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Sept. 18, 2017, 12:03 p.m.
Reporting & Production

This former hedge fund guy is a one-man nonprofit investigating some of America’s shadiest companies

“You can’t stop these guys from getting rich as hell and doing things, but I can at least have a marker laid out there in the cyber world saying: Hey, take a hard look.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) launched an investigation into the role of America’s drug makers in fueling the country’s opioid crisis. Her first report, “Fueling an Epidemic: Insys Therapeutics and the Systemic Manipulation of Prior Authorization,” was released on September 6 and detailed how Insys “repeatedly employed aggressive and likely illegal techniques to boost prescriptions for its fentanyl product Subsys,” beginning around 2014.

Insys’ shady business practices were no surprise to Roddy Boyd, who in late 2015 published the first in a series of stories about how doctors, insurance companies, and sales reps with no medical backgrounds pushed off-label Subsys prescriptions in exchange for cash, leading to at least 63 deaths.

“Getting footnoted in [McCaskill’s] report was nice,” Boyd said. (See page 3.) “But having discussed all the crooked MDs, corrupt insurance operation, and the rancid sales practices in detail, and then watching a series of U.S. attorneys’ offices [New York Southern District, Massachusetts, and Alabama Southern District] use them as a template to indict the perpetrators was the biggest thrill.”

For the past five years, Boyd has been working away on stories like these, chasing people down and delving deep into public documents to do financial investigative reporting for his one-man nonprofit, the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation (SIRF), based in Wilmington, North Carolina. Boyd broke the news that Valeant Pharmaceuticals was using a company it secretly controlled to jack up drug prices. He investigated how a high-profile hedge fund manager was actually running a Ponzi scheme, leading to his indictment and sentencing to federal prison. He tracked a formerly well-respected hedge fund manager who absconded to Colombia after embezzling client capital. (“Ironically, guy was once a source of mine.”)

Boyd always wanted to be a reporter, but he got married young and, by his early 20s, had a wife and two little kids to support. So, for seven years after college, he worked at his father’s hedge fund in Greenwich, Connecticut, as an analyst and trader. “I had the view that, once I got to a certain level, I would be able to do what I want, and what I wanted to do was be a reporter,” he told me. He recalled reading, in the 1990s, “fascinating, Page-1-above-the-fold investigations on corporate fraud and offshore thuggery. I remember thinking: That is really great stuff. Man, if someone could get in on the inside and show just how much nonsense goes on at a corporate level, how much sleight of hand or just outright lying — wouldn’t that be something?” He went on to work for the New York Post, the now-defunct New York Sun, and Fortune — and, after getting laid off from Fortune, a hedge fund again. After his second child graduated from high school, he and his wife moved with their two younger kids to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he began working on a book about the collapse of AIG.

One day in late 2010, he needed a break from writing the book. “There’s a point writing a book where you’re just like: I need two hours to look at cat videos and cuts of my favorite songs from high school.” He started googling the investigative reporters he’d once worked with, the ones “doing a lot of fraud calling, and making some enemies, and it was all good.” He found few of them doing the type of work he still loved.

“I was like, I can’t believe a year and a half after the financial crisis, no one is doing this stuff. I’m not talking about writing these massive, 10,000-word thumbsuckers about some crappy company that did something to a politically vulnerable population. I’m talking about companies that wake up every day and, using the imprimatur of the law, do things that are unconscionable and appalling. I said: I’m gonna take a public filing, I’m gonna use that as a springboard, I’m gonna write about companies that I think are crap, but I’ll write fairly, I’ll dive into them, I’ll give them a long chance to comment.” He did this first on a blog called The Financial Investigator, then, in 2012, launched the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, a nonprofit where he would do this reporting full-time.

“I’m not saying that humans aren’t great components of stories. But I always believed that once you start to learn how to unlock corporate documents, or even legal filings — the footnotes of legal filings can be so rich — I really got the kind of religious conviction that there were so many great stories there, if you could just go out and tell all of them.”

“He does stories that the mainstream business media don’t do but need to be done,” said Chris Roush, a business journalism professor who is the founding director of the Carolina Business News Initiative at the University of North Carolina, and a member of SIRF’s board. “I know what he’s working on most of the time, but I’m generally getting out of the way and letting him do his thing. He’s a far better investigative reporter than I ever was.” SIRF’s board also includes business writers William D. Cohan and Bethany McLean. “We all agreed there would be no B.S. between us,” Boyd said. “We’re going after people, we’re gonna be cleaner than clean. We gotta run this the right way.”

When I asked Boyd in a followup email to explain what he thinks most financial reporters miss, he wrote:

Generally, a part from fairly rare cases of transcendent fraud (Enron, WorldCom), most great stories about business lechery require what all great stories require: time spent understanding the subject from a variety of angles, as well as a willingness to clearly identify wrongdoing or self-serving behavior. Specifically, I think they miss that most ugly behavior worth writing about is what fellow SIRF director Bethany McLean calls ‘legal fraud,’ or conduct that meets some letter-of-the-law standard but when seen plainly, is something designed to mislead, harm or obfuscate. Think: Insys pushing its sales reps to get chiropractors, nurses’ assistants, just anyone with access to a prescription pad, to prescribe its fentanyl product in massive doses. It’s egregious behavior but in many instances has a veneer of legality, or more.

The ‘meta’ example of that is the sub-prime crisis: everyone saw things like an explosion in housing loans, a construction boom, a consumption spike driving personal debt levels ever upwards but few stopped and did the fairly elementary work to get at root causes. Most parts of the global financial crisis, seen individually, were perfectly legal; put them together however, and much mayhem ensued.

The nature of Boyd’s work requires some extra layers of caution beyond the scope of most one-person nonprofits. All of his stories are vetted by Eric David, a media law attorney at Brooks Pierce in Raleigh, before they’re published. Libel insurance is also a major concern. “We do so much aggressive reporting about corporations, and they have endless capital to fight,” he said. “I don’t have to be sued to be totally toxic to insurance companies, and they know this. They’ll send a threatening letter saying we’ve hurt them under their reading of libel per se…and no matter how broad or absurd it is, we have to report that to our insurance company.”

Most insurance companies won’t take SIRF on. “One guy, who had our policy for about a year,” Boyd recalled. “He said to me, you know, Roddy, we love you guys. We feel good about you, we think your process is the best. It’s not personal, it’s just numbers. Nine years out of ten, nothing happens, we make money on this policy at $4,000 to $5,000 a year. But that tenth year, you’re gonna piss off some rich overseas dweeb and you’ll run up $40,000, and God’s honest truth, Roddy, we’re not gonna break even. You’re not The New York Times. We have got to have a way to lay off that risk overseas. We’ll make money off the Times. We don’t make money with you.”

Only one insurance company was willing to insure SIRF. Its annual premium for a $1 million errors and omissions policy is currently $9,000. The deductible increased from $5,000 last year to $50,000 this year.

SIRF is supported by donations and brings in between $100,000 and $150,000 in a good year. Fundraising is difficult, and most donations come from individuals rather than foundations. (SIRF discloses the names of people who donate $1,000 or more.) “The big donors — they’ll take a call or reply to an email, but you need $400,000, $500,000 to get in to them, because they don’t want to be your biggest donor,” Boyd said. “They’re not gonna give me a $10,000 grant. I have to get out there and try to put myself in front of high-net-worth people. And that’s great, I don’t mind doing that, but a lot of those people have connections to capital markets and are wary about a guy who goes and finds, you know, a fentanyl peddler — we had internal audio leaked, on-the-record sex shit, we had the whole nine yards including FOIA battles with the FDA practically going into court to get mortality figures — all that costs a lot of money. Like, everybody loves that shit. Everybody loves investigative reporting and they love Spotlight. They love that movie. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, are you talking about Spotlight? Or All The President’s Men?’ I’m like, absolutely! Yeah! You’re getting my vibe!’ and it’s going really well, over coffee or a sandwich or something. And then they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool, my God — yeah, I would never fund any shit like that, that’s insane. You’re gonna get sued, holy Christ almighty.’ I’m like, ‘Uh, if not you, who?’ And they’re like ‘I don’t know! Hey, hang on, we’ll split the check, you know, I don’t want a conflict of interest.’ So, I get a lot of that, and that’s really not hyperbole…

“Years back, I met Carl Bernstein at a party and was talking about this problem. He was like, ‘You just need to get a couple of fast horses and ride them.’ And I’m dumb enough to think, Jesus, this is America. I think I’ve got a lot of fast horses and I’ve done some stuff…

“I think this whole idea of doing muckrake reporting about businesses is important. I came out of the Greenwich Times. They had four business reporters in a town of 65,000 people. There’s a lot of business in Greenwich, and they uncover some stuff. Some of those people in six-bedroom Tudors did some wrong-ass shit, some of that cash is not too kosher, and those papers don’t do that anymore. You know, I don’t have to tell you. Look at The Boston Globe on a daily basis. Look at the [Wall Street] Journal. Christ, I mean, 15 years ago, they would have crucified people for doing stuff like they do now.

“I just have to believe there’s a place in the world for what I’m doing right now. I think, fundamentally, document-driven investigative reporting is important. You can’t stop these guys from getting rich as hell and doing things, but I can at least have a marker laid out there in the cyber world saying: Hey, take a hard look.”

Google “Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation” and the fourth result on the first page is a takedown on a site called “Investigative Press News” that describes SIRF and Boyd as frauds and is filled with fabricated quotes (“‘There is a thick file on Roddy Boyd at the FBI,’ said a former FBI agent who declined to comment further”), including a fake quote from Chris Roush. The smears come up again when you Google Boyd’s name, accusing him of everything from short-selling and fraud to incest; the articles include names of his family members. It’s disconcerting to see these pages mixed in so prominently among legitimate links to Boyd’s social media profiles and work.

The sites appear to be the work of a Chinese-American financier named Benjamin Wey who was under FBI investigation for securities fraud and money laundering before the case was dropped. Last year, Damaris Colhoun reported in The Columbia Journalism Review about Wey’s attempts to bring down Boyd and other reporters. (A Bloomberg reporter also wrote extensively about her experience with Wey last year.) The fake stories remain up. Boyd said that the law firms he consulted about bringing a libel suit against Wey told him it would cost $50,000 to $75,000 up front, that his source lists could become discoverable, and that Wey’s lawyers would go after SIRF donors, in a process that could take a year or more. (Wey did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

He and his wife decided not to go ahead with a lawsuit. “I’m gonna have to live with it…My son was getting married and his in-laws were like, ‘Is there something you want to tell us?’ He was like, ‘My dad gets a lot of this stuff.’ In business reporting, the more you hate you get, the more good you’re doing. I was trying to explain this to them at his wedding.”

In recent months, Boyd has found that it’s taking longer to receive information from FOIA requests, and is getting more denials. SIRF is strictly nonpartisan, he cautioned — “I don’t want to sound like I’m fucking Noam Chomsky, I sure as hell am not that” — but he sees an increase in the anti-regulatory and anti-disclosure component of American civil society. “There is an entire spectrum of companies going public and their disclosures are coming much later than they ever have and they’re much lighter in disclosure that had, for decades, been the great springboard of so many dozens of fantastic stories. Now it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s up to the company.’ Again, I think SIRF is here to stand in the gap.”

Boyd is doing well on his own — he said that in five years, SIRF has not received a single request to make a correction (“for the amount of mud I’ve thrown, I guess that’s pretty good”) but he dreams of making SIRF bigger, hiring a couple more reporters, and introducing more accountability journalism offerings, including video. Everything on the site is free and will remain free. I asked him in an email if he ever thought about a paid offering. “I have indeed, but the specialized nature of this reporting — where the subjects of my investigations are publicly traded, with stock and bond prices that trade up or down based on ‘news’ — would suggest potential conflicts of interest if I let the people who can afford $5K/month or whatever see stories earlier or get more comprehensive reporting,” he said. “That’s just not what we do.”

He also envisions an organization with more legal firepower, and more financial ability to fight back against the sources that have tried to smear SIRF.

“The bad guys are winning and I want you to feel me on that,” he said. “That’s my heart talking to you.”

Photo of fentanyl by Dennis Yip used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 18, 2017, 12:03 p.m.
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