Jordan Thomas’ army of whistleblowers
Doctors approached Jordan Thomas, who was initially dubious. “We were both so emotional about it that Jordan thought we were kinda over there,” Pitt recalled. At Thomas’s urging, doctors sent Cassava’s papers to ten prominent experts, including neuroscientists Thomas Südhof of Stanford, who received the Nobel Prize in 2013; Roger Nicoll, of the University of California, San Francisco; and Don Cleveland of the University of California, San Diego. Bredt and Pitt were immediately struck by the fact that Cassava, despite having conquered Wall Street with its bold promises to revolutionize the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, had gained little recognition among experts in the field. Bredt said: “The first question we asked was ‘Have you ever understood cassava science? And each of them said no.
When the scientists looked at Cassava’s research papers, “the main reaction was ‘Oh my God, how could they get away with this?’ Pitt said, adding, “These Western blot images are difficult to fake. It appeared that someone tried to crop them and cut out small pieces to put in another. were co-authored by Dr. Lindsay Burns, senior vice president of Cassava and Barbier’s wife. Bredt and Pitt identified apparent methodological problems in six of Wang’s published papers. (Other scientists have since found problems in twenty others.)
Südhof told me that the data in the papers “appeared suspicious and required careful consideration” and that the scientific conclusions were “unwarranted.” He was also surprised that the FDA approved the “rationale” for the drug and clinical trials, due to a lack of evidence “linking filamin A to Alzheimer’s disease.” He pointed out that there are many scientific journals and noted, “Just because an article is published in an apparently peer-reviewed journal does not necessarily mean that it has been properly peer-reviewed.”
Nicoll, who is an expert in studying brain slices, told me he was shocked to see Cassava claim that he had tested the effects of his drug on the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients who had been frozen and then thawed for months or even years. , later. “It’s hard for me to imagine how you could get a life out of this fabric,” he said. “I mean, it’s wild. It’s zombie science!
When Thomas agreed to take on the case, he warned his new clients that, even if they were successful, any monetary rewards might be minimal, as Cassava was “a one-drug company.” If they were right that the drug was not viable and that Cassava was simply a fraudulent scheme, public exposure would destroy the value of the company and there would be little money left to pay a big fine to the SEC. Still, Bredt had his short position, and Pitt, who had never sold a stock before, made a similar bet. Thomas told me he had no qualms about representing short sellers. He’s done it before, and successfully. His attitude is that anyone can be a whistleblower, as long as they have the goods. In any case, his clients were less focused on the SEC than on the FDA, whose clinical trials they wanted to stop, pending an investigation. Thomas said to me, “The question is, who’s going to blink, Cassava or the FDA?”
Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project once remarked that becoming a whistleblower can mean having to “outdo Machiavelli the Machiavelli”. Thomas came up with the idea of using a citizen petition; it would put the FDA on notice, publicly, and force the agency to review anomalies in Cassava’s research while keeping the identities of its clients secret. Initially, Bredt and Pitt wanted to remain anonymous, as they expected backlash from the company – and the knewges-if they became public. But Thomas persuaded them that in addition to filing a complaint with the SEC, it would be a good idea to tell their investigation to the the wall street journal. He does not hesitate to appeal to the press when he thinks it can help him, and in this case the choice of outlet was deliberate: it is largely thanks to the Newspaper that Theranos turned out to be a scam.
One day in August, Thomas hosted a media training session for his clients, over Zoom, with a Manhattan-based consultant. They had to prepare for their conversations with the Newspaper. It was important not to get too lost in the science, advised Thomas: “The conclusion should be short and sweet: ‘It looks like the government was defrauded, the investors lied and the patients are in danger. ”
Bredt, who was zooming in from his home in California, was dressed in a Rip Curl t-shirt and shorts. The night before, he had resigned from his job at a biotechnology investment firm to avoid any potential conflict of interest. He offered a dry run of his account of the case – which, to my layman’s ears, was bafflingly technical – before concluding: “In my thirty-five years of research, I have not never seen such a long trail of seemingly clear and distorted scientific information. The data.”
“I thought it was pretty good,” the consultant said. “As a reporter, my first question would be ‘How the hell did the NIH and FDA miss this? ”
“The system has failed on many levels,” Bredt replied.
Thomas chimed in, “It’s worth saying, ‘It’s so bad, I couldn’t believe it. So I went to see some of the top experts in the country. He reminded his clients to mention that they had consulted a Nobel laureate, because everyone knows that “Nobel laureates are super smart”.
After the meeting, Thomas seemed optimistic. He was pondering a question that comes up often in his business: how best to harness the moral outrage of his clients. During the Zoom call, Bredt had been visibly exercised, chewing his lip. It was evident that he felt deeply aggrieved by the alleged fraud. A bit of righteousness is useful for a whistleblower. But not too much. “The stronger the case, the more you want to look like Mr. Rogers,” Thomas told me. ” You do not have be emotional, because the evidence is so ridiculous. At the same time, he didn’t want Bredt “to completely muzzle himself and lose his soul, because there’s peace in expressing it.” One detail that Thomas had clung to was the fact that Bredt’s grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. On the call, he advised Bredt that when he spoke to the Newspaper journalists, he should mention this family history. He added: “I think you can say, ‘It’s personal. ”
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon documents to the Time, suggested there was something otherworldly about the whistleblower, like an astronaut cutting the security cordon and walking away from the mothership. To denounce is a psychologically heavy and existentially decisive act. Thomas is attuned to how his clients, by standing on principle and opposing the powerful, often end up rewriting their own lives in the process. “People are under pressure,” he said. “Uncertainty, doubt – not everyone comes out the other side the same way.” Often, families of whistleblowers disagree with their decision. Sometimes speaking up initiates lasting reinvention. “Some of the people I work with reflect my belief in second chances,” Thomas told me. “Because I am to live a second chance at a good life, one that I can be proud of. It’s only in recent years that he’s begun to speak openly about his own past life and his own secrets, including the fact that Jordan Thomas isn’t his real name.
At Thomas, he released a hardcover book with a worn red dust jacket, called “The Craft of Power”. Published in 1979 by a former military scientist named RGH Siu, it is a series of maxims about the culture of power, and it espouses a particularly Machiavellian worldview. “It was one of my dad’s favorite books,” Thomas said.
Jordan Thomas was born Paul Thompson, in 1970. His mother, Celia Andrade, a white woman from Hawaii, was a nun in a convent in Compton, California when she met his father, G. Thomas Thompson. “My dad has a great story,” Jordan said. Thomas Thompson attended Compton Community College and then an unaccredited law school before taking the bar and becoming a judge, one of the first black judges elected in California. He was tall, handsome and charismatic. He was also a womanizer. Perhaps it was some measure of man’s charm that he managed to father a child with a woman who had taken a vow of chastity, but a relationship was not in the cards. By the time Thomas was born, his mother had left the convent. She ended up marrying another man and moving to Yakima, Washington.