SMIRK
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Chapter 11, Part 1: Burning a Source
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Chapter 11, Part 1: Burning a Source

After being in prison well over a year Martin Shkreli was still making viral headlines. That was more curse than blessing for him.
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Never had I ever felt so much wonder and horror at the “thwack” of a newspaper landing near my door. It was March 8, 2019, and the newspaper was the Wall Street Journal. I didn’t subscribe to the print copy, but a carrier sometimes threw an extra one on my building’s stoop by mistake. Fortunately, it was one of those days. 

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t seen the story – it was published online and I had read it. But the words on a physical page seemed more startling and damning. I picked up the newspaper and carried it inside, examining it closely. The article in question, by Rob Copeland and Bradley Hope, was below the fold, in the spot usually reserved for quirky features that were not “hard news” but intended to stir conversation. For that purpose, it worked spectacularly. 

The headline: “Shkreli, From Cell, Plots Comeback”.

And the subheading: “Using contraband cellphone, disgraced ‘Pharma Bro’ steers old company”.

Story as it appeared in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Story as it appeared in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal.

The material in the subheading, with all of its illicit implications, attracted the eyeballs on the internet. By the time I had to leave for work around 8:30am, the piece was already “trending” on Twitter and stayed there most of the day. Predictably, many comments were along the lines of “here we go again; that ‘creep’ Martin Shkreli is doing something illegal.” 

But I also saw a theme of teeth-gnashing, pearl-clutching, panties-in-a-bunch disgust from the virtue-signaling crowd. I couldn’t help but smile at the message their exasperation seemed to convey: “Here, after all the trouble the government went to to throw this price-gouging, law-flouting, internet-trolling fraudster in prison, where he should have been left to rot, journalists were still writing about him…and people were still reading about him…and the story wasn’t even all negative! Gasp!!!”

“He’s still got it,” I thought to myself, chuckling.

On a superficial level, I did like the story. For once, it painted Martin not just as a one-dimensional greedy and despicable villain, but as a sort of rags-to-riches anti-hero full of weird hijinks who always projected optimism. That part, at least, sounded accurate to me.

But there were some “factual” problems. To the best of my knowledge, Martin had never lived in a “multimillion-dollar penthouse,” and that detail just seemed to be thrown in because people on the internet assumed he did.

An excerpt from the WSJ story referring to Martin’s former “multimillion-dollar Manhattan penthouse.” To my knowledge, Martin never lived in a penthouse.
An excerpt from the WSJ story referring to Martin’s former “multimillion-dollar Manhattan penthouse.” To my knowledge, Martin never lived in a penthouse.

The notion that he was actually “running” Vyera to me was an exaggeration, although I had no doubt he wanted to be running it, and maybe even had been trying to. The article also implied operating a legitimate business from prison was a crime when it was really just against the rules (so is leaving a bed unmade in the morning).

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Then there was the clear issue that Rob had almost certainly intentionally deceived Martin, at the very least semantically, about whether he would write about the cellphone. The rules for “off the record” and “on background” and other journalistic conventions are not set in stone, nor do they hold up in court. The only recourse a source has if their trust is violated is to not speak to that particular reporter again. 

Misunderstandings between sources and journalists sometimes happen by accident, but ambiguity can also be purposefully exploited. In the industry, we call that “burning a source.” When they do it, journalists often rationalize that it’s in the best interest of the public. In practice, it’s usually mostly in the best interest of the journalist, resulting in a high-profile juicy story that catapults a career.

The story swiftly went viral on Twitter.
The story swiftly went viral on Twitter.

I was deeply worried about the implications for Martin. Possession of a cellphone is punished harshly in prison, even though (or maybe because) they are common. There were also plenty of government officials angling to crusade against the world’s most famous, if far from most powerful or influential, drug industry villain. A viral article alleging a continued illegal “scheme” by him might be just the opening they needed.

Underneath all of those emotions, though, I felt a hard knot of satisfaction. From the very beginning when Martin started talking to Rob, I warned Martin what might happen. I had been dead right.

Like many messy and dangerous matters, the whole thing started out innocuously. Martin called me while I was in an Uber, traveling home from my brother’s place in Brooklyn on a chilly night in early 2019. Naturally, he was calling me from his illicit phone. His alter ego name “Dan Irving” flashed across my screen. 

“Hey!” he said brightly when I answered. He was bursting with eagerness to tell me something.

As usual with Martin’s stories, it started with a random thread – something about his friend Kevin who was Vyera’s then-CEO, and something about a Wall Street Journal reporter named Copeland. It took some prodding and pulling by me for him to reveal a coherent narrative. Finally, he got to the point: This reporter, Copeland, was working on a story about Vyera, and Martin had been talking to him. 

I was tipsy from wine I’d had at my brother’s apartment, and my stomach was full of girlish butterflies because I was talking to my secret, internationally infamous, incarcerated paramour. But my journalistic instincts were sharp enough to cut through both intoxicating effects. The obviousness of what Copeland was after lit up my brain like a Times Square billboard.

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“He wants to write about the phone,” I said. “That’s the story, Martin. That’s what every reporter wants.” Martin wasn’t overly careful about using his phone, and I was sure the rumors of its existence were spreading, as exquisite morsels of gossip always do.

“No….” Martin replied, sounding a bit deflated. “He’s not. He told me he wouldn’t and I trust him.” 

He explained that Copeland had interviewed him before, and that the Journal was “cool” with him.  He went on about how he’d heard some disgruntled Vyera shareholders were talking to Copeland, and he was worried the story would make Kevin look bad. So he wanted to step in and take the heat off of his friend. Plus, he was excited to talk about what Vyera was doing.

“Ok….” I said, trying to quiet my howling suspicions. If Martin really wanted to talk to this reporter, and knew the risks, and believed he could trust him, what could I really do except support my boyfriend, I reasoned. 

In a show of generosity, Martin said he would be happy if I participated in order to stir up interest in my book. So a few weeks later I did an interview over the phone with Rob, commenting as Martin’s friend and biographer. I left out the part about us “dating.” Martin and I knew how potentially explosive that information could be, since I had previously been a reporter covering him for a major news organization, and we weren’t quite ready to be tabloid fodder.

Rob, who called me while I was at an airport, traveling to a conference for my then-job as an editor at an insurance publication, was pleasant and professional. I shared some “color” about Martin in prison, including all of the time he spent researching pharmaceuticals and the friendships he’d made with inmates from poor backgrounds, whom he tutored in economics and science.

I found it surprisingly easy, as a journalist, to flip to the other side. “So what’s the focus of your story,” I asked without missing a beat, like any assertive and competent PR adviser. He replied that it had to do with what was going on with Vyera and what Martin was doing in prison, saying nothing about Martin’s cell phone. I nodded along cheerfully, feeling somewhat reassured – although not completely. 

Then Rob said something that caught me a bit off guard. He said, in a voice tinged with an emotion I could not quite identify (like all of the quotes here, it is an approximation from memory): “It’s hard not feeling responsible, even though he makes these choices himself, isn’t it?” 

I replied affirmatively, not sure exactly what he was referring to, but with a creeping sense of dread.

A week or two later, I got another call from Martin. This time, it was not so exuberant. He sounded breathlessly with fury. “Rob called me for a fact-check,” he said. “He’s going to write about the phone.”  As a girlfriend, I should have bitten my tongue and consoled him. As a media professional, my ego got the better of me. “Uggggghh…I told you he would do that!” I said.

My comments only inflamed Martin’s anger more. I realized my mistake and tried to sound more understanding, and he started to calm down. “I guess we’ll see what happens. Maybe it will just be mentioned somewhere low in the story,” Martin finally ventured hopefully.

Of course, he was hoping in vain. It took a few hours after the story was published, with the cellphone highlighted prominently, for the Bureau of Prisons to fully absorb the information. When it did, the rusty gears of the bureaucracy snapped down on Martin like a bear trap.

An inmate friend of his called me and another emailed me to alert me that he had been thrown in solitary confinement. Rob later reported on the Journal’s website that Martin was “under investigation.” Martin remained in solitary for several weeks during the probe.

Disciplinary officials were unable to prove Martin had a cellphone – there were far too many illegal phones at FCI Fort Dix. But they transferred him to a prison that was the same security level with a much stricter reputation, Allenwood Low, for good measure. Having publicly made the bureau look foolish and inept, he had an even bigger target on his back.

And that was hardly the worst of it. The Federal Trade Commission and a pack of state attorneys general also seized on the story, filing a lawsuit the following year which alleged that Martin had not only run his business from prison with a cellphone but also orchestrated a monopolistic scheme while doing so.

A Manhattan judge, whom I suspected from past legal reporting experience would likely be unsympathetic to a squirrely renegade like Martin, allowed the agencies to steamroll him. She handed them a total victory which included both a $65 million judgment and a ruling banning him from the drug industry.

Meanwhile, Rob Copeland’s star in the media industry rose. He continued to report and write ever-splashier features about high-profile business villains, including Elon Musk, after he took over Twitter. His Twitter following grew by several thousand. And eventually he left the Journal, climbing into a loftier perch at the New York Times.

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SMIRK
SMIRK (audio version)
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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Christie Smythe