He says he spends much of his time planning his next career move. “I came back to engage a life. Sartre said that life begins on the other side of despair.” In the past few months, he and Mulligan have quietly taken meetings with investors about a new plan for a business that they say will use the ImClone model to bridge the gap between the worlds of academia, biotechnology, and big pharma. Waksal insists his insider-trading conviction isn’t hindering his business plans. “There’s no scientist out there that has been wary of me,” he says. “And guys in the venture-capital world I dealt with before—it’s as if I wasn’t gone a day!”
The one subject that doesn’t come naturally to Waksal is what he actually did wrong. I bring it up when he mentions reading Aristotle. What, I ask, was your tragic flaw? “I only tell my shrink that,” he says. Then he reconsiders and begins groping for answers.
He starts by chalking up his crime to a momentary, isolated, and inexplicable lapse of judgment. “You’re asking me to tell you why I did what I did, and I wish I could give you a good answer—because in retrospect, I can’t believe that I would do something so unbelievably stupid. It wasn’t like I committed accounting fraud at the company. I made a really stupid phone call that I was ashamed of.”
He’s even willing to allow a moral component. “I did something that was just stupid. And wrong. Stupid and wrong is a bad combination.” And yet he still seems to be searching for a loophole. The government says that Waksal knew that the FDA was about to delay the approval of Erbitux and that Waksal arranged for his father and younger daughter, Aliza, to dump their shares based on that information. But Waksal insists that he hadn’t heard about the FDA’s plans yet—that he only had an inkling that a delay was coming. He concedes that he was wrong, as CEO, to act on that hunch and tip off his family. But he suggests that having a hunch and not the hard facts at least partially absolves him. “For a while, I was trying to tell myself, ‘Well, I didn’t have the insider information, so it was okay,’ ” he says. “It wasn’t okay. I might have heard rumors, but they were filtered through my brain, which is different from the brain of shareholders. As CEO, I knew everything that was going on. Had I thought for three seconds, ‘If everyone knew I was doing this, would I be embarrassed about it?’ I would have said, ‘Forget it, it’s illegal.’ I wouldn’t have done it.”
Finally he circles back to the I-can’t-explain-it defense: “But I don’t know what was going on in my head at that moment.”
“You just have to read Aristotle’s ‘Poetics,’ and you read what tragedy is—and you look at yourself and think, ‘Man, this is tragic.’ ”
There are, of course, less-charitable explanations for why he did what he did. Some people believe he’s nothing more than a born con man. “Cutting corners for Sam was like substance abuse,” a former colleague of Waksal’s once said. “He did it in every aspect of his life, throughout his entire life.” Before he started ImClone, in the seventies and early eighties, he cycled through research positions at nearly a half-dozen institutions, including NIH’s National Cancer Institute—nearly every job ending under questionable circumstances. Sometimes he was accused of fudging his credentials, other times cutting corners or falsifying research. “Why would someone so brilliant lie?” asked Len Herzenberg, who ran a lab at Stanford, in one report. Waksal has always denied any wrongdoing, but he admits to a degree of looseness in his work. “I was really good when I did science, but I was sometimes a bit flighty,” he says.
Some people say Waksal has sought to take too much credit for Erbitux. While it’s true that he was the first to see the drug’s full potential and develop it commercially, the compound had been discovered years earlier by a team led by John Mendelsohn, a researcher then at UC San Diego, who has since accused Waksal of embellishing his role. Others believe that Waksal is simply so ambitious that he’d do anything to succeed. They even think it’s possible that his Holocaust legacy played a role. “I know your motives aren’t as important as your actions,” says Myer Berlow. “But it wasn’t coming from greed. Sam grew up with an irrational fear that everything was going to go to zero. Protecting his family was important to him.”
But Berlow also allows that Waksal might have done what he did simply because he could. “Sam is very difficult to truly understand,” he says. “He’s lived a life being 80 times smarter than anyone else around him. He has gotten himself through because of his determination and his brains, and he thought he could do it again.” Still, Berlow defends his friend. “In a larger context, the history of how he will be remembered has yet to be written.”