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CEO reviled for drug price gouging is arrested on fraud charges

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 12/17/2015 Christie Smythe and Keri Geiger

A boyish drug company entrepreneur, who rocketed to infamy by jacking up the price of a life-saving pill from $13.50 to $750, was arrested on securities fraud related to a firm he founded.

Martin Shkreli, 32, ignited a firestorm over drug prices in September and became a symbol of defiant greed. The federal case against him has nothing to do with pharmaceutical costs, however. Prosecutors charged him with illegally taking stock from Retrophin Inc., a biotechnology firm he started in 2011, and using it pay off debts from unrelated business dealings. He was later ousted from the company, where he’d been chief executive officer, and sued by its board.

In the case that closely tracks that suit, federal prosecutors accused Shkreli of engaging in a complicated shell game after his defunct hedge fund, MSMB Capital Management, lost millions. He is alleged to have made secret payoffs and set up sham consulting arrangements.

Shkreli’s extraordinary history—and current hold on the public imagination—makes the case more noteworthy than most involving securities fraud. The son of immigrants from Albania and Croatia who worked as janitors and raised him deep in working-class Brooklyn, Shkreli both epitomizes the American dream and sullies it. As a youth, he showed exceptional promise and independence and, after dropping out of an elite Manhattan high school, began his conquest of Wall Street before he was 20. 

His name entered public consciousness after he raised the price more than 55-fold for Daraprim. It is the preferred treatment for a parasitic condition known as toxoplasmosis, which can be deadly for unborn babies and patients with compromised immune systems including those with HIV or cancer. His company, Turing Pharmaceuticals AG, bought the drug, moved it to a closed distribution system and instantly drove the price into the stratosphere.

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The moves drew shocked rebukes from Congress, public-interest groups, doctors and presidential candidates, and cast an unwelcome spotlight on the rising prices of older drugs. Donald Trump called Shkreli a “spoiled brat,” and the BBC dubbed him the “most hated man in America.” Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, rejected a $2,700 campaign donation from him, directing it to an HIV clinic. A spokesman said in October that the campaign would not keep money “from this poster boy for drug company greed.”

Shkreli initially responded to the criticism by saying he would lower the Daraprim price and then changed his mind again. When Hillary Clinton tried one more time last month to get him to cut the cost, he dismissed her with the tweet “lol.” At a Forbes summit in New York this month, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, he said if he could have done it over, “I probably would have raised the price higher,” adding, “my investors expect me to maximize profits.”

In fact, it is not only his drug pricing that has turned him into an object of public derision. He recently spent millions on the only copy of a Wu-Tang Clan album that music fans would love to hear and then told Bloomberg Businessweek that he had no immediate plans to listen to it. He spars often on Twitter and message boards, parading his business strategies, musical tastes and politics; he live-streams from his office for long stretches.

And a range of investors has been after him for some time.

Retrophin sued Shkreli in August for misuse of company funds, claiming he engineered numerous transactions between investors in MSMB and the biotechnology firm. Similar allegations are laid out in the company's regulatory filings.

The company alleged in a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court that, through a disastrous trade with Merrill Lynch in 2011, Shkreli cost MSMB more than $7 million, leaving it virtually bankrupt.

Retrophin also asserts that Shkreli entered into payoff agreements with as many as 10 MSMB investors who lost money when the hedge fund became insolvent. Shkreli paid some investors through fake consulting agreements and others through unauthorized appropriations of stock and cash, the company alleged.

Complex financial maneuvers were used to conceal the payments, Retrophin said. For example, the company accused its former CEO of fraudulently reclassifying a $900,000 equity investment that MSMB made in Retrophin as a loan. He then allegedly had Retrophin pay off that loan to settle another unrelated legal dispute.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which according to court documents opened an investigation into Shkreli in 2012, is expected to file a parallel civil complaint against him, according to people familiar with the matter.

Shkreli spoke cavalierly of the company’s lawsuit, saying, “The $65 million Retrophin wants from me would not dent me. I feel great. I’m licking my chops over the suits I’m going to file against them.”

Earlier, he had denied wrongdoing in a post on InvestorsHub after Retrophin disclosed it had received a subpoena from federal prosecutors and the preliminary findings from its own investigation of Shkreli. He called the company's allegations “completely false, untrue at best and defamatory at worst.”

“Every transaction I’ve ever made at Retrophin was done with outside counsel’s blessing,” he said on the investment blog in February, without identifying the lawyers.

Shkreli started his career interning for “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer while still a teenager. After recommending successful trades, Shkreli eventually set up his own hedge fund, quickly developing a reputation for trashing biotechnology stocks in online chatrooms and shorting them, to enormous profit.

Widely admired for his intellect and sharp eye, he pored over medical journals and self-trained in biology. He set up Retrophin to develop drugs and acquire older pharmaceuticals that could be sold for higher profits.

Turing, which is less than a year old and has raised $90 million in financing, has followed a similar strategy with the purchase of drug patents, including Daraprim.

Shkreli recently bought a majority stake in KaloBios Pharmaceuticals Inc. after Turing received a warning from the New York attorney general that the distribution network for Daraprim may violate antitrust laws. State officials made their concerns known to Turing and Shkreli in an Oct. 12 letter obtained by Bloomberg.

KaloBios recently acquired the license for benznidazole, a standard treatment for Chagas, a deadly parasitic infection most common in South and Central America. The firm announced plans to increase the cost from a couple hundred dollars for two months to a pricing structure like that for hepatitis-C drugs, which can run to nearly $100,000 for 12 weeks.

With the onslaught of federal charges and looming regulatory actions, Shkreli could be banned from running a public company, which could put the future of Turing and KaloBios into question. Of course, if the companies were kept private, he could maintain oversight by simply changing his title.

The charges also show that a small group of health care firms—ones that acquire the rights to drugs and significantly increase their prices—is drawing the scrutiny of regulators and prosecutors, with a possible chilling effect on aggressive drug-pricing strategies.

Legislators are already paying attention. A hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Dec. 9 scrutinized such tactics.

Before Shkreli started Turing, Retrophin raised the price of Thiola, used to treat a rare condition causing debilitating recurrences of kidney stones, from $1.50 a pill to $30.

“Some of these companies seem to act more like hedge funds than traditional pharmaceutical companies,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who ran the recent hearing.

George Scangos, CEO of biotechnology giant Biogen Inc., went further, saying in an interview, “Turing is to a research-based company like a loan shark is to a legitimate bank.”

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