Former CEO also testified that she believed company’s proprietary blood-testing technology could perform ‘any’ clinical laboratory blood test
One relevant question in the federal fraud trial of ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was whether she would testify on her own behalf. That question was answered shortly after the government rested its criminal fraud case against the former Silicon Valley clinical laboratory testing company founder. Holmes took the stand in her own defense, a risk her defense team hopes will pay off in her favor.
During her first three days of testimony leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday break, Holmes—who faces 11 counts of fraud and conspiracy related to her tenure as founder and CEO of Theranos—made headlines by admitting she did personally put the logos of pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Schering-Plough on reports she sent to Theranos investors and executives at Walgreens and Safeway. She expressed regret for doing so to the jury, but claimed her intent was not to deceive but to give credit to others.
“This work was done in partnership with these companies, and I was trying to convey that,” she testified, according to a trial coverage from Ars Technica.
When asked if she realized that others would assume the pharmaceutical companies—not Theranos—were the authors of the report, Holmes replied, “I’ve heard that testimony in this case, and I wish I’d done it differently.”
If found guilty, Holmes—who once claimed Theranos’ Edison proprietary blood-testing technology would to be able to complete as many as 200 clinical laboratory tests using a single finger-stick of blood—could face maximum penalties of 20 years in prison, a $2.75 million fine, and possible restitution.
Holmes Testifies She Believed the Edison Device Could Perform “Any” Blood Test
In its trail coverage, NPR described Holmes’ first three days of testimony “as having involved deflecting responsibility, pointing to the expertise of the Theranos board of directors, lab staff, and other company employees whom Holmes has suggested were close to how [Theranos’] blood analyzers worked.”
According to Reuters, Holmes’ defense team is arguing that Holmes’ always-rosy forecasts about her company’s technology and finances were based on her belief the proprietary Edison device worked as advertised, which, in turn, was based on feedback from pharmaceutical companies, her own employees, and the military.
During her testimony, Holmes compared a traditional blood-testing device to Theranos’ “3.0” device, which she said would reduce the human-error rate that can occur during blood sampling.
“If we had the ability to automate much of that process, we could reduce the error associated with traditional lab testing,” she told the court.
Reuters reported that Holmes told jurors her confidence in the Theranos device was in part due to how well the unit had performed in studies completed in 2008 and 2009, including those run by drug companies such as Novartis.
The Mercury News described Holmes as speaking with “confidence—and frequently a small smile”—during her opening day of testimony.
Asked by one of her lawyers, “Did you believe that Theranos had developed technology that was capable of performing any blood test?” Holmes responded, “I did.”
Holmes Testifies about Military’s Alleged Use of Edison Device
Prosecutors maintain that Holmes knew Theranos’ proprietary blood-testing technology had serious accuracy issues yet lied about its capabilities and use to lure investors. One of those false claims included allegedly stating the US military was using the Edison device on the battlefield. Earlier in the trial, CNBC reported, prosecution witness Brian Grossman, Chief Investment Officer at PFM Health Sciences, which invested $96 million into Theranos, testified he was told in a 2013 meeting with Holmes and Balwani that Theranos technology was being used in medical-evacuation helicopters.
Dark Daily covered court testimony on the military’s alleged use of the Theranos blood-testing device in “Prosecutors in Elizabeth Holmes’ Federal Fraud Trial Question Witnesses about Theranos’ Edison Technology and the Inaccurate Medical Laboratory Test Results It Produced.”
However, on the witness stand, Holmes described Theranos’ projects with the US military as much more limited in scope than the descriptions outlined by investors testifying for the prosecution.
According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Holmes told jurors a 2010 partnership between Theranos and a US Army Institute of Surgical Research doctor in Texas looked into using the Theranos device to measure blood markers to detect kidney performance. A second project involved the military’s Africa Command, which was determining whether the device could withstand high temperatures. Holmes testified the devices used in Africa “held up well,” though some modifications were needed, and some issues were revealed with the touchscreen.
Should Holmes Have Testified on Her Own Behalf?
Trial experts maintain Holmes’ decision to testify in her own defense could backfire.
“It’s always a risk to put your client on because if they make a mistake they can sink the whole case,” former Santa Clara County prosecutor Steven Clark, JD, told The Mercury News. He added, “what’s at issue here is Elizabeth Holmes’ intent. And the best person to say what Elizabeth Holmes’ intent was is Elizabeth Holmes, and that’s why I think she’s taking the stand. She’s very charismatic. She’s really good on her feet. And I think the jury will like her.
“This is the pitch meeting of her life,” Clark added. “She’s going to be explaining herself to 12 people as to what was in her mind.”
Judge Drops One Count Due to Prosecution Error, Government Rests Its Case
Holmes is now charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud after the government dropped one count of fraud from the indictment. According to WSJ coverage of the trial, US District Judge Edward Davila blocked a patient named in the indictment as “B.B.” from testifying because of a filing error by the prosecution. The judge’s decision resulted in the government dropping one count.
The government rested its case against Holmes on November 19 following testimony from independent journalist Roger Parloff, who wrote a flattering 2014 Fortune magazine story on Holmes. He later redacted his earlier writing in another Fortune article, titled, “How Theranos Misled Me.”
The government alleged Holmes used media publicity as part of her scheme to defraud investors, patients, and physicians. All totaled, 29 witnesses appeared for the prosecution, the WSJ reported.
Former Theranos Chief Operating Officer Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani—Holmes’ one-time boyfriend—faces similar charges of defrauding patients, investors, and physicians. His trial is expected to begin in January 2022.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists who have watched the federal court proceedings with keen interest should expect the trial to wrap up at the conclusion of Holmes’ testimony, just in time for the Balwani fraud trial to begin.
—Andrea Downing Peck