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'Pharma bro' Martin Shkreli smirks and stays silent before Congress

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Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

(Read caption) Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals LLC, appears before a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on "Developments in the Prescription Drug Market Oversight" on Capitol Hill in Washington today.

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Former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli came before the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform on Thursday for the committee’s hearing on drug prices. Although forced to attend, Mr. Shkreli remained silent at the hearing.

Shkreli became notorious throughout the United States in September, when he raised the price of the antiparasitic drug Daraprim by 5,556 percent, from $13.50 to $750 a pill.

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The price hikes were judged particularly heinous because they rendered it impossible for many to pay for the drug.

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In December, Shkreli was arrested on securities fraud charges regarding another company he owned.

From the beginning of the hearing, Shkreli asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, answering, “On the advice of counsel, I invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and respectfully decline to answer your question,” to nearly every question.

Although committee members tried repeatedly to encourage Shkreli to speak, he maintained a stubborn silence as advocated by his lawyer. Even when committee members told Shkreli that his responses to questions that were not related to unrelated fraud charges against him would not be used against him, Shkreli continued to remain silent.

Shkreli yawned through the committee’s questions, occasionally twirling his pencil in a way that was perceived as contemptuous.

As Shkreli smirked in silence, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland told Shkreli, “It’s not funny, Mr. Shkreli. People are dying. They are also getting sicker and sicker.”

Eventually, the committee allowed Shkreli to leave the room, due to his refusal to answer any questions.

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"I think it's extraordinarily unfair that Turing has been singled out for the type of unfair publicity they have received,” said Shkreli’s lawyer Ben Brafman. “I think everyone will recognize that Mr. Shkreli is not a villain, he is not the bad boy.”

Turing is not the only pharmaceuticals company to engage in massive price hikes. Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Rodelis Therapeutics are both under investigation by Congress for their role in ratcheting up the price of heart and tuberculosis drugs, respectively.

Valeant’s practices were also in question at Thursday’s hearing. Both companies have been called morally bankrupt for their pricing decisions.

Shkreli’s smirks have captured the news, but despite his stony silence, dialogue did occur at the hearing today. Unlike Shkreli, Turing’s chief commercial officer Nancy Retzlaff and Valeant interim CEO Howard Schiller not only attended the hearing, but they also answered questions.

Due to the way the insurance system functions, Mr. Schiller told Congress that although drug companies could give cost assistance to individuals with commercial insurance coverage and those without insurance at all, patients with Medicare coverage were ineligible for aid.

Despite these assertions, Reuters reports that Schiller adopted a conciliatory tone, saying, "Where we have made mistakes, we are listening and changing"

Although Retzlaff and Schiller answered questions, some observers judged their attempts at circumlocution as suspect.

The best known instance of individuals making use of their Fifth Amendment rights in a congressional hearing occurred after World War II, during the second Red Scare. Members of the Hollywood Ten pleaded the Fifth before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during anti-Communist investigations. They were consequently cited for contempt of Congress and became the founding members of the Hollywood blacklist.

Rep. John Mica (D) of Florida asked the committee chairman if Shkreli would be held in contempt of Congress. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the committee treated with such contempt," Rep. Mica said

Despite his obvious disgust with Shkreli’s behavior, committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah declined to hold him in contempt.  After leaving the room, Shkreli tweeted, saying: