Former Vice President received an exclusive tour of a completely fake medical testing laboratory within Theranos, which he found “most impressive”
One thing clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists may still be curious about concerning the whole Theranos affair is how the company founder Elizabeth Holmes could fool so many high-ranking individuals—including then Vice President Joe Biden—into endorsing a completely fraudulent medical laboratory test process.
But it was the lengths to which Holmes and Balwani went to “trick” Joe Biden into endorsing Theranos—and subsequently receive the positive press that followed—that MSN found most intriguing.
According to MSN, in July of 2015 Holmes and Balwani procured Biden’s endorsement by giving the VP a tour of a “completely fake, staged lab.”
“What’s most impressive to me is you’re not only making these lab tests more accessible, you’re charging historically low prices, which is a small fraction of what is charged now, while maintaining the highest standards, and empowering people whether they live in the barrio or a mansion, putting them in a position to help take control of their own health,” stated then VP Joe Biden (above with Elizabeth Holmes) in a Theranos press release. Sadly, many clinical laboratory leaders who were skeptical and outspoken about Theranos’ claims were ignored by the press. (Photo copyright: ABC News.)
Wall Street Journal Reporter Exposes Theranos Fraud
According to a 2018 article by John Carreyrou which was part of his expose´ of Theranos published in The Wall Street Journal, “Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani wanted to impress Vice President Biden with a vision of a cutting-edge, automated laboratory. Instead of showing him the actual lab with its commercial analyzers, they created a fake one, according to former employees who worked in Newark. They made the microbiology team vacate a room it occupied, had it repainted, and lined its walls with rows of [Theranos] miniLabs stacked up on metal shelves.”
And the ruse worked. A 2015 Theranos press release outlined the visit at the time and stated that Biden found the facility inspiring and was impressed by the work being done by the company.
“I just had a short tour and I’m glad because you can see first-hand what innovation is all about just walking through this facility. This is the laboratory of the future,” Biden said in the press release.
In 2015, then Vice President Joe Biden toured the Theranos facility with Elizabeth Holmes, observed their supposedly innovative finger stick test system, and met with several Theranos employees. Later reports exposing the fraud stated that Holmes and Balwani were desperate to obtain Biden’s approval as it would provide positive press for Theranos, a good reputation within the industry, and lure potential investors. Theranos later tweeted a photo (above) of the visit showing Biden and Holmes walking amongst numbered blood-testing machines with a huge Theranos logo banner in the background. (Photo copyright: Connor Radnovich/The Chronicle.)
Biden’s visit occurred just a few months before Carreyrou’s Wall Street Journal report questioned the efficacy of Theranos’ blood testing technology and alleged the lab testing company tried to cover up its failures and mislead investors and patients.
Prior to that hard-hitting exposé, Holmes was heralded by the media as a star in the field of medicine. She was even prominently featured on magazine covers of influential business periodicals such as Fortune, Forbes, and Inc.
Others Who Were Bamboozled by Holmes and Balwani
Biden was not the only high-profile individual who was fooled by Holmes, Balwani and their billion-dollar con job. Other high-profile people included:
Theranos ceased operations in September of 2018 amidst the exposing of the fraud and inability to locate a buyer for the company. The shutdown rendered all investments in the company worthless.
Holmes to Receive New Hearing in Federal Court
In January of this year, Holmes was found guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for lying to investors about Theranos products. She faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for each count.
And so, clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists now have a better idea as to how Joe Biden was hoodwinked and endorsed a completely fake blood testing laboratory at Theranos. Can he be blamed for his ignorance of clinical laboratory test technology? Probably not. But it makes for interesting reading.
Start of ex-Theranos president and COO Sunny Balwani’s federal trial will be pushed to mid-March due to COVID-19 spike in California
Just when most clinical laboratory managers and pathologists thought the guilty verdict in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case would bring an end to the saga, we learn her chapter in the Theranos story will instead extend another eight months to September when the former Silicon Valley CEO will be sentenced. However, a brand-new chapter will begin in March when the fraud trial of ex-Theranos president and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani begins.
Holmes’ fraud trial concluded on January 3 with the jury convicting her on one count of conspiracy to defraud investors and three counts of wire fraud after seven days of deliberation and nearly four months of trial proceedings.
Holmes remains free on a $500,000 bond while awaiting sentencing.
“What is the sentence that will deter others who have a failing business from making the choice to commit fraud, rather than owning up to the failings and losing their dream?” she added.
Holmes, 37, faces a possible prison sentence of 20 years in prison as well as a $250,000 fine and possible restitution. But some legal experts expect a much shorter prison sentence for the disgraced CEO, who has no prior criminal history and is a first-time mother of a son born last July.
While sentencing typically takes place within a few months of a verdict being reached in a federal criminal trial, US District Judge Edward Davila set 1:30 p.m. September 26, 2022, as the date for Holmes’ sentencing hearing, according to his order dated January 12.
The Mercury News reported the lengthy delay in sentencing may be due to the start of Balwani’s upcoming trial on identical fraud charges. The delay in Holmes’ sentencing will allow for Balwani’s trial to begin in mid-March after being pushed back one month due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in California, The Mercury News reported.
Judge Davila will preside over Balwani’s trial as well.
Jury Acquits Holmes on Patient-related Charges
Holmes was acquitted of conspiracy to defraud patients of the now-defunct blood-testing laboratory and the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on three other wire fraud charges.
University of Michigan Law Professor Barbara McQuade, a former US Attorney and an NBC News Legal Analyst, told CNBC she expects prosecutors to rethink their strategy in the Balwani trial based on the jury’s acquittal of Holmes on conspiracy and fraud charges involving Theranos patients.
“Knowing that this jury acquitted on all of the patient counts, I think that strategically, they should look to find a more direct way to explain why that is part of the fraud, that they necessarily knew that ultimately patients would be defrauded. And that although they didn’t know these individual patients by name, they knew that they existed in concept,” McQuade said.
One of the jurors in the Holmes’ trial, Wayne Kaatz, told ABC News he and other jurors were dismayed by their inability to come to a unanimous consensus on the three of the charges. A mistrial was declared on those three counts.
“We were very saddened,” Kaatz said. “We thought we had failed.”
Did Holmes Charm the Jury?
When Holmes dropped out of Stanford at age 19 to form Theranos, her goal, she claimed during testimony, was to transform healthcare by creating a blood-testing device capable of performing hundreds of clinical laboratory tests using a finger-stick of blood. She became a Silicon Valley sensation because of her charisma and charm, which she used to sell her dream to big money investors such as Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and former US Secretary of State George Shultz.
Kaatz acknowledged Holmes’ personality also impacted the jury.
“It’s tough to convict somebody, especially somebody so likable, with such a positive dream,” Kaatz explained to ABC News, noting, however, that he voted guilty on the three counts on which the jury could not agree. “[We] respected Elizabeth’s belief in her technology, in her dream. [We thought], ‘She still believes in it, and we still believe she believes in it.’”
In the light of Holmes’ conviction, McQuade suggested it would not be shocking to see Balwani consider a plea deal in exchange for a lighter sentence.
“Could we perhaps, enter a guilty plea and get a reduction for acceptance of responsibility?” she said. “It’s certainly something that you have to look at.”
And so, the saga continues. Clinical laboratory directors and pathologists who followed Holmes’ trial with rapt interest should prepare for a new set of twists and turns as Ramesh Balwani prepares to face his own day in court.
As a Theranos insider and whistleblower, Tyler Schultz was able to provide information about the ongoing failures in medical laboratory testing at the once-high-flying Theranos to regulators and at least one journalist
What’s it like to be a whistleblower in a high-profile clinical laboratory? Few clinical laboratory workers will ever know. But former Theranos employee Tyler Shultz does know, after helping to expose the Silicon Valley blood-testing startup’s deceptions.
The 31-year-old Shultz reportedly celebrated the news of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes’ conviction on four charges of defrauding investors with champagne, joy, and a healthy dose of vindication, according to NPR.
“This story has been unfolding for pretty much my entire adult life,” Tyler Shultz (above), whistleblower in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud trial, told NPR from his parents’ home in Silicon Valley. “All of a sudden, it was just a weight was lifted. It’s over. I can’t believe it’s over,” he added. A former employee of now defunct clinical laboratory company Theranos, Shultz is CEO at Flux Biosciences, a company he co-founded. (Photo copyright: Deanne Fitzmaurice/NPR.)
Shultz Interns Briefly at Theranos
In 2011, Shultz was a biology major at Stanford University—where Elizabeth Holmes herself briefly attended—when his grandfather, former US Secretary of State George Shultz, a Theranos board member, introduced him to Holmes.
According to NPR, the younger Shultz was so impressed by the charismatic Holmes that he asked her if he could intern with Theranos after his junior year. Following his internship, he accepted a full-time position as a research engineer with Theranos, a stint that lasted only eight months. Shultz quit Theranos the day after he emailed Holmes in 2014 to alert her to failed quality-control checks and other troubling practices within the company’s clinical laboratory.
According a 2016 profile of Shultz in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), his email to Holmes resulted in a “blistering” reply from then-Theranos President and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, who “belittled Shultz’s grasp of basic mathematics and his knowledge of laboratory science.”
Yet, Shultz told NPR, “It was clear that there was an open secret within Theranos that this technology simply didn’t exist.”
After leaving Theranos, Shultz became a key source for the WSJ’s 2015 exposé of Theranos. Using an alias, he also contacted state regulators in New York about the Theranos Edison blood-testing device’s shortcomings. In response, Theranos responded with threats of lawsuits and intimidation, the WSJ reported.
In an interview with CBS News, Shultz said, “I am happy that she was found guilty of these crimes and I feel like I got my vindication from that, and I feel good about that.”
Whistleblowers Were Critical to WSJ’s Investigation
Former WSJ reporter John Carreyrou, who authored the newspaper’s investigative series into Theranos, credits the Theranos whistleblowers for blowing the cover on the clinical lab company’s deceptions.
“I would not have been able to break this story without Rosendorff, Tyler, and Erika,” Carreyrou told NPR, referring to Shultz and two additional Theranos whistleblowers: one-time Theranos Laboratory Director Adam Rosendorff and laboratory associate Erika Cheung. “Tyler and Erika were corroborating sources, and that was absolutely critical.”
In the interview with CBS News, Tyler described the damage his role as a Theranos whistleblower caused to his relationship with his grandfather, former Secretary of State and Theranos board member George Shultz. Tyler said the elder Shultz did not believe his claims about Theranos’ regulatory deficiencies and the Edison device’s shortcomings until he neared the end of his life.
“That was extremely tough. This whole saga has taken a financial, emotional, and social toll on my relationships. The toll it took on my grandfather’s relationship was probably the worst. It is tough to explain. I had a few very honest conversations with him,” Shultz told CBS News.
While the elder Shultz never apologized to his grandson, Tyler said his grandfather ultimately acknowledged he was right.
“In one of my last conversations with him he told me a story about how he got Elizabeth invited during fleet week in San Francisco to go give a speech to United States Navy sailors. He said with tears in her eyes, she told the room about how she was so honored and humbled that her life’s work would be saving the lives of United States servicemen and women,” Shultz recalled in the CBS News interview.
“He said he could not believe that anybody could get in front of these men and women who are willing to put their lives in front of our country and lie directly to their face as convincingly as she lied,” he added.
George Shultz died in February 2021.
Jury’s Ruling on Defrauding Patients
In an interview with CNBC, Shultz said his one disappointment with the verdict was that Holmes was not found guilty of defrauding patients. Calling the patients “the real victims,” Shultz said, “I did what I did. I stuck my neck out to protect those patients, not to protect Betsy DeVos’ $100 million investment.” (The jury voted Holmes guilty on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit fraud against Theranos’ investors, but not guilty on conspiracy to defraud and commit wire fraud against Theranos patients.)
Tyler Shultz was listed as a potential witness in the Holmes trial but was not called to take the stand. He—along with many clinical laboratory directors and pathologists who have closely followed the Holmes trial—will now await news of Holmes’ sentencing. Holmes could face up to 20 years in prison for each guilty verdict, but she’s likely to receive a lighter sentence.
The trail of Ramesh Balwani is expected to begin sometime in March. That trial can be expected to produce additional revelations about the problems of Theranos and how and why management is alleged to have knowingly reported inaccurate clinical laboratory test results to thousands of patients.
The federal trial, now set to begin in March 2021, could become a media spectacle given the marquee names on the witness list
Clinical laboratories following the federal criminal proceedings against Theranos founder and former CEO Elizabeth Holmes will have to wait until next year for the case to go to trial. When it does, it could become a media spectacle given the list of prominent witnesses who may be called as government witnesses.
The names, according to a letter that prosecutors sent April 3 to Holmes’ defense team, include former US Cabinet Secretaries Henry Kissinger and James “Mad Dog” Mattis, both of whom sat on the board of the ill-fated diagnostics company. Prosecutors may also call media mogul Rupert Murdoch to testify, the (San Jose) Mercury News reported.
To Fingerstick or Not to Fingerstick
As readers of Dark Daily will recall, Holmes claimed that Theranos had developed ground-breaking blood-testing technology that allowed for a range of blood tests using only 25 to 50 microliters of blood drawn by fingerstick rather than conventional venipuncture. Use of capillary specimens for many clinical laboratory tests was regularly touted by Holmes as one of Theranos’ technology secrets and a key to its plans to disrupt the clinical laboratory marketplace.
But then a series of articles by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in the fall of 2015 revealed serious problems with Theranos’ management and technology, eventually leading to the company’s downfall.
Charges of Fraud
According to documents filed with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) US Attorney’s Office Northern District of California, on June 15, 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Holmes and Theranos president Ramesh Balwani with 11 counts related to wire fraud. The government alleges one scheme to defraud investors and another to defraud doctors and patients. The defendants each face up to 20 years in prison for each count plus fines and restitution. They have pleaded not guilty.
“Holmes and Balwani used advertisements and solicitations to encourage and induce doctors and patients to use Theranos’ blood testing laboratory services, even though, according to the government, the defendants knew Theranos was not capable of consistently producing accurate and reliable results for certain blood tests,” the government stated in an announcement of the indictment. “It is further alleged that the tests performed on Theranos technology were likely to contain inaccurate and unreliable results.”
Prosecutors later added a 12th felony charge tied to a patient’s blood-test result, as Dark Daily reported in July. That charge was later withdrawn and then restored amid legal wrangling about the composition of the grand jury.
Dark Daily has reviewed the April 3 letter sent by prosecutors to the defense team. It lists witnesses and documents that may be used as evidence in the case. The defense attorneys included the letter in a June 30 filing indicating that they will seek to exclude or limit much of the prosecution evidence.
The April 3 letter “did not identify the particular acts Ms. Holmes supposedly committed and continued to rely on vague themes,” they wrote. “It did not disclose what evidence the government would introduce outside its case in chief. And it did not provide any explanation of which particular acts the hundreds of witness statements and the thousands of pages of discovery it identified would support.”
One section, with the heading “False and misleading representations made to Theranos’ Board of Directors,” includes the following former board members as possible witnesses:
William Perry, US Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration.
Robert Shapiro, an attorney best known as a member of the defense team in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
George Shultz, US Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration and US Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon Administration.
The letter also indicates that some of these former board members could be called to testify about alleged efforts by defendants Holmes and Balwani to conceal a romantic relationship, as well as alleged efforts by the defendants to avoid subjecting Theranos technology to “meaningful comparative tests.”
Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp., is one of six potential witnesses who may be called to testify about “threats, influence, or vilification of journalists in response to negative coverage with Theranos.” News Corp. is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.
Another section relates to alleged “false and misleading representations made to journalists.” It references articles published in Wired, Fortune, CNN, The Economist, Medscape, and The New Yorker.
Other sections of the letter offer a broader picture of the government’s case against Holmes and Balwani. It lists potential witnesses and documents related to the following subjects, though some names have been redacted:
False and misleading representations directed at insured patients.
False and misleading representations directed at doctors.
False and misleading representations made to Walgreens.
False and misleading representations made to Safeway.
Obtaining personal benefit from position at Theranos.
One interesting aspect to the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is that the clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology professions were never fooled by all the publicity and news coverage of the company. Pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists knew that, over the 10-plus years of Theranos’ existence, its scientific team had never published any research findings of significance in a respected, peer-reviewed journal.
That was strong evidence that Theranos had no new break-through, disruptive, diagnostic technologies that would allow it to perform multiple tests on a single drop of blood that was collected by a fingerstick procedure.
Since the collapse of Theranos and the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes, many in the clinical laboratory profession have hoped that federal prosecutors would prosecute her under the full extent of the law.