Master salesman Burlakoff mixes ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ with Big Pharma

Alec Burlakoff told his sales staff at Insys Therapeutics that “The Wolf of Wall Street” was the “best sales training video in history.” Now, the maverick salesman from Boca Raton faces federal criminal charges that he played fast and loose marketing a fentanyl spray.

The movie, about machismo capitalism run amok in the pump-and-dump era of the 1980s and 1990s, also reflects the culture at Insys described in numerous lawsuits and criminal complaints.

READ: Ex-Boca school counselor used exotic dancer, models to push fentanyl

The Arizona company is accused by eight states of bribing doctors to prescribe its fentanyl spray off-label for routine pain when it was approved only for cancer patients.

When Burlakoff arrived at Insys, the company replaced its sales staff by hiring a former exotic dancer, a Playboy model and others with little experience to get doctors to participate in a speaker program that federal prosecutors say was a vehicle to provide kickbacks.

Before landing at Insys in 2012, Burlakoff had been fired from Eli Lilly & Co. for what the company claimed was unethical behavior and then worked at two other companies that sold fentanyl products — one of the firms paid $425 million in 2008 in civil and criminal fines for marketing the drug for unapproved uses to doctors.

Before his foray into the pharmaceutical industry, Burlakoff applied his Florida International University master’s in social work in Boca Raton. He worked as a school counselor at Pine Crest School, a private school where he also taught “morals, ethics and health sciences,” according to court documents.

He served as a physical education teacher and basketball coach for middle schoolers at Pine Crest, where he worked from 1997 to 2001. Pine Crest confirmed Burlakoff was an employee.

But Burlakoff said he needed a better-paying job once his first child was born, court documents attest.

READ: Veteran, would-be lawyer, mom left dead or addicted after Subsys

He found it at Eli Lilly and Co., a pharmaceutical giant, and made an immediate impact as a sales rep in Palm Beach and Broward counties, being named Rookie of the Year for the Southeast region. His specialty was marketing Prozac Weekly as the seminal antidepressant lost its patent protection.

It did not go well.

Burlakoff and two other salespeople were fired around 2002 after Prozac Weekly was sent unsolicited to hundreds of Floridians, including a 16-year-old West Palm Beach teenager

The one-month supply came with a “Dear Patient” letter from a doctor. The West Palm Beach doctor who signed the boy’s letter was Burlakoff’s client and was later named as a co-defendant with Eli Lilly in a lawsuit claiming invasion of privacy. Burlakoff was on the witness list.

Burlakoff and his colleagues sued Eli Lilly for defamation, claiming he and the others were scapegoats for a plan approved by management. He said in court documents that he got fired because “I was good at what I did.” 

In the defamation suit, which settled for undisclosed terms, Burlakoff boasts that he recruited a West Palm Beach doctor to become a national speaker for Eli Lilly. The physician, he notes, became the largest prescriber of the medicine in the Southeast.

After Lilly, Burlakoff landed at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of the original fentanyl patch. Then Burlakoff took his talents to Cephalon, which sold Actiq, a raspberry-flavored fentanyl lollipop, and Fentora, a tablet that dissolves between the patient’s cheek and gum.

As a Cephalon regional sales manager, Burlakoff organized numerous speaker programs for doctors in Florida to promote off-label sales of Fentora for the treatment of breakthrough pain, according to court documents.

But Cephalon ran into trouble, accused of illegally marketing Actiq for off-label purposes other than breakthrough cancer pain. Israeli giant Teva Pharmaceutical Industries acquired Cephalon in 2011 and shortly after that Burlakoff jumped to Insys.

During Burlakoff’s tenure, Insys flew high until doctors started getting busted. He left the company in July 2015 just as the scandal was becoming public. The state of Illinois in its lawsuit said that Insys made a strategic decision to target doctors who were already prescribing Cephalon’s fentanyl product for off-label ailments.

As Burlakoff’s star rose at Insys, his brother, Ian, made unfortunate headlines in 2013 when he gunned down his wife on Ocean Boulevard in Boca Raton in front of stunned onlookers.

» Editorial: Palm Beach County brings stinging case to court on opioids

When a police officer got there, the officer ordered him to the ground. Ian Burlakoff asked where the officer’s backup was and then told him, “just kill me” before reaching for the gun in his waistband. The officer fired and killed Ian 100 feet from where his wife’s body lay.

Neither Alec Burlakoff nor his attorney returned phone calls for comment on Insys. 

But before he was charged, Burlakoff spoke frequently to reporter Roddy Boyd for the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, which did groundbreaking work exposing Insys. 

Boyd reported in his two-part series on Insys that Burlakoff “pushed the boundaries of what defined pharmaceutical sales.”

By hiring reps with no pharmaceutical experience, Burlakoff didn’t have to worry about them having ethical questions, Boyd told The Palm Beach Post. 

“Burlakoff controlled the show. Increasing sales is all that matters.”

Insight into how Burlakoff operated can be found in the March indictment of five New York doctors, who are accused of prescribing Subsys after receiving large payments through the Insys speakers program, as well as expensive dinners, tickets to sporting events, nights out at strip clubs and other perks.

Burlakoff became enraged with one of the physicians, Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, when he learned that the doctor had made an agreement to prescribe a competitor’s fentanyl medication, according to the indictment.

Burlakoff threatened to “take down every single physician” associated with the competitor.

Goldstein responded in the text: “Take the dinners. I can’t be bought but you lost an asset for your company because you’re an ass.”

Burlakoff replied: “We work on loyalty here pal. Waxh (sic) your (expletive) back and grow a set of eyes in the back of your head. … We don’t buy business or doctors. It’s sad you think that way. If our measly couple hundred grand can buy you.”

After hostilities with Burlakoff, Goldstein requested the company reimburse him for a home security system he claimed to have bought because he feared him. The company paid him $9,800.

Federal prosecutors say, though, the invoice Goldstein provided to Insys was fake.

In the Burlakoff indictment, prosecutors portray a company intent on flouting the FDA rules designed to protect consumers from misuse of its own product.

An unusual video prepared for the 2015 national sales meeting encouraged sales reps to push doctors to prescribe high doses of the fentanyl spray to find an “effective” dose — called titration. The video featured prominent sales reps rapping to an A$AP Rocky song and dancing with a life-size bottle of Subsys in the highest dose the company sold.

The sales reps, according to the indictment, repeat the refrain, “I love titration, and that’s not a problem!”

The person in the Subsys costume then takes it off at the end of the video. It’s Burlakoff. He shouts, “Woo! I love titration, ya that’s not a problem!”


Part 1

Ex-Boca school counselor used exotic dancer, models to push fentanyl

Master salesman Burlakoff mixes ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ with Big Pharma

Veteran, would-be lawyer, mom left dead or addicted after Subsys

How we got the story

Part 2: Coming April 11

Data reporters Mike Stucka and Mahima Singh, staff researcher Melanie Mena and digital editor Michele Kelley contributed to this story.

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