Members of Congress on Thursday threw withering comments and angry questions at two members of the Sackler billionaire family who own Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, in a rare public appearance to take personal responsibility for the deadly opioid epidemic for details over $ 10 billion showing the family withdrew from the company.
The hearing before the House Oversight Committee provided the public with an extremely unusual opportunity to hear directly from some family members whose company is accused in thousands of federal and state lawsuits for misleading marketing of OxyContin, the pain reliever seen as initiating a wave of opioid addiction, which resulted in the deaths of more than 450,000 Americans. Eight family members were individually named in many state cases.
The uniqueness of the Sacklers’ appearance on Thursday was underscored by the likelihood that they will never testify in court, as the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and statewide litigation can be settled in settlements rather than legal proceedings. Despite the millions of dollars in legal costs incurred by plaintiffs and Purdue alike – and the subsequent Chapter 11 filing for bankruptcy protection in September 2019 – one obstacle to resolution remains: the Sacklers refusal to face personal or criminal accountability and appeal over substantial parts of their property.
During the tense, nearly four-hour hearing, 40-year-old David Sackler and his cousin Dr. Kathe Sackler (72), who both worked for years on the company’s board of directors, testified from a distance and largely avoided the possible booby-traps and diverted the blame for “management” and independent, non-family board members.
Or, as Mr Sackler said, “That is a question for the lawyers.”
Repeatedly, committee members pitted harsh statistics on the destruction from the epidemic against pictures of the family’s simultaneous gains, including a $ 22.5 million mansion in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles paid in cash in 2018 – which David did Sackler called an investment in which he had not spent a single night.
Throughout the session, both Sacklers expressed regret over OxyContin’s role in the epidemic, but not about their own actions over the years when the company aggressively promoted the pain reliever, with the oversight and encouragement of the board of directors.
In fact, Dr. Sackler embarrassed about patient welfare. “I thought Purdue was acting responsibly to reduce the incidence of abuse and overdose while continuing to serve those in need of pain relief,” she said.
“I was trying to find out, was there anything I could have done differently? Know what I knew then – not what I know now? “Said Dr. Sackler, who served on the board from 1990 to 2018. “There is nothing that I could find otherwise, depending on what I believed and understood at the time.”
She said what she later learned from management and reported to the board was “extremely distressing.”
Mr. Sackler, who served on the board from 2012 to 2018, was similarly sensitive: “I believe I behaved legally and ethically, and I believe the full record will show that I still feel absolutely awful that a product created to help so many people “is linked to death and addiction, he said.
Deeply skeptical committee members asked the Sacklers whether they actually subscribed to newspapers or had access to cable television.
Speaking to the Sacklers, Representative Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee, said, “When I see you testify, my blood boils. I don’t know of any family in America worse than yours. “
West Virginia Republican Carol Miller asked Mr. Sackler if he had ever visited Appalachia to see firsthand the effects of the crisis.
“Yes,” he replied, but not for the express purpose of establishing the facts.
“I was on vacation with my wife,” he said.
In the absence of a direct sense of responsibility by the Sacklers – or by Dr. Craig Landau, Purdue’s chief executive officer since 2017, who also testified – the committee members used their questions to explain the most egregious actions of the company and Dr. Sackler’s father, Dr. Richard Sackler, a practical manager during the height of the epidemic.
In particular, they examined the measures resulting from a nearly $ 635 million fine in 2007 paid by the company and three senior executives after pleading guilty of “misbranding”. The settlement did not include any assumption of liability by one of the Sacklers.
The committee chairman, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, asked Mr. Sackler if the family was concerned about a government investigation following the company’s federal settlement in 2008. Mr. Sackler denied knowing that the investigation had increased.
But then Ms. Maloney read from an email exchange between Mr. Sackler and other relatives in 2007, just a week after that settlement. Regarding courtroom activities, he wrote, “We are rich? For how long? Until what suits reach the family? “
Then she asked Mr. Sackler, “Have you tried to cash out winnings so opioid victims can’t claim them for future losses?”
He replied: “No, I don’t think that’s what I meant then.”
The committee was able to require the Sacklers to submit a list of the companies Ms. Maloney referred to as “offshore shell companies”. According to court records, the family withdrew approximately $ 10 billion from Purdue Pharma between 2008 and 2017.
Mr Sackler said Thursday that the family paid about half of those taxes.
Dr. Landau said that during his tenure the company stopped promoting 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 (Kather’s father) – started it. (A third brother, Dr. Arthur Sackler, sold his stock long before OxyContin was launched.) During the opioid epidemic, family members served on Purdue’s board of directors, often pushing the sales department to rave about – prescribing doctors and downplaying its addictive properties of the drug according to extensive court documents.
Last month, Purdue pleaded guilty to three crimes of setbacks and fraud related to advertising its opioid and failing to report abnormal sales. The Justice Department has agreed with the company $ 8.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties and family members with $ 225 million in civil penalties. The Sacklers did not admit any wrongdoing. The amount they paid is roughly 2 percent of the family’s net worth.
Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, the first state to name individual Sacklers in litigation, said the Sacklers want “special treatment.” In a letter to the House Committee, she wrote, “If we let powerful people cover up the facts, avoid accountability, or start a government sponsored OxyContin business – it is no justice. This time we have to get it right. “
In 2019, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, the late committee chairman, opened an investigation into the company and the family to see if their actions should lead to possible changes in policy or legislation. In October, the committee released a plethora of documents that underscored how individual Sacklers asked the company to increase sales. The committee tried to get numerous Sacklers to testify, which they opposed through their lawyers, saying that the appearances would hamper the ongoing bankruptcy process.
The committee’s lawyers threatened to summon them. After considerable disputes, the Sacklers agreed to introduce two of the four family members originally requested.