5 CEOs With the Most Negative Coverage in 2015

1. Martin Skreli, Turing Pharmaceuticals AG. Notorious may best fit the description of Martin Skreli, who in September hiked the price of the 62-year-old drug Daraprim, to $750 a tablet— from $13.50 before Turing Pharmaceuticals AG bought the U.S. rights from Impax Laboratories Inc. It took some time and much public outcry before the company lowered the price somewhat, but not before Shkreli lashed out at critics on social media.

When Hillary Clinton accused him of price gouging, Shkreli condescendingly told NBC News that, “It’s very hard stuff to understand.” However, even biotech and infectious disease experts said at the time that the price hike was unjustifiable.

“As likable as Yahoo’s CEO is, she has received flack for just about everything she’s tried to do this year.”

Then in December, Shkreli was forced to resign as CEO after his arrest on securities fraud charges for activities in the past, when he ran a hedge fund and worked at Retrophin. After the arrest, New York-based homeless charity Community Solutions, to which Skreli had donated $15,000 from Turing, returned the check, stating that its leaders felt morally unable to keep the donation.

One nuance about this situation is that Skreli’s larceny and bad behavior obscures the very real dilemma of drug pricing as a vehicle to recover R&D costs for orphan drugs. Only U.S. firms spend on research; whereas European and Asian drug firms spend close to nothing.

2. Martin Winterkorn, Volkswagen. Though he tried mightily to overcome the scandalous software issue that violated emissions standards on diesel cars, Martin Winterkorn ultimately lost his job as VW’s CEO. Two days after the company was faulted in September by U.S. authorities for outfitting nearly half a million diesel VW and Audi vehicles with software that turns on full pollution controls only during official tests, Winterkorn said he was “deeply sorry” for the manipulation. The company will do “everything necessary to reverse the damage this has caused,” he said. “This matter has first priority for me, personally.”

But it wasn’t enough to save his job. Just a short time after, Winterkorn resigned saying, “Volkswagen needs a fresh start—also in terms of personnel.” He said that he accepted responsibility for the irregularities found in diesel engines and asked the supervisory board to agree to his stepping down, but added that he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing on his part.

3. Alexander Fishenko, Arc Electronics Inc. Alexander Fishenko, the former owner and CEO of Houston electronics firm Arc, in September admitted to being a Russian agent and illegally exporting sensitive microelectronics to Russia from Texas, two weeks before he was set to go on trial in a Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court. Fishenko was accused of laundering money, violating export laws and obstructing justice. He was also charged with acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, a charge that prosecutors say is rarely used and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

During the probe, prosecutors say, investigators learned that Fishenko’s company had shipped about $50 million worth of microelectronics and other technologies to Russia between 2002 and 2012.

4. Robert Murray, Murray Energy Corp. In November, Robert Murray was penalized for trying to squash whistleblowers about safety violations at his coal company. Twenty-nine safety citations were written against Murray Energy Corp. from March to April 2014 after the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration responded to confidential complaints, including the accumulation of coal dust along conveyor belts, inoperative escapes, an inadequately supported roof, flammable concentrations of methane near a seal, inoperative emergency communication systems and inadequate ventilation.

An administrative law judge ordered Murray to give speeches at five West Virginia mines to make sure his workers know their rights when it comes to filing complaints with MSHA.

Murray was also required to pay a $150,000 fine for allegedly “threatening reprisal and mine closure” to United Mine Workers of America members who filed the confidential complaints, in addition to allegedly interfering with the rights of miners to file such complaints at all five of Murray’s West Virginia operations, including the Ohio County Mine.

5. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo. As likable as Yahoo’s CEO is, she has received flack for just about everything she’s tried to do this year. Three and a half years after Mayer took the reins as CEO, investors are asking themselves: What happened to that turnaround they were promised?

Mayer has been under fire this year given the lagging performance of Yahoo’s stock, which is down 35% year to date. Until recently, she had been able to coast on the performance of Alibaba—of which Yahoo owns 384 million shares—but the good times came to an end when the Chinese market crashed, dragging Alibaba down with it. This put a renewed focus on Yahoo’s fundamentals—in particular, its ability to cut expenses and grow profits—and investors haven’t been happy with what they’re seeing.

Editor’s note: Murray Energy sent a letter to our office after this article was published. We want to clarify that this article is an aggregate story based on outside media, not an original story that we wrote with our own sources. The information on Robert Murray came directly from two articles in the International Business Times: http://bit.ly/1l8fW2b and http://bit.ly/1X4TOXy

That said, we do think it’s fair to let Murray Energy have their say. This excerpt comes directly from their letter: “Had you bothered to give us the opportunity to respond, we would have informed you that there has been absolutely no suppression of ‘whistleblowers’, whatsoever, and that no one wants to see total employee safety more than Mr. Robert E. Murray. Indeed, Mr. Murray’s Awareness Meeting Presentations clearly state that employees have the right to file complaints with the federal government and that our Company would “never interfere with that right.” Mr. Murray made it clear that, in addition to filing complaints permitted by law, employees should also report safety concerns to management so that these concerns can be addressed immediately. This is not the suppression of whistleblowers, as you call it. Indeed, the whistleblower terminology is your concoction. What Mr. Murray was actually doing is prioritizing mine safety above all else.”

Since our mission at Chief Executive is to give all CEOs insight and lessons they can use to better run their own business, the short list in this article is meant simply to serve as a conversation starter to help all CEOs look inward to generate improvements across all areas of their firm. 

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