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Drug industry fears a novel's side effects



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Oct. 31--A pharmaceutical consultant secretly commissions a novel about terrorists poisoning Americans with medicine from Canada, then backs out and inadvertently spawns a thriller pillorying his own industry.

This is no pulp-fiction farce. Call it bookgate, an impossible-to-make-up public-relations disaster now dogging the pharmaceutical industry.

Its real-life cast includes a deputy vice president of the country's drug lobby, a celebrity divorce lawyer, a tell-all book publisher, and even former New York Times fabricator Jayson Blair in a cameo.

"It's a nightmare beyond nightmares," admitted Mark A. Barondess, the consultant who initiated the book deal and now calls it a mistake.

Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, said the "idiotic" scheme had been concocted by an outsider with unauthorized help by one person in the trade group.

"We didn't know anything," Johnson said. "We have credible, safety-based arguments supporting our position against importation. We're not in the business of publishing pulp fiction and Looney Tunes."

In the spring, Barondess approached the PhRMA official with an idea: Commission a thriller in which terrorists attack Americans through the discount medicines they buy online from Canada.

Importation is a simmering issue in Congress. PhRMA opposes a bill to legalize the growing practice, which undermines drugmakers' profits, and Barondess testified against it and calls the danger real.

"Canada does not inspect anything that passes through its borders. They don't even open the box," he said. "I was trying to get that message across."

The PhRMA official was Valerie Volpe, deputy vice president for federal and state affairs. With her "involvement," Barondess said, he took the lead in making arrangements and payments, intending to tell PhRMA higher-ups only if he liked the finished book.

Volpe did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Johnson said Volpe, despite her title, was a low-level employee at the group, which has 170 employees and $8 million in assets, according to IRS filings. She used her "limited budgetary authority" to pay Barondess consulting fees of $100,000, which Barondess said he had used to underwrite the book.

Barondess, also an author and a lawyer whose divorce clients included talk-show host Larry King, proposed the book to his publisher, Michael Viner of Phoenix Books in Los Angeles.

Viner, whose controversial books included Blair's memoir and several about the O.J. Simpson trial, jumped at the idea and found a ghostwriter, Julie Chrystyn. Viner declined to comment on the record.

Barondess approved Chrystyn, who then wrote a novel she titled The Spivak Conspiracy, after her friend and eventual collaborator, Kenin M. Spivak, a telecommunications executive and entrepreneur.

According to Spivak, Barondess hoped the book would come out in time for congressional hearings on importation set for the fall. Spivak said the sponsors also had mentioned that PhRMA might buy copies for distribution by drug sales representatives. Barondess denied saying those things.

Viner also hired Blair as a book editor. His memoir, Burning Down My Master's House, was published by New Millennium Press in 2004 while Viner was its president.

Blair was assigned to Chrystyn's book but apparently never touched a word. According to Spivak, Blair had one contentious phone conversation with Chyrstyn, then was fired for trying to "abuse his expense account." Blair could not be reached for comment.

In the first draft, the terrorists were Croatian nationalists angry at America over the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But, Spivak said, Barondess and Volpe wanted the terrorists to be Muslims motivated by greed.

He said they also had wanted the female protagonist to be "frillier," with "more shopping" in the story to appeal to women, who buy more medicine.

"They wanted a thriller, but they wanted to take out all the elements that would make it successful," Spivak said.

Barondess scoffed at Spivak's assertions, saying the drafts were boring and badly written. At the same time, he said, he was growing uncomfortable with the project.

"What I got back was a terrible manuscript, and on further reflection it was something that could be misconstrued," Barondess said.

In July, Barondess canceled the deal. By his own account, he had paid about $100,000, half of what Viner asked. He offered to pay the rest if the writers agreed, in writing, to keep everything confidential.

Spivak, however, said the demand was a "lifetime" ban on criticizing the drug industry. The writers rejected it and rewrote the book, now The Karasik Conspiracy, due out in December with an afterword on PhRMA and a new subplot.

"It has a large company commissioning a real terrorist attack to scare Americans about Canadian drugs," Spivak said. "It's not going to win a Pulitzer, but it's a good read."

Barondess blasted the writers for capitalizing on the scandal to sell a book. "It just repulses me," he said.

PhRMA is trying to live down the Frankenstein-like creation. Johnson said it had tightened rules on disbursements and begun a PR mop-up.

"Based on what I know," Johnson said, "it does not sound like a great read."

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Copyright (c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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