When pharma entrepreneur Martin Shkreli shot to fame in 2015 for hiking the price of Aids drug Daraprim by 5,000%, many predicted that karma would deliver a comeuppance. Sure enough, a few months later “the FBI woke him on a rainy December morning and frogmarched him to a Brooklyn courthouse to face charges of defrauding investors to the tune of $11m”, says the Financial Times.
Shkreli seemed to revel in his status as “The Most Hated Man in America”. Now he’s back where he likes to be: in the media spotlight, complaining that “the world blames me for almost everything”. His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, is used to mavericks – he made his name defending rapper P. Diddy. But keeping Shkreli, 34, under control is trickier, says The Washington Post. He has already been “rebuked by the judge” for speaking to reporters “where jurors could potentially hear him”, and for “mocking” the Brooklyn prosecutors to their Manhattan peers.
The charges Shkreli faces have nothing to do with drug prices, says Bloomberg. In essence, prosecutors charge him with running “a Ponzi-like scheme”. He is accused of “repeatedly losing money for investors and lying to them about it” and of “illegally taking assets from one of his companies” (biotech outfit Retrophin) to pay off investors in his hedge fund MSMB Capital. If convicted, Shkreli faces a possible 20-year sentence. But he’s confident he’ll get off. “I have this theory that the more polarising and popular a case is, the more likely an acquittal,” he says, citing the case of OJ Simpson.
Shkreli, who claims to have been worth $200m “before it all came crashing down… seemed at first to embody the American dream”, says Bloomberg. His parents, both janitors, emigrated from eastern Europe in the 1970s and settled in Sheepshead Bay – the same working-class enclave of Brooklyn where Donald Trump’s father made a fortune building affordable housing.
He got his big break at 17 as an intern at Jim Cramer’s hedge fund, and “quickly impressed with his ability to call stocks”. In the early 2000s he taught himself biology and starting investing in biotech. In February 2015 he launched Turing Pharmaceuticals – the company at the centre of the Daraprim controversy.
The pharma industry branded him an “egregious outlier”. He reckons that’s sour grapes. “I saw an opportunity in pharma, made a huge fortune, and they didn’t,” he told the FT. And he has no regrets. “The drug was woefully underpriced,” he says – he “owed it” to his investors to put that right. “My whole life has been one theme of self-sacrifice for my investors.”
Shkreli, a chess obsessive who admits to taking cheap drugs to tackle his own mental-health problems, has a history of failed friendships. His main solace of late has come from a rescue cat he calls Trashy: “at least one thing loves me in the world”. But if he does go to jail, there may be more opportunities for friendship. “The inmates at the white-collar prison,” he boasts, “are gigantic, huge Shkreli supporters.”