Michael K. Loucks was arguably the nation’s most influential prosecutor of health care fraud.
He racked up numerous convictions and mega-settlements in nearly a quarter-century, using whistle-blowers and secret grand juries to pressure major pharmaceutical and health companies into ending illegal practices like kickbacks to doctors and misuse of blockbuster drugs.
Once described as a cross between a firebrand preacher and a charismatic litigator, Mr. Loucks burnished a reputation aptly captured in a Fortune magazine headline: “Why Do Drug Companies Fear This Man? Maybe because he’s declared all-out war on cheats in the drug industry.”
But a year and a half ago, Mr. Loucks, a Republican, left the United States attorney’s office in Boston after he was passed over for the top post and President Obama appointed a Democrat. Instead, Mr. Loucks joined Skadden, Arps last July, and has startled former allies by emerging in recent months as zealous a corporate defender as he was a prosecutor, complete with proposals seeking more lenient treatment for the medical companies he once vilified.
In a six-page memo last month to clients in his portfolio, which may include some of the very same corporations he prosecuted repeatedly, Mr. Loucks bemoaned strategies he had embraced.
“The government and the whistle-blower have an advantage,” he wrote, complaining that federal investigators were now using the law unfairly. “While prosecutors often assert the company has engaged in ‘serious’ misconduct, they keep the company in the dark, often for years, as to the specific allegations.”
Those who have known him are quick to recall that his crowning achievement was a $2.3 billion settlement against Pfizer that capped a four-year secret investigation.
“We’re all disappointed that he’s gone over to the dark side because it seemed that he was a good prosecutor,” said Shelley R. Slade, a whistle-blowers’ lawyer in Washington and a former senior counsel for health care fraud at the Justice Department.
“I looked upon it with sadness,” Patrick Burns, spokesman for the whistle-blower advocacy group Taxpayers Against Fraud, said of Mr. Loucks’ change. “He’s a good and honorable person. He did great work in the Boston office. He’s a good lawyer. It’s just too bad.”
Federal ethics rules prohibited Mr. Loucks from any dealings with the United States attorney’s office in Boston for a year after his resignation, and he can never be involved in cases he investigated directly. But he is not barred from representing clients he once prosecuted on other matters, and his law firm’s roster includes some of the biggest companies he once investigated, including Pfizer, Merck, Schering-Plough, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Medtronic.
He defends his newfound friendship with former foes, and notes that he’s still wearing cowboy boots native to his Oklahoma childhood even though he’s now working in the white-collar division of a prestigious law firm.
“While everyone calls it ‘the other side,’ I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, which is zealously representing my clients,” he said.
And while he used to call some of those people’s actions “evil,” today he argues that drug and medical device companies are making strides in complying with federal billing, fraud and kickback laws. “They make products that have huge benefits to a number of people,” he said. Skadden, a 2,000-lawyer firm, has made several hires in recent years to amplify its health care practice.
In interviews and a lengthy e-mail exchange, Mr. Loucks said his views on the whistle-blower law had evolved.
The False Claims Act, with its triple damages, has been the government’s most powerful weapon against health care fraud since Congress in 1986 increased the rewards for whistle-blowers. Since then, taxpayers have recovered an estimated $28 billion from medical companies.
As a federal prosecutor in Boston, Mr. Loucks created a health care fraud unit and used the law, as well as the tools of secrecy and surprise, to reap major awards. The unit’s victories are renowned, starting with an $875 million payment in 2001 by TAP Pharmaceuticals. Whistle-blowers shared $95 million in that case, alerting companies and informants to the stakes involved.
For years, Mr. Loucks has argued that whistle-blowers are paid far much in health care fraud cases — bounties up to 30 percent, totaling $650 million in just the last two years, he said. These people would blow the whistle for less, he argued both inside the prosecutor’s office and more recently in a paper titled “the Great American Giveaway.” While that hostility toward what he considers the greed of some whistle-blowers is old news, Mr. Loucks’ views on unsealing their complaints are new.
In his May 12 memo to clients, Mr. Loucks urged some companies to press judges to unseal complaints more quickly. That way, he says, they can learn the scope of complaints sooner, identify witnesses and fight back harder.
“If Mike was still with the Justice Department, he could give you 10 reasons why this is a bad idea,” said Suzanne E. Durrell, a whistle-blowers’ lawyer in Boston who worked with Mr. Loucks when she was chief of the civil division for the United States attorney in Massachusetts.
Mr. Loucks says more openness would let companies clean up their own acts, even if it meant adverse publicity.
He points to new statistics that he says support his argument. The Justice Department reported to Congress that 885 False Claims Act cases involving health care fraud were pending under seal at the beginning of this year, with only about 200 prosecutors to juggle them. On average, a case was sealed for more than a year, and some much longer.
“That the government doesn’t have adequate resources to handle the cases is not a good cause to keep them under seal,” Mr. Loucks said in an interview, comparing it to a sports game where only one team is allowed to try to score. In these cases, that would now be his former team.
“I knew what I was doing on behalf of the government,” he said. “I don’t know if lawyers on the other side felt they were not able to adequately represent their clients while the case was under seal.”
Nicholas C. Theodorou, chairman of Foley Hoag’s business crimes defense group in Boston, said Mr. Loucks’ argument made sense from a corporate defense standpoint, and possibly would sit well with some federal judges who have questioned why cases remain under seal so long.
For his part, Mr. Loucks uses a baseball reference. Johnny Damon left his beloved Boston Red Sox in late 2005 to sign with “the evil empire, the New York Yankees,” Mr. Loucks said. Both teams won World Series with help from Mr. Damon.
Asked whether the “evil empire” analogy fit the Justice Department or Skadden, Mr. Loucks said, “One man’s evil empire is another’s home team.”