Reporter who covered ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli arrest reveals relationship with him

“Your honour, finding love with Martin was a great joy for me.”

In April, journalist Christie Smythe wrote those words to a federal judge about Martin Shkreli, the widely vilified former pharmaceutical executive who is serving a seven-year sentence on a fraud conviction.

Smythe, 37, wrote to Judge Kiyo Matsumoto of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York on April 14 as part of an emergency motion filed by Shkreli’s lawyers requesting a compassionate release. They argued that Shkreli, who gained infamy for raising the price of a lifesaving drug by 5000 per cent, would be able to work on a cure for Covid-19 and could avoid contracting the virus himself if he were released from prison.

In the letter, an unredacted copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, Smythe laid out the story of how she, a former Bloomberg News reporter who helped break the story of Shkreli’s arrest in 2015, had fallen in love with a man the BBC had called “the most hated man in America”. She asked the judge to allow Shkreli to continue serving his sentence in home confinement, at her Manhattan apartment.

“It has been a long emotional journey for me from when I first came into your courtroom as a journalist covering Martin Shkreli’s case in 2015 to the present moment, as I submit this letter to you as his girlfriend and would-be life partner,” she wrote.

Smythe said she was concerned about the risk posed by the virus to the prison population. “He does not deserve a death sentence,” she wrote, “or even a potential death sentence, from a virus that is beyond the capacity of prison officials to control. Nor do I deserve to lose out on a chance at happiness with a man I love.”

The relationship between Smythe, who joined Bloomberg News as a legal reporter in 2012, and Shkreli was revealed in an Elle magazine article Sunday.

“I started to fall for him, I think, after he got thrown in prison,” Smythe said in an interview with The Times, referring to when Shkreli’s bail was revoked and he was jailed in September 2017. “I definitely felt emotionally compromised then, but I didn’t quite know what to do about that.” Smythe left Bloomberg News in 2018 and got divorced from her husband the next year.

Shkreli’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said in an interview Monday that he was surprised by the Elle article, only to add: “Nothing about Martin or the case surprises me.”

He said he had “always suspected” that the relationship between the reporter and his client was more than professional. “I tried to warn Martin about that,” he said. “And Martin, as is his custom, said, ‘Thank you, and I’ll factor your advice in.'”

Smythe said she had met with Shkreli’s parents and brother last year in Brooklyn, where Shkreli grew up. “His dad took me around their neighbourhood, which was really sweet,” Smythe said in the interview with The Times.

When asked if the Shkreli family knew about the Elle article, which Smythe participated in, she said: “Yeah, I think so. I should probably send them the link just to make sure.”

In September 2015, Shkreli — who was then 32 and the chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals — hiked the price overnight of Daraprim, a drug that treats a rare, potentially fatal parasitic infection, from US$13.50 to $750 a tablet. He was accused of price-gouging, and his combative, sneering responses to the criticism earned him the moniker Pharma Bro.

His arrest, in the early hours of December 17, 2015, related to his time as a hedge fund manager and as the chief executive of the biopharmaceutical company Retrophin. Shkreli was charged with securities fraud and conspiracy for lying to investors and mismanaging money.

Smythe and a Bloomberg News colleague, Keri Geiger, broke the news of the arrest in an article that described Shkreli as a “boastful pharmaceutical executive”. Smythe continued on the story, covering Shkreli as he was convicted in 2017 and sentenced in 2018. He is now in the Allenwood Low federal prison in Pennsylvania.

In 2018, after Smythe’s editors cautioned her about her social media posts about Shkreli — one included a snapshot of her personal correspondence with him — she decided to leave Bloomberg News, with the idea of writing a book about the man she had covered for nearly three years. (Smythe told Elle that she did not have high hopes for publishing a book that did not make Shkreli out to be a villain, but said she had sold a film option.)

“I didn’t hide how much I interacted with him,” she told The Times. “I don’t really think I did anything wrong. I realise, in hindsight, maybe earlier I should have acted a little more proactively. But, honestly, I don’t think any harm was done.”

Bloomberg News said it had found no bias in Smythe’s coverage of Shkreli.

“Ms Smythe’s conduct with regard to Mr Shkreli was not consistent with expectations for a Bloomberg journalist,” a Bloomberg News spokesperson said. “Ms Smythe tendered her resignation, and we accepted it.”

Smythe said she had no regrets about how she had dealt with the ethically perilous issue of covering someone she had developed feelings for. “In journalism school, they don’t really tell you what to do when this comes up,” she said. “I just tried to muddle through it and handle things as best as I could.”

She added, “I hadn’t had a romantic relationship with him at the time. I hadn’t slept with him. I just cared about him. So it’s messy. How do you deal with that?”

Now, it seems, the relationship might be off. Smythe said she had last seen Shkreli in person in February, when she visited him in the Pennsylvania facility, before the pandemic flared in the United States.

“We were talking that day about me possibly doing something publicly, and he was in favour of it at the time,” she said. But then, she added, Shkreli “freaked out” when the possibility of her going public became more real. “He’s got a lot of kind of PTSD around media exposure,” Smythe said, “and he’s sort of attached to his villain image as a sort of a safe space”.

She had last spoken with him on the phone in the summer and said he no longer replied to her emails. Still, she said, she would wait for Shkreli, who is due for release in September 2023.

“I love him,” she said. “I’m here for him.”

Written by: Katie Robertson
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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