Members of Congress threw fierce comments and angry questions on Thursday at two members of the billionaire Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, seeking to use a rare public appearance to extract confessions of personal responsibility for the deadly opioid epidemic as well as details about $ 10 billion that records show the family has pulled out of the business.
The hearing, before the House Oversight Committee, provided the public with a very unusual opportunity to hear directly from some of the family, whose company is a defendant in thousands of federal and state lawsuits for deceptive marketing of OxyContin. , the painkiller believed to be a wave of opioid addiction that has resulted in the deaths of more than 450,000 Americans. Eight family members have been named individually in many state cases.
The uniqueness of the Sacklers’ appearance on Thursday was underscored by the likelihood that they will never testify in open court, as ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and domestic disputes can be resolved in settlements rather than lawsuits. Despite millions of dollars in legal fees accrued by plaintiffs and Purdue – and the company’s subsequent filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2019 – a roadblock to resolution persists: The Sacklers’ refusal to be required personally or criminally liable and to return on substantial portions of their fortune.
During the tense, nearly four-hour hearing, David Sackler, 40, and his cousin, Dr. Kathe Sackler, 72, both of whom have served on the company’s board of directors for years, have largely avoided potential pitfalls and placed the blame on “management” and independent, non-family board members.
Or, as Mr. Sackler put it, “That’s a question for lawyers.”
On several occasions, committee members have pitted reliable statistics on the destruction of the epidemic against images of the family’s concurrent earnings, including a $ 22.5 million mansion in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. , paid in cash in 2018 – which David Sackler called a trust. investment in which he had not spent a single night.
Throughout the session, both Sacklers expressed regret for OxyContin’s role in the outbreak, but not for their own actions in the years the company, under the guidance and encouragement of the board of directors , aggressively promoted the pain reliever.
Indeed, Dr. Sackler said he was scrupulously concerned about the well-being of patients. “I believed Purdue was acting responsibly to reduce the incidence of abuse and overdose while serving those in need of pain relief,” she said.
“I tried to figure out, was there something I could have done differently? Knowing what I knew then – not what I know now? said Dr Sackler, who served on the board from 1990 to 2018. “There is nothing I could find that I would have done differently based on what I believed and understood at the time.
She said what she subsequently learned from leading and reporting to the board was “extremely distressing.”
Mr Sackler, who served on the board of directors from 2012 to 2018, echoed a similar sensibility: “I believe I have conducted myself in a legal and ethical manner and I believe the full record will show that I feel still absolutely terrible that a product created to help so many “is associated with death and drug addiction,” he said.
Deeply skeptical committee members asked the Sacklers if they actually subscribed to newspapers or had access to cable television.
Speaking to the Sacklers, Rep. Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee, said, “Watching you testify makes my blood boil. I don’t know of any family in America that’s more evil than yours.
Rep. Carol Miller, Republican from West Virginia, asked Mr Sackler if he had ever been to the Appalachians to see firsthand the impact of the crisis.
“Yes,” he replied, but not for the express purpose of finding the facts.
“I visited my wife for vacation,” he says.
With no direct admissions of responsibility from the Sacklers – or Dr Craig Landau, CEO of Purdue since 2017, who also testified – committee members used their questions to highlight the most common actions. glaring over the years of the company and Mr. Sackler’s father, Dr. Richard Sackler, a practical setting during the peak period of the epidemic.
In particular, they explored the actions that followed a federal fine of nearly $ 635 million in 2007 that the company and three executives paid after pleading guilty to federal criminal charges of “bad branding.” The settlement did not include any acknowledgment of liability by any of the Sacklers.
Committee chair, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, asked Sackler if in 2008, after the company’s federal settlement, the family was concerned about state investigations. Mr. Sackler denied knowing that the investigations were increasing.
But then Ms Maloney read an email exchange between Mr Sackler and other parents in 2007, just a week after that settlement. Referring to the activity in the courtrooms, he wrote: “Are we rich? For how long? Until the costumes get to the family? “
She then asked Mr Sackler, “Have you tried to cash in profits so that opioid victims cannot claim them in future losses?”
He replied, “No, I don’t think that’s what I meant at the time.”
The committee was able to secure a commitment from the Sacklers to hand over a list of what Ms Maloney called “offshore shell companies.” According to court documents, between 2008 and 2017, the family withdrew about $ 10 billion from Purdue Pharma.
Mr Sackler said Thursday the family paid about half of that amount in taxes.
Dr Landau said under his tenure the company halted its promotion of opioids and focused on developing drugs that reverse overdoses.
Three generations of family members have overseen Purdue since the 1950s, when three brothers – including Raymond (David’s grandfather) and Mortimer (Kathe’s father) – founded it. (A third brother, Dr Arthur Sackler, sold his shares long before the introduction of OxyContin.) During the opioid epidemic, family members served on Purdue’s board and often adopted a vigorous hands-on approach to urge the sales department to soar. -prescribing doctors and minimizing the addictive properties of the drug, according to numerous court documents.
Last month, three crimes involving bribery and fraud related to the promotion of its opioids and failure to report aberrant sales. The Department of Justice settled with the company $ 8.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties and family members for $ 225 million in civil penalties. The Sacklers did not admit any wrongdoing. The amount they paid is about 2% of the family’s net worth.
Maura Healey, the attorney general for Massachusetts, the first state to name individual Sacklers in a dispute, said the Sacklers wanted “special treatment.” In a letter to the House committee, she wrote, “If we let powerful people cover up the facts, shirk responsibility, or start a government sponsored OxyContin business, it is not fair. This time we have to do it right.
In 2019, Congressman Elijah E Cummings, the now deceased committee chairman, opened an investigation into the company and family to examine whether their actions should lead to potential political or legislative changes. In October, the committee released a wealth of documents, highlighting how individual Sacklers urged the company to increase sales. The committee sought to get many Sacklers to testify, which they refused, through their lawyers, to argue that the appearances would prevent the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.
Committee lawyers threatened to issue subpoenas. After much argument, the Sacklers agreed to introduce two of the four family members initially requested.