Business, like politics, sometimes makes strange bedfellows. But more often than not, the couples it brings together are perfectly matched.
That seemed to be the case when the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, hooked up with Michael Viner.
Drug companies aren’t known for their devotion to the Platonic ideal of truth. Just look at their TV ad campaign on behalf of the self-serving prescription discount plan they’ve placed on next month’s ballot (Proposition 78), which they represent as a selfless contribution to the public weal.
Viner is an old hand at tabloid book publishing. His early venture, Los Angeles-based Dove Entertainment, became the go-to place for tell-all books related to O.J. Simpson, Heidi Fleiss and other L.A. notoriosi. In 1996, he and his wife, the actress Deborah Raffin, founded New Millennium Entertainment, which published such works as “Burning Down My Master’s House,” a memoir by the disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. (Raffin filed for divorce last year.)
Viner (pronounced “VEE-ner”) was also known for his frequent trips to the courthouse. Of the three authors of a 1996 Dove book about Fleiss’ call girls, two sued him for sexual harassment (one claim was dismissed and the other settled in Viner’s favor). The third claimed she had been stiffed on royalties, and won a jury award.
In 2003, Viner had a falling-out with Otto Penzler, a book editor who was working on a mystery anthology series for New Millennium. After a jury awarded Penzler $2.8 million in the ensuing litigation, New Millennium landed in Bankruptcy Court to be liquidated. According to lawyers familiar with the case, there is so little of the company to be liquidated that no unsecured creditor, Penzler included, will see a dime.
Viner has now started a third company, Phoenix Books. That’s where PhRMA comes in.
Back in April, a lawyer named Mark Barondess approached Viner with a proposal. Barondess is a consultant to PhRMA and an author whose self-help divorce book, “What Were You Thinking??,” was recently published by Phoenix.
According to the proposal, PhRMA would pay Phoenix a six-figure sum for the marketing and production of a written-to-order fictional thriller. The plotline was what Hollywood would term high-concept -- a group of shadowy terrorists conspires to murder thousands of Americans by poisoning the medicine they’re importing from Canada to beat U.S. drug prices. (Think “True Lies” meets the Physicians Desk Reference.)
If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because PhRMA has tried to scare state legislatures and Congress out of giving Americans access to cheap Canadian drugs by warning that terrorists might poison the imports.
Viner duly hired an author, Julie Chrystyn, who in turn enlisted a friend, Kenin Spivak, to help with the writing. Spivak, 48, has an interesting resume: Over the years he has worked at Merrill Lynch, held top executive positions at MGM/UA and Premiere Radio Networks and invested with Michael Milken. Since 1998 he has been chairman and chief executive of Los Angeles-based Telemac Corp., which licenses billing and accounting programs to wireless network operators.
The authors labored on a tight 45-day deadline to produce the book, titled “The Karasik Conspiracy.” Spivak says that a PhRMA marketing executive sedulously monitored the work by phone, e-mail and in person, often ordering changes in plot, characterization and tone.
“She was intimately involved,” says Spivak, who declined to identify the executive but made it clear that he regarded her input as lowbrow. She demanded that the terrorists be militant Muslims but that their motivation be greed, not politics. She insisted on lots of “frilly female stuff,” Spivak says, “Harlequin Romance stuff” -- but also that the book incorporate long polemical passages drawn from transcripts of congressional hearings. Spivak says he acceded to many of these demands because “PhRMA was the client.” He adds that he had no doubt that the project was being followed by higher-ups at the lobbying group.
And then it all came apart. In July, Spivak says, he and Chrystyn were informed that PhRMA didn’t like the book and was pulling out. He says the group offered them $100,000 if they would agree never to speak ill of PhRMA or the drug industry for the rest of their lives. They refused.
PhRMA’s management says it discovered the project belatedly and, appalled, pulled the plug. Ken Johnson, the group’s senior vice president for communications, has called the project “a screwball idea” and “Looney Tunes” and tagged the marketing executive as a “renegade.”
She was a “lower-level employee who acted without authority,” he told me. He acknowledges that she had some “budgetary authority,” but suggests that she abused it in this instance. He says that PhRMA is evaluating Barondess’ consultancy contract and is “presently reviewing disciplinary options” for the hapless marketing exec.
He also indicates that he and his boss, former Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, who became PhRMA’s president in January, know that the group has less than a sterling reputation. (The phrase he used is “quite a lot of baggage.”) One of Tauzin’s goals, he says, is “to turn the image around,” implying that the book project didn’t help.
“The Karasik Conspiracy,” meanwhile, is set to come out in December. Spivak says there will be a nonfiction preface and afterword describing its difficult gestation. The villains of the plot have undergone yet another transformation. They’re now a rainbow coalition of Bosnians, Eastern Europeans and Americans, including some stereotypical representatives of an American corporation: to wit, a pharmaceutical company.
You can reach Michael Hiltzik at email@example.com.