BOSTON — A former exotic dancer was hired as a regional sales manager at a drug company despite her lack of pharmaceutical experience because executives believed she could help carry out the company’s plan to bribe doctors into prescribing its powerful painkiller, a former executive told jurors Friday.
Alec Burlakoff, onetime vice president of sales at Insys Therapeutics Inc., said he met Sunrise Lee at the strip club where she worked and recruited her because he thought she would have the “ability and the willingness and the desire to talk to physicians and speak with them about the quid pro quo.”
After hiring Lee, Burlakoff said executives received an anonymous email about topless photos of Lee that were posted online. Burlakoff said Lee kept her job after agreeing to take the photos down.
Lee’s lawyer, Peter Horstmann, repeatedly objected to the introduction of the salacious testimony. Horstmann said after jurors left for the day that he plans to move for a mistrial.
The judge has prohibited attorneys on both sides of the case from talking to the media.
Burlakoff is one of the government’s key witnesses in the trial against Insys founder John Kapoor, Lee and three other former executives of the Chandler, Arizona-based company. They are accused of scheming to pay doctors bribes in the form of fees for sham speaking events in exchange for prescriptions of Subsys, a fentanyl spray meant for cancer patients with severe pain.
They have all denied wrongdoing.
Burlakoff pleaded guilty in November to racketeering conspiracy and is testifying against his former colleagues for a chance at a lighter sentence. Kapoor’s attorney has tried to paint him as a liar who was cutting side deals with doctors on his own and will say anything to take down Kapoor.
The fight over Friday’s testimony is the latest strange moment in the case that’s expected to last several more weeks. The case has put a spotlight on the federal government’s efforts to go after those it says are responsible for fueling the deadly opioid crisis.
A former employee told jurors in January that she watched Lee give a lap dance at a Chicago nightclub to a doctor that the company was pushing to prescribe the drug.
Last month, jurors watched a rap video made to encourage employees to talk doctors into prescribing higher doses of the drug. In the video, sales representatives danced around a giant bottle of the highly addictive fentanyl spray and rapped about titration, the process of increasing the strength of a patient’s prescription until it reaches the adequate level.
At the end of the video, it’s revealed that Burlakoff was wearing the fentanyl spray costume.
Burlakoff told jurors Friday that Insys employees were clear with physicians about their expectations for prescriptions in exchange for speaker fees. A doctor who didn’t have any ethical problems with it and agreed to the deal was called a “whale,” he said.
“I knew that every dollar I spent was going to be tracked and that the expectations on return on investment, on dollars back to the company, were very high,” Burlakoff said.