Arrested Thursday, accused of Ponzi-like scheme
Martin Shkreli, a boastful pharmaceutical executive who came under withering criticism for price gouging vital drugs including AIDS drug Daraprim, denied securities fraud charges on Thursday following an early morning arrest, and was freed on a $5 million bond.
While the 32-year-old has earned a rare level of infamy for his brazenness in business and his personal life, what he was charged with had nothing to do with skyrocketing drug prices. He is accused of repeatedly losing money for investors and lying to them about it, illegally taking assets from one of his companies to pay off debtors in another.
“Shkreli essentially ran his company like a Ponzi scheme where he used each subsequent company to pay off defrauded investors from the prior company,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said at a press conference.
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Shkreli at his Midtown Manhattan apartment at about 6:30 a.m. and forced him to walk through a gaggle of photographers outside FBI headquarters.
Evan Greebel, a New York lawyer, who is alleged in the federal indictment to have helped Shkreli in his schemes, was also arrested and charged. Like Shkreli, he pleaded not guilty, and he was freed on a $1 million bond. Both men and their lawyers declined to comment after their court appearance.
A spokeswoman for Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP where Greebel worked during the time in question, declined comment. A spokeswoman for Kaye Scholer where he works now, said the firm has launched an internal investigation.
Read the full text of the indictment here
In the federal indictment and a complaint by the Securities and Exchange Commission, authorities say Shkreli began losing money and lying to investors from the time he began managing money. In his mid-20s, he got nine investors to place $3 million with him and at one point he had only $331.
Securities fraud is hardly unheard of on Wall Streeet and the amounts involved here are nowhere near on the scale of Bernie Madoff. But Shkreli’s case has drawn such attention because of his defiant price-gouging and his own up-by-the-bootstraps history.
The son of immigrants from Albania and Croatia who did janitorial work and raised him and his brothers in working-class Brooklyn, Shkreli seemed at first to embody the American dream and then to mock it. After dropping out of an elite Manhattan high school, he worked as an intern for Jim Cramer’s hedge fund as a 17-year-old and quickly impressed with his ability to call stocks. He created hedge funds, taught himself biology and, after earning a BA at Baruch College in New York City, began hedge funds investing in biotech.
He became famous within a certain world but entered public consciousness after he raised the price more than 55-fold for Daraprim in September from $13.50 per pill to $750. 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.
He drew shocked rebukes from Congress, doctors and presidential candidates, and brought public attention to 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, the Democratic presidential candidate, rejected a $2,700 campaign donation from him, directing it to an HIV clinic. A spokesman said the campaign would not keep money “from this poster boy for drug company greed.”
All the criticism seemed at first to have some impact and Shkreli said he would lower the price. Then he reneged. 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.”
Shkreli did further damage to his public image with other acts and boasts. He spent millions on the only copy of a Wu-Tang Clan album that music fans are desperate to hear and then told Bloomberg Businessweek that he had no immediate plans to listen to it. He takes often to Twitter and message boards, bragging about his business strategies, musical tastes and politics; he live-streams from his office for long stretches.
The SEC complaint and federal indictment lay out a series of schemes and cover-ups carried out by Shkreli. Capers said authorities began investigating him as early as 2014.
Barely 23, he was managing hedge fund Elea Capital in New York and lost it all in 2007. Around then, a trade with Lehman Brothers ended with a $2.3 million judgment against him, prosecutors said. In 2010, he lost his clients’ $3 million investment in his new fund, MSMB Capital.
In 2011, he bet that shares of Orexigen Therapeutics Inc. would fall and wound up owing $7 million to his broker, Merrill Lynch, authorities said. He couldn’t pay, and he, an unnamed accomplice and MSMB Capital eventually extinguished the debt with a $1.35 million settlement, they said.
Part of that money came from his next firm, authorities said. After the collapse of MSMB Capital, Shkreli launched MSMB Healthcare with about $5 million from 13 investors. He paid himself “far in excess” of the agreed-upon 1 percent management fee and 20 percent profit incentive, according to the SEC.
Shkreli then used cash from MSMB Healthcare to invest in Retrophin, the pharmaceutical company he founded in 2011, even though it “had no products or assets,” prosecutors said. Later, he used the assets of Retrophin to repay angry investors in his hedge funds, prosecutors said.
Shkreli is confident that he will be cleared of the charges, according to a statement on his behalf.
Shkreli is particularly disappointed that his litigation with Retrophin has become a government enforcement matter, according to the statement. He also denied the charges regarding the MSMB entities, which he said involve complex accounting matters that prosecutors and the SEC fail to understand, according to the statement.
“It is no coincidence that these charges, the result of investigations which have been languishing for considerable time, have been filed at the same time of Shkreli’s high-profile, controversial and yet unrelated activities,” according to the statement. “The government suggested that Mr. Shkreli was involved in a Ponzi scheme. Ponzi victims do not make money, yet Mr. Shkreli’s investors enjoyed strong results.”
As Shkreli’s losses mounted, so did his lies. He fabricated portfolio statements and, with his lawyer’s help, deceived the SEC and outside accountants. He backdated records, manufactured a phony loan agreement between Retrophin and a hedge fund, and created sham consulting agreements with Retrophin as a way to route the company’s cash to his earlier investors.
Greebel, the arrested lawyer, made sure Retrophin’s outside accountants were unaware of Shkreli’s financial maneuvers and helped him concoct the consulting agreements used to repay the hedge fund investors, the U.S. said.
The cases mirror a lawsuit brought by Retrophin. Shkreli blithely dismissed his old company’s claims, 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.
When Shkreli was working for Cramer’s firm, he was 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 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 drugs, 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 federal charges and regulatory actions, Shkreli could be banned from running a public company, which could put the future of KaloBios into question. Trading in KaloBios shares was halted after the stock fell 53 percent. It’s less clear what the impact could be on Turing, which is closely held.
Federal authorities will have to ask a judge to impose an asset freeze if they want to guarantee Shkreli doesn’t dispose of ill-gotten gains.
The charges suggest 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.”
(Updated with Shkreli statement.)