WASHINGTON — It might seem like a political blunder for Hillary Clinton to accept a fundraiser hosted at Theranos, the embattled biotech company that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately.
But the greater risk could be to Theranos.
Chief executive Elizabeth Holmes, who will host the event at the company’s offices in Palo Alto, Calif., on Monday, has been struggling to demonstrate to investors and potential partners that she’s focused on rigorously proving the science behind Theranos’s secretive technology, which aims to make it possible to conduct a wide array of medical tests on a very small sample of blood.
After raising hundreds of millions for Theranos, recruiting a who’s who of politically connected board members, and landing on the cover of many a magazine, Holmes has been under siege in recent months. Federal regulators have cited multiple violations in the company’s lab practices, pharmacies have ended relationships with Theranos, and investigative pieces in the Wall Street Journal have raised questions about the accuracy of its technology.
To host a fundraiser now strikes some observers as tone deaf.
“Today’s narrative about Theranos is that the company has focused more on its political relationships than on its core business, and that doing so created a hype that far exceeds the true value of the company’s products,” said Robert M. Wachter, interim chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Given that, I’m not sure how this fundraiser does anything other than promote that narrative — one that Theranos needs to be aggressively trying to undo,” Wachter said.
That said, the fundraiser does have some potential benefits for Holmes — not the least of which is cementing her already close relationship with the Clintons.
By allowing Holmes to host the fundraiser, the Clinton campaign is sending a signal, whether intended or not, that it doesn’t consider the questions about Theranos to be that important.
“It does help Holmes, because implicitly, it suggests that someone at the Clinton campaign thinks these are passing clouds,” said Henry T. Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School and a Clinton supporter.
So does the event help Clinton?
Well, there’s no question that Holmes will be able to bring in money from the biotech community. And Clinton, like all politicians, can always use more campaign cash. Holmes herself is worth billions — at least, as long as Theranos stays viable. So she’s a valuable supporter to have.
But the good news for Clinton pretty much stops there, because no presidential candidate wants to be associated with a private-sector scandal.
A fundraiser might have made sense a year ago, when Theranos was still flying high. (That’s when the Clinton Foundation celebrated Holmes as one of the country’s leading health care executives, with Bill Clinton himself leading a discussion with her at a health care conference in January 2015.)
Now, though, it feels different.
“There are still a lot of questions about the viability of the firm, and frankly, there are questions about the honesty of the firm,” said Greely.
“It starts to look like association with some company that, maybe, is more frosting than cake,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “I just think the timing is bad, the appearance is bad, [and] there’s no reason to get into the controversy that will undoubtedly occur.”
Clinton’s Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, isn’t commenting on the fundraiser, but some of his supporters are scratching their heads. Dennis Godby, a neuropathic doctor in Sacramento, Calif., who supports Sanders, said he was puzzled by the way Clinton seems to get involved in controversy.
“It seems like she doesn’t seem to care how things appear to the public and media,” he said.
The Clinton campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
For all her connections — her board at Theranos includes former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former Senators Bill Frist and Sam Nunn, and William Perry, who served as defense secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration — Holmes is a bit of a rookie on the political scene.
There are few records of her making campaign contributions, other than the money she gave in 2014 to Michelle Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who was running for the Senate and who is the daughter of Sam Nunn. She gave $2,600 to Nunn’s Senate campaign, as well as $12,600 to the Nunn Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that collected money and then donated it to other organizations.
Other Theranos executives have also had only limited involvement in campaigns. Patrick O’Neill, the company’s chief creative officer, gave $1,250 to Clinton last year. And Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the president and chief operating officer, gave $5,400 to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who’s up for reelection this year.
Last year was the first time Theranos retained registered Washington lobbyists. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the company spent $240,000 on lobbying in 2015, not a huge sum for a biotech company.
As far as political tempests go, the Theranos fundraiser isn’t a big one.
But still, Greely said: “I wouldn’t have done it if I were them.”
Sheila Kaplan, Dave Armstrong, and Ike Swetlitz contributed reporting.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Holmes’ political contributions to Nunn. She gave two donations, one to Nunn’s Senate campaign and the other to her joint fundraising committee.