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Whistleblowers Rarely Achieve Popularity in Public Consciousness

While we debate endlessly whether Edward Snowden even qualifies as a whistleblower, many of the more important contributions whistleblowers make to society are forgotten or omitted. As a result, most people have no idea that what stands between us and a country run by fraud is the conscience of a few people who will stand up to authority and a few laws that help them fight.

People forget.

This thought came to mind while reading the front page of last Saturday’s New York Times. The front page story was called “Medicines Made in India Set Off Safety Worries.”

The article credits the Food and Drug Administration with increased enforcement of drug safety standards in the generic drug industry and specifically in the Indian drug industry. The FDA enforcing safety standards is certainly very good news and worth the Times reporting:

“F.D.A. investigators are blitzing Indian drug plants, financing the inspections with some of the roughly $300 million in annual fees from generic drug makers collected as part of a 2012 law requiring increased scrutiny of overseas plants. The agency inspected 160 Indian drug plants last year, three times as many as in 2009. The increased scrutiny has led to a flood of new penalties, including half of the warning letters the agency issued last year to drug makers.”

I’m happy to learn that the FDA is on the case. They deserve all the publicity they can get for enforcing the law, as well as fining and punishing companies that put profits ahead of our health. So, I was happy to read all this and glad for the people working at the FDA who got a little positive media reaction for their usually unsung efforts.

Then the Times wrote the following paragraph which is, shall I charitably say, strange.

“The F.D.A.’s increased enforcement has already cost Indian companies dearly — Ranbaxy, one of India’s biggest drug manufacturers, pleaded guilty to felony charges and paid a $500 million fine last year, the largest ever levied against a generic company. And many worry that worse is in store.”

“Worse” would only be in store for those companies who try to sell dangerous adulterated drugs. I certainly hope that for companies engaged in such dangerous activity “worse” is in store. The FDA is right to pursue them.

But back to my point. Ranbaxy did not just wake up in the morning and find the United States government knocking on its door by accident. Unmentioned by the Times was the fact that Ranbaxy’s practices were exposed by, wait for it, a whistleblower and a False Claims Act Case. A case the Department of Justice called “… the largest drug safety settlement to date with a generic drug manufacturer.”

In fact, the $500 million the Times cites settled civil claims brought by former Ranbaxy executive turned False Claims Act qui tam litigant Dinesh Thakur and related criminal fines brought by the government.

Mr. Thakur was well, indeed, very well compensated as a result of the successful settlement in terms of the money he was awarded, which was some $48 million for his role.

But before he blew the whistle, Mr. Thakur was Director and Global Head of Research Information and Portfolio Management for Ranbaxy. Does that sound like a guy who needs money to you? Does that sound like somebody who as a matter of money should risk his entire career on the vague possibility that down the road he might be successful in a law suit?

When he blew the whistle at first, he suffered the fate of most important whistleblowers and put at risk an extremely promising career. Some eight years later it worked out for him. However, at the time he blew the whistle, there were no guarantees except that his career at a major worldwide drug company would never be the same.

Would you risk standing up to the board of directors? He did.

To read the article in the Times a person would never know the role Mr. Thakur, his lawyers, the government investigators – including the FDA – or the Department of Justice had in this story. More importantly, the role the whistleblower law itself played in cleaning up the Indian generic drug industry was lost. It’s not a side issue when the article quotes the settlement amount yet omits how the settlement came to pass.

That kind of omission can make it all too easy for some to dismiss whistleblowers and whistleblower law. People move on to the next story without getting this story right or learning how the information that mattered came to light in the first place.

Shame on the Times.