Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli threw insults at the US Congress on Thursday, less than an hour after refusing to testify at a hearing investigating accusations of profiteering on life-saving drugs sold by his and other drug companies.
Twenty-four hours after facing fraud charges in a federal court in Brooklyn, Shkreli, 32, turned up in Washington after being subpoenaed by the House of Representatives oversight committee.
The controversial entrepreneur was accused of taking “blood money” from Americans and refused to answer questions. Minutes after being released from the hearing, Shkreli posted on Twitter: “Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.”
The firm Shkreli created and ran until his arrest in December, Turing Pharmaceuticals, is under fire for hiking the price of the drug Daraprim by more than 5,000% overnight, from $13.50 to $750 a pill, after acquiring it from another company.
Shkreli had already warned that he intended to invoke the fifth amendment and decline to answer questions in order to avoid the risk of incriminating himself.
Nonetheless, Shkreli’s short appearance in Washington became explosive when committee members were infuriated by his discourteous facial expressions as the event unfolded. One member begged him to examine his conscience.
Earlier, Shkreli and Turing’s chief commercial officer, Nancy Retzlaff, were criticized for hiking the price of Daraprim despite the fact it is the only government-approved treatment for the rare infection toxoplasmosis, which can be fatal for some Aids and cancer patients and endangers babies in-utero.
Lawmakers released excerpts from 250,000 documents showing how Shkreli sought to make $1bn from buying up the 62-year-old anti-parasite drug.
“Very good. Nice work as usual. $1bn here we come,” he said in an email to the company’s chairman as he worked to buy Daraprim for $55m in 2015. Shkreli said hiking the price of the drug would bring in an extra sales of $375m, “almost all of it profits”.
“Should be a very handsome investment for all of us,” he said. “Let’s all cross our fingers that the estimates are accurate.”
The committee’s ranking Democrat member, Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, called the revenue made from selling Daraprim “blood money”.
Cummings said that since acquiring Daraprim last August, Turing took in $98m in revenue from the drug, while its manufacture cost only $1m. He said Turing cited $22m spent on research and development but that documents acquired by the committee showed those outgoings were “as much about public relations as about research”.
“It’s not funny, Mr Shkreli. People are dying,” Cummings said, as Shkreli shot him a smirk.
Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, then asked Shkreli: “What do you say to a single, pregnant women on low income who might have Aids and she needs Daraprim to survive?”
Shkreli, 32, solemnly leaned into the microphone.
“On the advice of counsel, I invoke my fifth amendment privilege against self incrimination and respectfully decline to answer your question,” he said.
Sitting directly behind Shkreli was his new counsel, Ben Brafman, the high-profile New York lawyer Shkreli recently picked to represent him in his fraud case.
Shkreli repeated his response to the next two questions from Chaffetz.
Republican committee member Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina,asked the witness about his name. “Is it pronounced Sh-kr-ellie?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” replied Shkreli. Gowdy pounced.
“See, you can answer some questions. That one did not incriminate you. I just want to make sure you understand you are welcome to answer questions where the answers will not incriminate you, not every disclosure can be subject to the fifth, only those you reasonably believe can be used in criminal prosecution,” he said.
The FBI is investigating financial transactions at a pharmaceutical company and a hedge fund Shkreli ran prior to starting Turing. He is accused in the federal criminal case also of running a Ponzi scheme at a prior pharmaceutical firm, Retrophin, and at a hedge fund he ran.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have accused Turing of price-gouging. Sanders posted on Twitter on Thursday that America is fed up with “blatant profiteering” by the likes of Shkreli.
Cummings in his opening address had referred to Shkreli’s purchase at auction in December of a one-off Wu-Tang Clan album for $2m and contrasted it with his constituents who live “paycheck to paycheck, or even no check to no check”.
Cummings and other committee members pointed out that even with discounts on the price of Daraprim offered to some patients and hospitals following the uproar about Turing’s pricing last fall, that slack has to be picked up by taxpayers via Medicare and Medicaid, state governments or higher premiums for health insurance customers.
As Gowdy continued his attack, Brafman jumped to his feet from the public seating, where he was positioned directly behind Shkreli, and called out: “Mr chairman, may I be recognized for a moment?”
Brafman attempted to add something barely audible about being Shkreli’s attorney, but was cut off by Chaffetz, who said, sharply: “You are not recognized and you will be seated.”
Brafman sat down.
Cummings then expressly pleaded with Shkreli to reflect on his company’s strategy and instead of being “the bad boy of pharma” who could go down in history as “the poster boy for greedy drug companies”, he could help reform the system with fairer pricing.
Shkreli laughed. He did not answer any more questions and shortly after was allowed to leave the hearing.
After leaving the hearing with his client, Brafman said: “Mr Shkreli’s not a villain – he is not a bad boy. He is a hero… dedicated to saving lives.
“Mr Shkreli did not intend to show any disrespect … what you saw was nervous energy.”