The opening sentence in Moby Dick is a simple, yet memorable line: “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator intones before digging in to tell his impressive tale. Clearly, the story and its morals weighed on Andrew Bodnar, a former senior vice president at Bristol-Myers Squibb, who writes in his memoir that he was tempted to start his own work with a similar, and clever, phrase: “Call me Schlemiel.”
Mr. Bodnar, you see, has apparently felt that way about himself for the past few years. His complex dates to 2008, when he was indicted for allegedly lying to the Federal Trade Commission about an arrangement between BMS, marketing partner Sanofi, and generic marketer Apotex to keep a generic version of best-selling blood thinner Plavix off the market.
For those who may not recall, Mr. Bodnar played a central role in the complicated negotiations, flitting between meetings with his counterparts at Sanofi and haggling with Apotex executives. Basically, he was chartered with forestalling generic Plavix and preserving BMS’ stranglehold on the market. The FTC, however, charged that he lied about the existence of a secret side deal with Apotex.
The episode became a huge scandal — one of two, in fact — that contributed to an embarrassing overhaul of the BMS c-suite, which included the departure of former chief executive Peter Dolan. The drug maker, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to making false statements and paid a $1 million fine.
As for Mr. Bodnar, he subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to authorities, and was fined $5,000 and unsupervised probation for two years. This was much less severe than the five years in prison and a $250,000 fine that he faced upon his indictment in 2008. But then, there is the matter of his book. As part of the sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered Mr. Bodnar to write a book about his experience.
The judge hoped that others might learn from the sort of mistakes Mr. Bodnar had made, and he explained this quite clearly at sentencing. A book would be “instructive, so that other individuals don’t find themselves in a situation that you have just indicated is unpleasant and unforeseen,” he said in 2009. “Who knows? Maybe, possibly (it will be) inspirational to people who read it.”
In meting out such an unusual punishment, the judge took into account that Mr. Bodnar was from a modest background, but was well educated and accomplished; had otherwise behaved as a model citizen throughout his life and was spoken of highly by many people. He also noted that Mr. Bodnar simply made a blunder, although a sizeable one for which punishment could not be overlooked.
This explains why the judge settled on this novel — pun intended — penalty. Mr. Bodnar followed through and completed a 253-page tome that he calls The First Question, in which he intersperses cut-and-dried, if insightful, descriptions of the inner workings of the pharma industry with touching recollections of his family and immigrant beginnings that are told in the third person.
The memoir is not a classic page-turner in the same vein as some sensational confessionals that have captured the public imagination and are now considered by some to be must reading. A recent example would include Life, the autobiography by Keith Richards. Mr. Bodnar is not a rock star, of course, but he possesses a creative flair of his own for aptly capturing personalities and setting scenes.
More important, he does a useful job of explaining the complicated interplay between patents, big-selling drugs and generic competition. And he is able to do so in a way that offers needed context to understand the disparate corporate strategies at work, along with the usual political jockeying and dueling agendas that affected the decisions made in the Plavix saga.
Although arcane in many respects, his tale is a primer of sorts and captures a moment in time when deals between brand-name drugmakers and their generic rivals were at their controversial peak. The impetus behind these deals, of course, is for brand-name drugmakers to protect sales as long as possible and for generic drugmakers to get a piece of the action at some point (and maybe a little compensation for delaying the generic product).
The FTC, in fact, maintains most of these deals are anti-competitive and has attempted to persuade Congress and the courts to restrict them, although to no avail. Nonetheless, the Plavix scandal was a rare moment for the agency, because the underhanded dealings between BMS and Apotex offered an opportunity to point to bad behavior in the pharma industry.
Mr. Bodnar, however, writes that the feds clung to a “mistaken belief that I had made a statement to the government that I knew to be false.” Nonetheless, he found himself at the center of a complicated imbroglio from which he could not cleanly extract himself. And at the end of the day, he had to face the harsh reality that he made a mistake.
Beyond the insider view of the industry, Mr. Bodnar successfully relies on a clever literary device. Throughout, he weaves memories of his childhood and family life, recounting how his mother survived the Holocaust and later her escape from Communist Hungary as the Soviets invaded in 1956, and recalls the life of an immigrant family in the U.S. during the mid-20th century.
Although his mother, Magda, developed Alzheimer’s, Mr. Bodnar imagines she would have told him that “‘at least they had to go to a judge to get a search warrant,’ continuing to make the argument that she never stopped making for the ‘Land of the Free’ to which she had, at great peril and to her own well being, brought her son,” he writes. She died shortly before he was indicted.
In other words, Mr. Bodnar tried to put a human face on his own tragedy. Beyond the retelling of the Plavix events, he uses the third person to trace how he emerged from a tortured familial past to achieve unusual success in the U.S. — he earned degrees in medicine and law became a high-ranking corporate executive.
He is rightfully proud of those accomplishments, but also takes responsibility for the miscues that led to his undoing, despite the bitterness he feels toward the feds. There will be those who disagree with his assessments and recollections, no doubt, but Mr. Bodnar is insightful and articulate, and his fall from pharmaceutical grace does offer a lesson for others who might be equally careless.
For those wondering where they can find a copy, however, one has to be able to access the online federal court system, although links have been created on some web sites that wrote about the book when it first became known. The judge only ordered that Bodnar write a book; he did not say a book had to be published, according to the judgment order.
So far, attorneys representing Mr. Bodnar have publicly declined to say whether publication will occur. Whether his tome is worthy of publication in its present state is debatable, but some helpful editing would likely make his story acceptable for public consumption. At that point, his book should be published. After all, no one has a chance to learn from his mistakes if the book cannot be found.
Mr. Bodnar may not enjoy the sort of high profile that would come with publication. Appearing on talk shows and being asked to relive the Plavix debacle is unlikely to be high on his list of things to do. Most any publisher, after all, would want him to do some promotion. But publication might yet allow his story — replete with his disbelief at the turn of events in his life — to become a useful example for others.
In this way, he could fulfill the goals spelled out by the judge and close the circle so that he can move on to whatever might come next.
Ed Silverman is a prize-winning journalist who has covered the pharmaceutical industry for The Star-Ledger of New Jersey, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers, for more than 12 years. Prior to joining The Star-Ledger, Ed spent six years at New York Newsday and previously worked at Investor’s Business Daily. Ed blogs about the drug industry at Pharmalot, at www.pharmalot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing with Conviction
BMS fraudster pens his penalty
By Ed Silverman, Contributing Editor
Published May 30, 2012
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