Executive alleges sexual harassment, retaliation at pharma company Martin Shkreli built
Pharmaceutical chief Martin Shkreli, right, and Nancy Retzlaff, chief commercial officer of Turing Pharmaceuticals, are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 4, before a congressional hearing. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
All is not well at Turing Pharmaceuticals.
The company rose to notoriety last year when its famously defiant former chief executive, Martin Shkreli, defended inflating the price of a decades-old drug by more than 4,000 percent. Now, a Turing Pharmaceuticals executive has filed a federal complaint, saying she faced retaliation after she complained of sexual harassment.
Nancy Retzlaff, Turing’s chief commercial officer, has accused company co-founder and former interim CEO Edwin Urrutia of sexually assaulting her this past spring, according to a complaint filed Monday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission obtained by The Washington Post.
Though Urrutia resigned from Turing after an investigation, Retzlaff says that ensuing retaliation by others in the company cost her stock and the CEO position she had been promised.
“It is clear that the retaliation committed against me is directed from the top of the company,” Retzlaff said in the complaint. “Mr. Urrutia is very good friends with Mr. Shkreli, who, despite public statements to the contrary, is still very much involved in running Turing.”
Urrutia could not be reached by phone Wednesday and did not respond to a request for comment on Twitter.
Shkreli became known — some say reviled — as “pharma bro” last year for his often flippant defense of jacking up the price of the drug Daraprim, used to treat HIV and cancer patients, by more than $700 a pill. In December, he was arrested on securities fraud charges. unrelated to Turing, and released on $5 million bail. He resigned from Turing as its CEO the next day but remains its largest shareholder; Ron Tilles, then the chairman of the board of directors, took over as interim CEO.
Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old notorious for jacking up the price of an obscure but critical drug was arrested by the FBI in Manhattan, Thursday, Dec. 17, on securities fraud charges. (Reuters)
In February, Shkreli repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment at a congressional hearing in which lawmakers grilled him over the decision to inflate Daraprim prices. It was Retzlaff, seated next to him, who fielded most of the questions.
Retzlaff said Shkreli’s attitude toward her, as well as what she described as a “very good working relationship,” changed after her sexual-harassment complaints against Urrutia. Once-weekly emails about the business stopped, she claimed, further alleging that Shkreli was “very upset” that he could no longer put Urrutia on Turing’s board of directors.
A final offense, she claims, came in July when a former managing director at Turing and current shareholder sent her numerous messages, including “GO F— YOURSELF,” “Just resign and stop wasting shareholders time,” “Your employment is probably Turing’s biggest mistake” and “I was present during the what you called sexual harassment from Edwin. It is complete bullsh-t. You are just leveraging to obtain power.”
The complaint attempts to tie some of the responsibility to Shkreli, citing several of his recent social media posts. Over a four-day period in early August, the complaint alleges, Shkreli often referred to women online as “bitches,” and that he “also has expressed his affinity for ‘big booty bitches’ on his Twitter feed.”
“Mr. Shkreli’s sexist comments were made not only on social media but also in company chatrooms,” said Michael Willemin, an attorney at Wigdor LLP, the firm representing Retzlaff, in an email to The Post. “They exemplify the misogynistic attitudes that permeate Turing and foster the sexually hostile work environment in which Ms. Retzlaff and her female colleagues are forced to work.”
Shkreli, reached by phone Wednesday, rejected Retzlaff’s complaints.
He defended his tweets as those of “a 33-year-old bachelor,” an online persona, he said, that was separate from the company.
“I have zero sexism in me, and I don’t think she can point to one example of sexism,” Shkreli said. “The idea that a tweet or two of mine sets a culture at our company, I think that’s a reach.”
Alleged harassment, retaliation
The sexual harassment allegedly began at a hotel bar when Retzlaff, Urrutia and others from Turing traveled to Washington on a business trip in March, the complaint said. There, Urrutia began making unwelcome advances toward her, all while mentioning her desire to be CEO of the company, the complaint said.
“The message to me was clear — if I wanted to be CEO, I would have to give in to Mr. Urrutia’s sexual demands,” Retzlaff said in the complaint.
According to the complaint, Retzlaff left the bar and tried to return to her hotel room. However, she says, Urrutia physically blocked her from leaving the elevator and demanded she join him in his room for a drink. It was there that he threw her onto the bed and repeatedly groped and kissed her against her will, while attempting to pull off her tights, the complaint said.
“Finally, after struggling for many minutes, I was able to escape Mr. Urrutia and run out of the room,” Retzlaff said in the complaint.
The complaint detailed two other instances in the months that followed in which Retzlaff claimed Urrutia made unwelcome sexual advances toward her and sexually assaulted her without her consent.
Shortly after the third incident, she said, a co-worker reported Urrutia’s behavior to Turing, which hired an external firm to investigate the allegations.
“My reports of sexual harassment were substantiated and Mr. Urrutia was permitted to resign in lieu of termination,” she said in the complaint.
It was after the investigation that retaliation against Retzlaff began, the complaint alleges. Retzlaff said Tilles, then the interim CEO of Turing, told her she would not be receiving 30,000 restricted stock units she had been promised. In addition, he told her that Turing had fired the executive who had initiated the investigation into Urrutia’s behavior — and that he was going to assume the position of CEO, not her, the complaint said.
‘United Nations of a company’
Shkreli told The Post he had many problems with Rezlaff’s complaint, including the idea that he and Urrutia are “good friends.”
“That’s not really even close to truthful. I don’t have a friendship with Edwin. He’s been a protege of mine. He’s been an executive of mine,” Shkreli said. “To say I have a friendship with him would be inaccurate. … I don’t have many friends.”
Shkreli said he did not know about and could not speak to the sexual harassment claims, calling it “a he-said, she-said” situation, but denied there was any retaliation because he had chosen Tilles as the interim CEO before the assault allegations began.
Retzlaff, he added, was “adequate, satisfactory, sometimes even good” as an executive, “but not great, amazing, one-of-a-kind.” He said the reason she was not made CEO was because she had not delivered on promises to increase sales of Daraprim, which have remained flat.
“To me, this sort of smacks as a little bit silly to say you’re being retaliated against when you’re the highest-paid person at the company,” Shkreli said. “The attempt to tie it to a sexist culture is a little ridiculous. We’ve had tremendously good relationships with our employees. I’ve bent over backwards … to make sure that we are as equal opportunity as it gets. Turing’s like a United Nations of a company. It treats all of its employees very, very well.”
A Turing representative said Wednesday in a brief email statement to The Post that the company had not yet seen the complaint but would “vigorously defend itself.”
“Beyond that, it would be inappropriate for [Turing] to comment on any pending employment matters,” the statement said.