
I knew, at least logically, that such a dire outcome would not be my fault. But I could not handle the thought of that stain on my conscience. After all, I had just broken the story of his arrest, marking the greatest accomplishment of my career. The implication that the negative attention I had unleashed could push him over the edge made me deeply uncomfortable.
Two different Martins
All the while, I struggled to reconcile what seemed like two completely different Martins: the one in media coverage and the person I had met. As presented in the press, he was like Hannibal Lecter somehow crossed with a cockroach. But in person he was something entirely different — a quirky nerd, antagonistic, insecure, brimming with bravado and imposter syndrome, and with an extremely poor sense of optics, on which the mainstream media relies.
"When people show you who they are, believe them the first time,” poet Maya Angelou famously said. The first time he showed me who he was, he was nothing like a corporate Hannibal the Cannibal. What was I supposed to believe?
I looked back at a Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile about Martin, written in 2014 about his move from hedge funds to biotech. The impression the writer seemingly had back then, before Martin had become the subject of an international firestorm, largely squared with my own.
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time,” poet Maya Angelou famously said...what was I supposed to believe?
Martin, in that piece, seemed awkward, neurotic, smart and possibly “flaky,” based on the profile. But he didn’t sound remotely evil — or like he was hiding any horrible skeletons. The article, surprisingly, was overall vaguely positive.
I spoke with the writer to try to get a handle on what I was dealing with, and quizzed him about his interactions with Martin.
Did he trust the brash young executive, I asked. The writer, a man more than two decades my elder, replied “yes,” without hesitation.
Feeling like my instincts were confirmed, I kept going. My goal was to write the “real” story about Martin Shkreli, something that cut through the noise and bridged the divide between how people perceived him and whatever he really was.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to accomplish that, but I wanted to give it a shot.
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