Burzynski sends the FBI after a critic…

In November 2013, in the days after devastating FDA Form 483s (investigation notes) that illustrated decades of incompetence at the Burzynski Clinic were released on the web, and just days before the damning USA Today investigation into the Clinic was due to be released, the reporter investigating the Clinic told me about an allegation that I had threatened the Clinic and that it was being reported to the FBI. Apparently, the Clinic was anticipating my appearance in the upcoming article and was trying to get ahead of the coverage. If you can’t fight the message, I imagine, attack the messenger. And, if you are about to be ripped apart on the front page of the paper with the highest circulation in the country, make sure that the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into your critics to make it seem like you are being threatened by dangerous people, and not merely by curious writers with time to muckrake and a colossal amount of damning evidence.

The only problem with the little scheme is that I was not in the USA Today article. I did not know what was going to be in the article. Skeptics had no means (other than the quality of our own research) to anticipate what the journalist would report. When the article came out, I didn’t recognize the names of any of the experts cited in it.  Every point in that investigation was made and verified by people who were not associated with the skeptic movement.

I contacted Ken White, an attorney with Brown White & Osborn who blogs at Popehat.com. Ken has a strong commitment to First Amendment issues and has helped numerous bloggers who have found their free speech threatened; he helps either by directly representing them or by helping them find representation in their jurisdiction. Also, not-a-lawyer Marc Stephens, who had been threatening critics of the Burzynski Clinic, had threatened actually-a-lawyer Ken in the past (with hilarious, highly quotable consequences). I immediately sent Ken a note, because I was very worried about what the reporter had said. I should note that I got permission to reveal my conversations with Ken – which normally you shouldn’t do – and I’m not waiving any attorney-client privilege over other conversations. He sent back an email:

2. DON’T PANIC.  Again.
4.  Let’s talk.
Can you talk by phone this afternoon?
I explained the situation to Ken, and over the next few days, he kept me from losing my cool and reminded me that I had every right to continue writing about the Clinic and its legacy, as seen in this email exchange:

1.  Don’t panic.
2.  Realize it’s not as bad as you fear.
3.  Stop doing any bad things you are doing. [For the record, I wasn’t doing anything bad.]
4.  Do any good things you can do, as approved by your legal adviser.
5.  Don’t panic.
6.  Don’t talk to people about it.
7.  Don’t panic.
[I was learning that a big part of a defense attorney’s job is keeping their clients from hurting themselves by acting out of panic.]

Should I continue to write about the Clinic and its various shenanigans? Do I do a report on the [USA Today article, which was out by this time] for Virtual Skeptics tomorrow night, which I’m sure people are expecting? Does that count as good?
Yes.  Absolutely. […]
If there is anything to learn from quacks is that when you are challenged, you double down and charge harder. Now, at this point we did not know if anything was actually going to happen. I assumed that Burzynski had gone to the FBI. And then on November 20, just as the insane jabs of fear were coming farther and farther apart, I wrote to Ken:

I got a call from a number in Atlanta that I did not recognize, picked it up, and a recorded voice said, “The FBI reports [my heart stops] that a house is broken into every 6 minutes. We will be happy to put a free sign in your yard indicating that you have a home security system. Just provide your address… [heart starts up again]. *click*”  Not cool, telemarketers, not cool. […]

Sorry, but I lol’ed. That’s why you can’t panic.

I touched base with Ken about once a month to let him know that nothing was happening. In fact, I heard nothing at until March 28th, many months later, when an FBI agent left a message on my work phone. I actually never talked to the guy. Ken did:

OK.  Talked to him.  He was friendly. He was asked by another office – he didn’t specify which one – to contact you.  Probably Texas.  I explained I represent you and would coordinate any response, and invited him to give the other office my name and phone number.  He didn’t seem familiar with why he was asked to reach out to you.  Though one cannot be certain, that strongly suggests they aren’t gunning for you.  So:  for now I will wait for a call.  If anyone contacts you, politely say “I’m represented by an attorney, Ken White at [phone number] and I’d like to talk to him, or you are free to call him.  I’m not going to speak without him.”

I had that written on a little slip of paper in my wallet for months. On April 11th, Burzynski gave me a late birthday present. It came in the form of an email from Ken:

Update.  Got a call from an FBI agent in Texas.  He was very casual.  The phrase “looks like a First Amendment issue, but we just have to check things out” was used.  That’s encouraging.

It turned out that the Burzynski Clinic had complained to the FBI about my web show, The Virtual Skeptics. As I described the relevant clip to Ken:

I was reporting on the FDA’s 483s […], which revealed a host of violations including overdoses, destroying tumor measurements, all sorts of horrible stuff. I was conveying the idea that the revelations were devastating to the clinic and that Eric Merola had to re-cut the ending of his new movie, and I used an iPad special effects app to show a missile strike on the clinic.
So, by talking about Eric Merola’s crummy movie (and by improving on his special effects by orders of magnitude) I’m apparently a terrorist who deserves to be contacted by the Terrorism Joint Task Force of the FBI. I shared everything that I had with the FBI through Ken, as I had nothing to hide. I never heard from the FBI again. I never talked to them. They never asked to interview me.

It turns out you can request your FBI file. What’s in mine is sort of staggering. Burzynski sent a letter to the Houston FBI office that read:

To Whom It May Concern:

Please allow Mrs. Carolyn Powers to file the complaint with the FBI while I am away in San Francisco at a conference. It was extremely disturbing to find out the latest of what Mr. Robert Blaskiewicz would like to do to us. He seems like a psychopath that will not stop until we are dead and the Burzynski Clinic is destroyed. He has harassed me and my clinic for years.
Thank you for your help,
Stanislaw R. Burzynski, M.D., Ph.D.
Years after the fact I still read this and shake my head. My heart goes all aflutter when I get a call from telemarketers about home security, for crying out loud. Before I ended up on the Burzynski beat, I wouldn’t think that someone could do this to another human in good conscience. I was not completely comfortable in my own skin for a year after I heard about the complaint, and I still feel the occasional rush of dread at the memory of that time. And then I send out a few more emails.

I have occasionally received threats at this site from angry former Burzynski patients, and I truly regret that, but I don’t take down stories. And when they have threatened me with legal action, Ken has kindly fielded their concerns with sensitivity and tact and firmness.

I am very grateful for Ken’s representation, all of which he did pro bono. You can find him here: http://brownwhitelaw.com/kenneth-p-white/

As a further show of support for what Ken does, I donate to one of Ken’s preferred charities, FIRE, which promotes and protects free speech on campus. They do good work, and I suspect will be very busy during this contentious campaign season.  http://www.thefire.org/

If you want to see why we are so appalled by the Burzynski Clinic in the first place, read the story of Burzynski patient Amelia S.