(Reuters) - The CEO of Retrophin Inc, the drug company that Martin Shkreli founded and is now accused of conspiring to defraud, compared Shkreli to the Pied Piper on Thursday as he tried to explain to jurors why he stuck with the company in its early days despite misgivings.
Stephen Aselage, who was hired by Shkreli in October 2012, testified in Brooklyn federal court that he worried about not always getting "straight answers" from Shkreli, but decided to stay on the company's board of directors because he was so impressed with the young entrepreneur.
"He's a brilliant intellect, visionary," Aselage said after Assistant U.S. Attorney Alixandra Smith asked why he stayed. "I had one of my senior managers describe him as the Pied Piper – he tells a story, sings a song, and everyone just wants to follow him."
Aselage testified that Shkreli originally hired him to serve as chief executive officer, a position he held for only about two months before giving it back to Shkreli. Aselage then served on Retrophin's board of directors, became chief operating officer in mid-2014 and finally became CEO again after Shkreli was ousted in September 2014.
Shkreli, 34, became famous as the "pharma bro" in 2015 after founding another company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, acquiring a life-saving anti-infection drug and hiking its price by 5,000 percent.
The charges he now faces are not related to Turing but stem instead from his management of Retrophin and two hedge funds, MSMB Capital and MSMB Healthcare, between 2009 and 2014.
Prosecutors say Shkreli lied to investors in the funds to conceal huge losses, and eventually paid them back with money he stole from Retrophin, through sham settlement and consulting agreements between the company and the investors. Shkreli has denied the charges.
Aselage testified Thursday that Retrophin's board of directors was not given settlement agreements between the company and MSMB investors to review and approve.
"There were no discussions" about the settlements, he said.
He also said he found the role of several MSMB investors hired by Retrophin as consultants "unclear," and that he found it difficult to get information about the company's finances.
Aselage is expected to continue testifying on Friday, and Shkreli's lawyers will have a chance to cross-examine him.
Several MSMB investors have testified in the trial, now in its third week. All have said that while Shkreli lied to them, they came out ahead in the end.
Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York