Org Prep Daily

September 8, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida (10)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 3:26 am

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

Part 10

(here is Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Aftermath)

A week after I spoke with the university chief compliance officer, the DEA got back to me – a senior special agent called me up and asked me to come for an interview the following week.

I had couple more calls that day: In the morning, an unexpected conference call – some university officials and lawyers urgently needed to hear the complete story of manufacturing MDMA and DMT at the company. I did not get to meet them, they did not invite me to talk to them in person afterwards. I don’t even have their names. The second call came from DEA, to set up the meeting. Then I got several frantic calls from the company lawyer – she was trying to find out what the hell just happened. Our research director never told her about illegal drugs: she had been handling the company terminations for several months already, oblivious… I explained the lawyer she really needed to speak with the research director and I wasn’t going to take part in any company-run self-investigation. The following day, the lawyer sent me a Cease and Desist letter to keep me from talking to the university and the law enforcement. I wished her good luck trying to sue me for talking to the DEA, and I suggested that she should excuse herself due to a client conflict.

The trigger for all this sudden activity was an e-mail that I wrote to our research director. The subject line: “Today is your special day! Wednesday 23rd is a perfect day to resign.“ My e-mail mentioned the university EthicsPoint misconduct submission line and also the possible involvement of his wife in the previous university investigations of our company. I sent it at 7 in the morning. At 10 am, the university officials were calling me already, then the DEA called an hour later to set up the meeting, and finally the company lawyer.

I did not realize that the university was coordinating its actions with the company and the DEA: Our research director already informed the university about the drug-manufacturing operation, to push out the CEO and to whitewash his own role in the drug ring. Our research director became the new CEO, and the university conveniently overlooked that he set up, supplied and maintainined the lab that was making illicit drugs for almost 2 years…

Now that I talked to the chief compliance officer, I became a new source of problem. At first, it was wait-and-see. (If EH&S found safety violation serious enough to push the company off campus, maybe the affair would go away. At least that was the unofficial deal we worked out with the chief compliance officer). But I was impatient, writing e-mails about going full expose. Our research director panicked after reading my e-mail on 23rd, he run to the university for help and provoked this sudden response. DEA contact people were asked to go-ahead and interview me because it wasn’t possible to delay it much further and the university really did not want to reopen its own inquiry into this scandal – they knew there were things they did not want to find out.

At the time, I did not know enough about the three previous investigations of our company – every one of them a cover up – so I underestimated the role played by the university: it wasn’t just one high-ranking official who helped to protect the good name of the university (and perhaps shielded her husband from criminal investigation too). By now, it was the presidents office, the leadership of a major university calling in political favors and going through the State Attorney office and “comparing the notes” with the DEA, trying to avoid a scandal that would tarnish the university and its biotech incubator, and implicate one of their own in the previous cover up. The university and our company were in the same boat.

I met two special agents from DEA District Office Tactical Diversion Squad on Thursday, last week of March 2016 at 11am. They were pleasant, charming, understanding. Right off the bat they offered me an unspecified but large amount of cash if I worked for them as a paid informant: they said I was perfect because of my background in setting up synthetic labs. I politely turned that offer down – I thanked them but it wasn’t the right career path for me.

We walked a short distance over to a nearby shopping mall. Sitting in front of an entrance to Macy’s, we talked for about 90 minutes (I was nervous about the DEA building and I also wanted a decent cappuccino while interviewed – it was the first time I went to the law enforcement to turn someone in.) Later we moved back to the federal building where the officers were going through their case files, writing few comments on the margins. I think we spent about two hours together – my long-winded story probably kept the agents hungry during their lunch time.

Surprisingly they did not ask me in detail about the precursors, their dates of purchase and their quantities, even though diversion of precursors for drug manufacture was very much within their field of investigation. This alone should have made me suspicious of the whole interview. Also, I told the officers where we could find the evidence in the company records, if they wanted to build the case based on the precursor purchases. And my senior chemistry grouchy colleague actually saved an NMR sample with MDMA produced at the company – it should be still in the fridge. But the DEA officers were not interested in getting a search warrant – They said the company was cooperating (about which I had serious doubts).

What they really wanted to know was who were the sources that could confirm my story, and any photographic evidence I might have. They warned me that their investigation will proceed in a slow methodic way and I should not expect any criminal charges any time soon. Maybe never. But they assured me that the culprits will get a kick in their pants, should not be able to continue in their position at the company and the university. And certainly they should not be able to buy any listed precursors in the future or obtain DEA permits for controlled substances. That was good enough for me – after all, I wasn’t really trying to get anybody thrown in jail, and I did not like the idea of having to testify in court or be called in front of a grand jury. I would have been satisfied with our research director stepping down and the company moving off campus.

I must say the officers looked just as I imagined them, after watching Breaking Bad: no-nonsense, cautious, savvy. But the DEA facilities were pretty run down – lots of empty offices with battered police precinct-like metal desks and chairs. The oversized office space was cluttered but deserted and gave impression of neglect.

Not much happened in the following months. The unusually slow pace of interviewing witnesses – maybe one interview every few weeks – was worrying me: I though the DEA was giving too much time for the company to do a damage control. I did not expect the current employees to talk to the DEA but several already laid-off people also didn’t, or claimed a total ignorance. I originally suspected maybe the DEA was slow-boating the case because they were using our former CEO (or maybe the research director) as an informant-provocateur, the same thing they offered to me but signed them with help of a sealed indictment against them. I imagined there must be some big gangster case they don’t want to compromise by blowing the identity of their informants, etc. The reality was more mundane: The DEA agents were asked to run errands for the university.

From the phone conversations I had with the DEA over the last year, I learned few details about the previous company investigations and I figured out what made the DEA special agent rather grumpy about this case: We were just “a bunch of knuckleheads and clowns, only interested in keeping our nice jobs and paychecks” for not going to the DEA before the first cover up. The DEA agents were not learning any substantially new details from anyone, or building a case that had a chance to go to court – the only reason they were wasting time interviewing us was to patiently handle some neurotic unemployed scientists, making sure no one makes a tantrum in public… I sensed that they would have loved to have the case prosecuted to the hilt: unlike the garage meth labs, the Ecstasy busts in US are exceedingly rare – and a professionally equipped superlab operating from within a biotech company on university campus would be a stuff of legend. And they sure have no love for a privileged punk with a PhD making fools of them and getting away with it. I think they were thwarted, and directed to mind the university reputation above anything else.

No one was charged. The company continues renting the office and lab space at the university research incubator, not really doing any research since shutting down the labs in 2016. EH&S performed a lab inspection, found few minor problems and wrote a mild citation. Unofficially, the company was warned by the university to never use the biotech incubator labs for a dangerous scale up manufacturing again. The polymerizations are technically challenging and some hazardous starting materials are tightly regulated – it is really difficult to contract out the entire manufacturing process to a CRO. My guess is that the company will need to build its own manufacturing facility, away from the densely populated areas.

The university did some house-cleaning – they made the wife of our research director to resign from her post of vice president for research integrity and compliance in the summer of 2016. Our technician from the formulation lab whom she hired after the layoffs, to work in her department, was pushed out too – he only found out when he saw his own position advertised on the university job bulletin board. He was completely innocent and he never got a chance to defend himself, the university canned him just for his association.

The company lawyer resigned, nominally for a client conflict but really for being misled and manipulated. The company soon hired a new law firm – more cautious and more expensive. The Chief Medical Officer left without explanation and removed the company association from her online CV. Also the business development guy who was at my termination interview have left – he developed a serious drinking problem, and it got worse at the end of March 2016. He had a heart attack recently, and died… He was a great person I admired: A self-made man and a military pilot. I think the sleaze did not originate with him, he found out about it too late to bail out – it probably pushed him over the edge.



1 Comment »

  1. Holy cow, Milkshake! What an astonishing, yet completely 100% fictional story that has plants of you posing in a gas mask and writing poems about platinum group metals years before any such details became relevant.

    I’ve always appreciated your incredible chemical insight, and the stories about how you came by it the hard way. I’m sorry you now have incredible legal insight.

    If I ever run into you at a bar, I owe you a beer

    Comment by Chemoptoplex — October 2, 2017 @ 9:14 pm

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