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‘Bottle of Lies’ author Katherine Eban on investigating Big Pharma

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Investigative journalist Katherine Eban reports on public health and pharmaceuticals for Vanity Fair, currently covering the COVID-19 crisis. She describes her beat as being at the intersection of science and politics.

Eban’s latest book and New York Times bestseller, Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom, is an investigation into the generic drug industry and exposes one of the most memorable frauds perpetrated by a giant pharmaceutical company, and the subsequent risks for patients’ health, in the U.S. and abroad.

ICIJ interviewed Eban ahead of Double Exposure, an investigative film festival, where she will run a master class on the investigative process. You can purchase tickets to the festival with a 10% discount using ICIJ’s code: ICIJDX2.

 

You began working on the book in 2008 and worked on it for 10 years almost uninterrupted — traveling to India, China, Ghana, England, Ireland, around the U.S. and Mexico to report. How did you get interested in that topic specifically?

So it was 2008 and I got a phone call from a guy named Joe Graedon, who is a host of an NPR program called “The People’s Pharmacy.” He said that he was getting flooded with complaints from listeners who were having trouble with their generic drugs. They weren’t working properly and [the patients] had side effects and he believed their complaints were substantial.

I kept my notes from this conversation the whole time because I felt that was consequential. 

He brought those complaints to the FDA [United States Food and Drug Administration] and officials there told him that they were probably psychosomatic reactions, that you could switch to a different drug, and you have a psychosomatic reaction that’s in your head. And he didn’t believe it. And he said to me, “What is wrong with the drugs?” I was like, “Yes, what is wrong with the drugs?” And I set out to answer that question, which was so much more complicated than I could have ever dreamed up. The answer is really all over the world. So what I ended up embarking on was a global quest.

It was just a giant global connect the dots effort basically.

Your book focuses on the fraud perpetrated by the executives of Ranbaxy, the Indian drug company that makes generic Lipitor, a cholesterol treatment used by millions of patients in the U.S.  In 2013 you wrote a magazine article for Fortune covering part of the case.

Why did you decide to focus on the Indian company Ranbaxy?

Once I understood that there was potential fraud in the quality of the data that generic companies were submitting to regulators, the Ranbaxy story was the obvious hook because Ranbaxy was being investigated by the FDA for data falsification. 

There was a whistleblower inside of Ranbaxy, and his story forms the core of [my book] “Bottle of Lies.” 

It’s an amazing story. The story of Dinesh Thakur and what he went through and his effort to expose wrongdoing of Ranbaxy was incredibly dramatic. And it took me years to piece it together, actually, from a cover up that the board of directors launched to his sort of silent suffering and secret. [His being] the biggest secret informant for the government was really very dramatic. So that and the fraud itself was incredible at Ranbaxy, I mean just beyond the stuff of nightmares. That is why I focused on that.

In 2019, Ranbaxy’s former executives, the billionaire brothers Malvinder and Shivinder Singh were found guilty of contempt of court for violating the terms of their arbitration case with Japanese company Daiichi Sankyo. How did you react to their arrest?

These were men who had pulled off almost the swindle of a lifetime, because they suppressed the evidence of fraud at Ranbaxy and sold it to the Japanese [company] Daiichi Sankyo for $2 billion in shares. And then once Daiichi Sankyo took over ownership of the company, they discovered, lo and behold, that they had purchased this company that was saturated with fraud, and [the Singhs] had suppressed the truth about what happened inside the company. So Daiichi Sankyo began this sort of global effort for justice for its shareholders. And that led to a series of consequences in which Malvinder and his brother were marched often in handcuffs. So it was incredibly, incredibly dramatic. And, I must say, pretty rewarding. 

Talking about the whistleblower in your book, I thought his life and struggle was so sad. But it kind of tells the reality of whistleblowing, because a lot of these people really sacrifice their whole life to tell the truth.

Why did you decide to tell the story of his struggle and make him a central character?

His story, to me, was clearly the sort of necessary narrative thread by which to help the reader through what is very complicated terrain [of] good manufacturing practices, data manipulation, all this kind of stuff that is super complicated and very detailed and hard to follow.

But, here was a human story that I could really map it on to. It was remarkable. And towards the end of the book, I was reporting the story in real time.  

And there [you have] Dinesh Thakur, who ended up making $48 million as a whistleblower, he could have just bought a small Caribbean island and set for it, and gone into hiding. But he ended up suing India! Talk about a fruitless quest to try to fight for better regulation and better drug quality.

Having reported a lot on whistleblowers, and having worked with many of them through my articles, [I have come to realize that] they’re a very distinct, distinct breed. Most of us can go to sleep at night, even if we know there’s a great injustice. But whistleblowers can’t, they can’t sleep at night. 

And I think, as a journalist, that the people who want to do investigative journalism and want to write about this stuff and expose this stuff, also can’t sleep at night. It can be a very challenging and difficult collaboration, but you’re kind of meant for each other. So I think covering Dinesh’s quest made a lot of sense.

What was the most challenging part of all this? Was it dealing with the people or the FDA, and their bureaucracy?

Dealing with the FDA wasn’t too hard in the sense that I didn’t deal with them. They mostly didn’t talk to me and [provided] a very minimal input into this book. I would say that the most challenging part was just keeping on going until I really felt that I had answered that question. 

There were many, many times where quitting seemed like the best option. The Chinese government followed me, they hacked my phone. There were some alarming circumstances in India. I felt pretty out there, by myself doing this reporting. And if this falls short of many times, sort of impossible to penetrate an industry that was headquartered 7,000 miles away from the U.S. But you get to this point in any reporting project, where you’re like, “Well, I’ve gotten this far. So if I stop now, like, what’s the point of that?” And I think through just sheer stubbornness, you keep going.

When did you decide where to stop? Because you could have kept going … forever?

Until my publisher said, “We’re going to cancel this book, unless we’ve got a draft.” Deadlines have a way of forcing you to stop. But I mean, of course, in a way you never stop. I’m reporting my book now and it was published, over a year ago. So you don’t ever really stop the reporting.

You’re still working on this?

You always follow the leads whenever they come in, even if they come in too late. On one hand, yes, but, but right now I am full time reporting on COVID-19. So I’m exploring the federal government’s response. And I’ve been doing this for big stories on what happened in the White House and Jared Kushner and those sorts of things. 

You’ve been an investigative journalist for many years, what have you learned that you will apply again in the future?

You have to just talk to more people than anybody else. There’s usually a feeling of ‘how am I going to get new information when X number of journalists have been on the story?’ When it looks like all of the sources sort of belong to other people, ‘what can I possibly bring to this?’ And from that sorrow and despair usually comes some renewed effort. And then there’s usually this moment, you can almost like, smell new information. When you hear something that just sounds strange and worthy of investigation. 

I think every single story I’ve done, there’s some moment like that, that launches you into reporting mode. And sometimes you have to talk to a lot of people to get to that moment. But once you have that, once you feel you’re in pursuit of new information, what’s really critical is figuring out who has information whose hands are on this information. And you have to sort of visualize and map the information like: how does it flow? Where does it sit? And who’s touched it? And who knows? And then once you do that, you really need to figure out like, who has the motivation to help you nail this story. 

And in most of my stories, there are some unsung heroes who are motivated to help me get a story into print; some source somewhere, who is going to help me figure it out. So that’s critical. What’s also critical is documents, documents, almost any kind of documents. It’s like, if you’re putting up a tent, a document is one of those little pegs you put in the ground; a little stake and you’re just trying to keep this tent up. You’re sticking the stakes into the ground, whether it’s calendar entries, emails, memos, text messages.

I did a big story this summer about a COVID-19 testing plan that Jared Kushner had commissioned and then abandoned. But my reporting for that story began with this weird invoice that I got. It was an invoice for 3.5 million diagnostic tests. It was a United Arab Emirates company that sold the test kits, the client name on the invoice: just WH. That was the White House. 

So that invoice sat on my desk, and I just studied it every day, trying to sort of hoover up every little piece of information from that invoice to try to figure out what it meant, where it could lead me. So you know, these documents are critical in helping you understand behind the scenes events. In that one invoice I saw a White House procurement operation that was in total violation of federal laws. 

It reflected a desperate scramble behind the scenes to try to get diagnostic test kits. At a moment when President Trump had told all of us, anyone who wants to test can get a test. Well, no. They were behind the curtain, desperately trying to get test kits. So you know, the documents are critical.

So you said that basically, investigative journalists kind of become obsessed with the topic that they are working on. And it’s also a very stressful job, because you have to be sure of every little thing. So how do you relieve your stress? Do you have any special tricks?

Well, it is very stressful. There was a point when closing [the book] “Bottle of Lies” and there were a lot of legal threats that you get to a moment in a project where, even your best sources hate you, too.

At that point, I was like, ‘Can I do this work anymore? This is so incredibly stressful.’ And then you get past that and of course, you’re really committed to the whole thing. 

A great stress reliever: I have a giant dog named Romeo who’s a 187 pound Newfoundland. He’s huge. And we have a lot of fun with him. My kids and husband are great support. And that’s pretty much it. But this is a very high stress moment. Now, for journalists covering the upcoming election, covering the pandemic. Journalists are under so much pressure. It is hard to find a stress relief.

So you’re covering COVID-19 now, and a lot of other people are doing that too. Despite the whole coverage, do you think there is still something that is going underreported?

I would say all of my stories kind of fall under this politics versus science conflict, which is really at the heart of our terrible COVID-19 response in the U.S. We’re seeing sort of governmental lies on an epic scale. And journalists have to be out there exposing [them]. It is literally a matter of life and death. It’s like an all hands on deck moment. It’s not like, there’s just one lie. There is a whole landscape of lies. 

So to be able to kind of dismantle that through reporting and to come back to the science and to explain all this to readers … there needs to be a whole army of us doing it.

Did your interests and skills as a novelist inform your work as a journalist?

I think that they do because storytelling is critically important. Without storytelling, you don’t have readers. When constructing these stories, the reader has to be sort of front of mind. And that can often be very hard to do with investigative journalism because there’s huge amounts of material, it’s hard to condense. 

So when I talk to my editors and construct the lead to a story, we talk about the camera. My editor at Vanity Fair sometimes says, “Okay, this is the camera opening up on the film, and how do you get the reader into the story?” So do think a lot about scenes and all of that.

Finally, one question that we always ask: do you have any tips for aspiring investigative journalists?

Work harder than anybody else. That is the name of the game. There are people who make three phone calls; be the journalist that makes 10 phone calls. 

Don’t get discouraged and don’t necessarily take no for an answer. Aggressively but politely pursue information and pursue sources. Unless somebody tells you that if you contact them again, they’ll call the police, there is the potential for a relationship there.

And then once they invoke the police, then you really can’t go back to them. But short of that, don’t give up! 

With people who are not answering my emails, or my texts, one thing that I’ve done in my reporting is … I just continue sending them every couple of days. I pretend that we’re actually in a relationship. And then eventually, they’ll respond. And offer your sources information. The journalist is always asking for information … offer them information. It’s an amazing door opener, because people in these governmental bureaucracies want information. There’s often information they don’t have and don’t know. If you’re somebody who’s like, “Hey, I wanted to share something with you.” I mean, who doesn’t respond to that? 

The interview has been edited for clarity.

The post ‘Bottle of Lies’ author Katherine Eban on investigating Big Pharma appeared first on ICIJ.

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Election Integrity

Analyzing the Case for Election Fraud

Despite the overwhelming pressure, if you can’t help but feel that tingling sense of knowing that is telling you there’s more to the story, you are not alone. In fact, according to a new Rassmussen poll, nearly 50% of voters believe the election had issues. A quick look at the data blatantly shows that indeed, shenanigans abound (how can a state have 1+ million more mail-in ballots tallied than they sent out?). But was it fraud or masterful gamesmanship?

Adryenn Ashley

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The world, or at least the global media, has spoken: Biden won the 2020 Election.

UPDATED FREQUENTLY WITH NEW INFORMATION – Last update 12/21/2020

A quick Google search reveals pages upon pages of reports of why the Trump team’s assertions of vote fraud and election fraud and vote flipping are flat out fallacies. YouTube has announced a ban on any videos questioning the election results. And now on Monday all 538 electors have voted, formalizing Biden’s 306-232 win. And while there is still Congress to get through, and the inauguration, based on social media and television news and practically every other point of information bombarding society today, Biden is now the President-elect.

But why now, after Government officials confirmed during Senate testimony that a foreign adversary, Russia, attempted to interfere in the 2016 United States Presidential Election via “a multi-faceted approach intended to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” According to U.S. intelligence official reports, Russia targeted voter registration databases in at least 21 states and sought to infiltrate the networks of voting equipment vendors, political parties, and at least one local election board. And if their purpose was not so much to “hack” the election but create chaos and sow seeds of uncertainty around our election process, I would say they have won. But what if this cycle, it was Russia who somehow manipulated extra ballots and placed the blame on the Democrats? What if…?

Russian Experience With Voter Fraud

The 2004 presidential election in Ukraine saw suspiciously high turnout rates that “even Stalinist North Korea would envy,” the State Department declared!

Back then, the U.S. government decried as corrupt an earlier election where special voting boxes were created to help citizens vote from home, election observers were expelled from vote counts, pre-election polls were wildly off, and voter turnout in certain communities exceeded 90%.

But the story of that Ukrainian election as recounted by then-Ambassador John Tefft to a Senate committee in December 2004 raises a tantalizing question for voters distrustful of the Nov. 3 elections results in our own 2020 Presidential Election: If tactics and outcomes in the Ukrainian election back then were enough to cry foul, why can’t Americans debate similar concerns here?

Tefft’s testimony raises an important question: Should America, the greatest democracy in the world, share any of the fraudulent attributes of a Ukrainian election? The answer for most Americans is hopefully resounding “No.”

And despite continued and repeated headlines that there was no fraud, according to the Harvard Kenney School report on Election Integrity this cycle, expert assessments indicate that compared with 2016, the performance of this contest displays several warning flags, namely worsening confidence in the integrity of American elections and falling public trust, challenges to legitimacy arising from threats of campaign violence,legal disputes about the process and results, and public protests about the outcome, as well as growing attempts at voter suppression. 

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Investigations

Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

Landmark laws to thwart the use of U.S. shell companies by terrorists, human traffickers, arms dealers and kleptocrats are set to be enacted after more than a decade of lobbying and politicking with rare bipartisan support.

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Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory

The sweeping anti-money laundering reforms hitched a lift in the annual defense spending bill that passed the Senate 84-13 today, and was approved by the House 355-78 earlier this week.

The Corporate Transparency Act requires U.S. companies to report their true owners to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN — largely ending anonymous shell companies in the country.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has repeatedly documented how the rich, the powerful and the criminal have used anonymous entities to hide their wealth, including in the 2016 Panama Papers and the 2020 FinCEN Files investigations.

Welcoming the clampdown, Transparency International’s U.S. director Gary Kalman said, “It is rare for such a simple measure to promise such an enormous impact.” Kalman added that the long sought anti-corruption reforms would “move us into a new era of enforcement.”

The new legislation will allow law enforcement agencies and financial institutions to request company ownership information from FinCEN. The data will not be publicly available.

FinCEN Files was based on a trove of suspicious activity reports filed by banks and other financial institutions to FinCEN. BuzzFeed News obtained the secret documents and shared them with ICIJ and more than 100 other media organizations.

The global investigation exposed how a broken U.S.-led enforcement system allows banks to continue to profit from moving dirty money tied to drug cartels, trafficking rings fueling the opioid crisis, fraud, organized crime, sanctions evasion, ruinous real estate schemes, and terrorism.

“Too many times, people … think money laundering is a federal, victimless crime. It is certainly not that,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate banking committee, told reporters on a call organized by the advocacy group the FACT Coalition. “Sinaloa cartel actors, fentanyl traffickers have been destroying thousands of families in my state and across the country.”

Earlier this year, Brown credited FinCEN Files for revealing the lack of forceful enforcement against banks that repeatedly violate the law. Advocates said a number of proposed bipartisan bills, including one co-sponsored by Brown, were instrumental in generating the support needed to attach the reforms to the spending bill.

“This is a really big deal to get this passed,” Brown said Thursday. “No more hiding these abuses in anonymous shell companies. It also cracks down on bank officials who look the other way or actively aid money laundering.”

A long time coming

ICIJ has shown how offshore shell companies have been used for dubious financial dealings and tax avoidance through a series of global exposés, including the Secrecy for Sale investigation, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. U.S. lawmakers have repeatedly cited the investigations in proposing reforms over the years.

Countries like the United Kingdom, Indonesia and members of the European Union also took steps toward ending anonymous shell companies in response to ICIJ reporting.

“When the Panama Papers leaked, there was a huge flurry of interest because there’s all of a sudden this recognition that it was kleptocrats, money launderers, corrupt officials the world over, as well as criminals, were all using a very common structure to help evade law enforcement, which was setting up an anonymous company,” Lakshmi Kumar, policy director of Global Financial Integrity, said.

The phenomenon is not limited to the exotic offshore tax havens of popular imagination. U.S. jurisdictions like Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada are among the world’s top locations to set up anonymous companies. Legislation to require corporations to disclose their true owners was first proposed in the U.S. over a decade ago, co-sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama, and similar bills have been introduced over the years.

Advocates credit years of lobbying a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which had previously been a leading opponent, in getting the reforms across the finish line this year.

“What’s changed now is a growing understanding among various constituencies about the harms that anonymous companies pose, and the threats that they pose for our financial system, to our businesses,” Clark Gascoigne, senior policy advisor at FACT Coalition, said.

But it’s not a done deal quite yet.

Although the anti-money laundering proposals have had the support of the administration, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act over provisions unrelated to financial secrecy.

Both the House and the Senate votes surpassed the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a veto, although some Republicans have indicated that they would not support what would be the first veto override of the Trump presidency.

But the NDAA has been reliably passed by Congress every year for six decades and advocates are confident that the time has come for the landmark financial transparency measure that’s included in the omnibus bill.

“It’s one of the few areas where the outgoing Trump administration agrees with the incoming Biden administration,” Gascoigne said. “It may be the first bill in the history of Congress that has the support of both Dow Chemical and Friends of the Earth. Heck, the state of Delaware even supports reform.”

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Investigations

Muslim Brotherhood suspect and Saudi billionaire linked to same offshore companies, Austrian report says

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One of 30 people in Austria suspected to be members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Muslim Brotherhood was the director of offshore companies linked to a Saudi billionaire, according to an investigation by Austrian media outlets profil and Ö1.

The man, described as a 37-year-old Viennese entrepreneur with Iraqi roots, is suspected of “participating in a terrorist, subversive and criminal organization” and was a target of the police investigation into the group and the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas, the report said

The inquiry, which led 930 officers to raid 60 apartments, shops and clubs in four federal states last month, had no connection to the Vienna terror attack that killed four and injured 23 on November 2, according to officials cited by Deutsche Welle.

The Austrian report ー based on police records ー does not name the suspect, nor the Saudi businessman, for fear of hampering the ongoing probe into possible terror financing.

The pair’s link to shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore financial centers was revealed for the first time after the reporters’ examination of Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017.

The 13.4 million files include incorporation documents, emails, contracts and other records from two offshore service providers and the company registries of some of the world’s most secretive countries.

The Austrian man was listed as the director of several companies in the BVI, Malta and the Bahamas, the media report said. His address on the documents referred to an apartment in Vienna that belongs to the wife of one of the main suspects in the police investigation, according to a review of Austria’s land registry records.

By cross-checking the confidential files with property records, the reporters also found that the shell companies owned properties in the U.K., including two office buildings, a commercial property and a retail park, worth about $73 million in total.

The documents show that a Liechtenstein trust owned by the Saudi businessman was behind those companies. The man is also known as a philanthropist who has financed Islamic studies at various European universities in recent years, including in Austria, the report added.

The complex offshore structure identified by the journalists is legal, the report said, but “can be used to disguise the flow of money and the identity of the true economic beneficiaries.”

Profil and Ö1, two ICIJ media partners in Austria, asked the Viennese suspect about the purpose of the offshore company network and his link with the Saudi billionaire. A lawyer representing him declined to comment.

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