A pharmaceutical company founder accused of paying doctors millions in bribes to prescribe a highly addictive fentanyl spray was convicted Thursday in a case that exposed such marketing tactics as using a stripper-turned-sales-rep to give a physician a lap dance.
John Kapoor, the 76-year-old former chairman of Insys Therapeutics, was found guilty of racketeering conspiracy after 15 days of jury deliberations. Four ex-employees of the Chandler, Arizona-based company, including the former exotic dancer, were also convicted.
An NJ Advance Media investigation published in 2017 found many doctors across the state received lucrative payments from drug companies. From 2013 to 2015, doctors in New Jersey were paid at least $1.67 million by pharmaceutical companies marketing various forms of of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, including Insys.
Some of the most sensational evidence in the months-long federal trial included a video of employees dancing and rapping around an executive dressed as a giant bottle of the powerful spray Subsys, and testimony about how the company made a habit of hiring attractive women as sales representatives.
Federal prosecutors portrayed the case as part of the government’s effort to go after those it views as responsible for fueling the nation’s deadly opioid crisis.
Opioid overdoses claimed nearly 400,000 lives in the U.S. between 1999 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 2 million people are addicted to the drugs, which include both prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and illegal drugs such as heroin.
Kapoor and the others were accused of bribing doctors across the U.S. to boost sales of Subsys and misleading insurers to get payment approved for the drug, which is meant for cancer patients in severe pain and can cost as much as $19,000 a month, according to prosecutors. The bribes were paid in the form of fees for sham speaking engagements that were billed as educational opportunities for other doctors.
The charges carry up to 20 years in prison.
“We will continue the fight to clear Dr. Kapoor’s name,” defense attorney Beth Wilkinson said in a statement. She said the long deliberations prove it was “far from an open-and-shut case.”
A former sales representative testified that regional sales manager Sunrise Lee once gave a lap dance at a Chicago nightclub to a doctor whom Insys was pushing to write more prescriptions. Lee’s lawyer said she will challenge the verdict.
Jurors also watched the rap video , which was shown at a national meeting in 2015 to motivate sales reps to push doctors to prescribe higher doses of the drug. At the end of the video, the person dressed up as the bottle takes off his costume and is revealed to be then-vice president of sales, Alec Burlakoff.
Burlakoff pleaded guilty and testified against Kapoor. Burlakoff told the jury that he met Lee at the strip club where she worked and recruited her to join the company despite her lack of pharmaceutical industry experience because he believed he believed she would be willing to help carry out the plan to pay off doctors.
A former CEO of the company, Michael Babich, also pleaded guilty and testified against his colleagues. He said Insys recruited sales reps who were “easy on the eyes” because doctors didn’t want an “unattractive person to walk in their door.”
Kapoor’s attorney sought to shift the blame onto Burlakoff, who she said was cutting side deals with doctors. Wilkinson argued that Burlakoff and Babich were lying about Kapoor in an attempt to save themselves.