"The Internet is written in ink," as they say. Many people observe these guidelines without trouble, but others seem to thrive on riling people. Martin Shkreli, the infamous "Pharma Bro," seems to be one of the latter type, but he found out recently the same lesson we've tried to impart to clients for years: Watch the image you project, because it may well come back to haunt you.
The News is Too Depressing to Keep Up With. Who's This Guy?
Martin Shkreli entered the limelight in late 2015 when his company Turing Pharmaceutical bought the patent to a decades-old drug for treating toxoplasmosis called Daraprim. This medication has been integral to patients suffering from the parasitic infection, and until Turing got a hold of the patent it cost around $18 a pill--already up from its original $1 price prior to 2010, but Turing grabbed that dial and turned it up to 11.
Immediately after securing the rights to Daraprim, Shkreli and his firm increased the per-pill cost of the drug to $750, an increase of roughly 5,000 percent. The pill's composition was not altered in any way before the explosion in price. As the CEO, he defended the decision like this:
"If there was a company that was selling an Aston Martin at the price of a bicycle, and we buy that company and we ask to charge Toyota prices, I don't think that should be a crime."
In a healthy adult, toxoplasmosis presents similarly to a moderate case of the flu and is usually overcome by the body's natural immune responses. However, for elderly or young people, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems (AIDS and cancer patients), the infection can cause considerably more severe problems, and can even be fatal. By significantly upping the cost of the medication, Turing more or less guaranteed that many patients would not be able to afford it. Patients and their advocates were naturally among the millions of people who view Shkreli as a rapacious little squirt for the move; during the enormous backlash he was dubbed "the most hated man in America." He stepped down as CEO of Turing amid the controversy, but his reputation followed him.
In 2016 Turing lowered Daraprim's per-pill cost to $375, but unsurprisingly patients and doctors are still furious at the perceived extortion; the medication cost roughly $1 before 2010. Other pharmaceutical companies appear to be trying the "Turing Playbook," jacking up the prices of their much-needed products in a manner that is, while not illegal, highly unethical and ruthless. A notable example was Mylan Pharmaceuticals' recent price-hike of its EpiPen, an important allergy-counteractant injection. A standard two-pack of EpiPens now costs roughly $600. Shkreli caught additional criticism after defending Mylan's decision to drastically raise the prices.
Meanwhile, Shkreli seems to relish the negative attention he continues to receive, as he routinely sends out self-aggrandizing and hostile messages through his social media accounts--he's been banned three times from Twitter but his Facebook account is still going (I won't dignify it with a link). He has maintained this tone over the course of his trial as well, unceasingly saying negative things about the proceedings and even the officers of the court.
Why Was He On Trial?
Despite making him a world-class jerk, Shkreli's Daraprim stunt wasn't illegal. Neither is his endless appetite for online controversy. Before he ran Turing Pharmaceutical, though, Shkreli was an investor and a hedge fund manager. Allegations surfaced that he repaid his hedge fund investors by offering them cash and stock from a different pharmaceutical company he ran, Retrophin, in order to settle accounts where he had lost money. For these actions he faced eight counts of securities fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which placed him squarely in the hot seat.
The trial recently concluded with the jury finding Shkreli guilty on three of the eight charges. It's unclear so far what his actual punishment will look like, but it's worth noting that it took quite a while to find people that were even willing to sit on an impartial jury of his peers, as many of them unapologetically hate the smug ex-CEO.
Jurors Hated Him So Much They Couldn't Pass Selection.
When selecting jurors for Shkreli's trial, the court had to excuse over two hundred potential candidates because people simply wouldn't stop talking about how much they loathed the defendant. Many mistakenly thought that he was on trial for raising the cost of Daraprim; when they were informed the trial was unrelated, they were still unable to look past the drug-price debacle. The guy is an unequivocal scumbag, so I hope you're as tickled as I am by these juror quotes during voir dire:
- "I'm aware of the defendant and I hate him...I think he's a greedy little man.
- "He defrauded his company and his investors, and that's not right."
- "He's the most hated man in America. In my opinion, he equates with Bernie Madoff..."
- "I just walked in and looked right at him and that's a snake."
- "I believe the defendant is the face of corporate greed in America."
- "I don't think I can [keep an open mind] because he kind of looks like a d*ck."
- "Is he stupid or greedy? I can't understand."
That's just half a dozen cherries picked from the bushels of outraged abuse directed at Shkreli, who calmly smirked his way through it all. With enough patience, enough jurors were found who could keep level heads, but this is a stellar example of what happens when personality overrides prudence for a public figure. The abrasive jackass made it hard to find a dozen people who could even stand the sight of him, much less give him a fair shake.
There's a Reason Defendants Should Avoid Social Media.
To be clear: courts aren't popularity contests. Saints and monsters alike are run through the gears of the justice system, and they are convicted or acquitted based on facts of their cases, not whether a juror could toss back a beer with them. The law can take matters of character into account when determining punishments, but the actual reckoning of guilt or innocence can't depend on how "nice" a guy--or how much the opposite--the defendant is. Ted Bundy was by all accounts an educated, charming man, but in the end he was proven to be a grisly and remorseless serial killer. Congeniality earned him no brownie points when a jury learned the facts of his crimes.
With all that said, though, actions and words do affect a jury's opinion of a defendant. It's unavoidable in the era of social media that people's accounts can be mined for ammunition against them. Defense attorneys do it to discredit injured plaintiffs, and a public that always teeters on the edge of outrage can't help but scrutinize the tweets of public figures, to say nothing of taking the things they say in interviews very seriously.
We're not all millionaires and celebrities and hot-tempered presidents, but in the Internet age almost anyone can end up with poorly-chosen words thrown back in his or her face. While the facts of a case don't change based on these revelations of character, they can still sway jurors' opinions, which can certainly affect the outcome of litigation.
Maya Angelou famously said: "When people show you who they are, believe them." For your own sake, be careful what version of yourself you put out there for others to see--they may not be able to look past it.