I have written many times before about the Sackler family that made billions of dollars by pushing their company Purdue Pharmaceuticals to get doctors to overprescribe the opioid painkiller OxyContin and making the dosage stronger, resulting in the massive drug addiction problem we have now that have caused so many deaths.
Investigative reporter Patrick Radden Keefe has written a new book Empire of Pain about the Sackler family and he was interviewed on the radio program Fresh Air about how the family went to great efforts to push the drug while at the same time keeping their name separate from the company so that they could build up their reputations as philanthropists and have their name attached to many public and university buildings. He explained how they are trying to shield their personal fortunes from the many lawsuits against them by shifting company money into their private accounts and then putting the company into bankruptcy.
OxyContin has been a fantastically profitable drug. It’s generated some $35 billion in revenue since its introduction in the 1990s. And what’s happened is just in the last few years, you’ve had this gathering storm of lawsuits seeking to hold, initially just the company, Purdue Pharma, but then eventually the family as well, responsible. Purdue and the Sacklers did this really interesting thing where the Sacklers at a certain point put the company into bankruptcy, because they had been taking so much money out of the company for so many years and it was now facing all these lawsuits. And so the company ends up with something like a billion dollars in cash and assets, and the Sacklers put it into bankruptcy. They don’t declare bankruptcy themselves. And, in fact, we know from their own records they’ve taken more than $10 billion out of the company really over the course of just a decade or so. So it’s this strange situation in which the company is bankrupt — the family financially is doing just fine.
There is now a law being proposed in Congress, actually called The Sackler Act, that seeks to prevent people from doing what the Sacklers are trying to do to use the bankruptcy laws shield their ill-gotten gains.
Seth Meyers also interviewed Keefe.
UPDATE: The Guardian has a review of the book and describes how the Sacklers used their money and influence to ward off prosecutions and escape with small fines.
The Sacklers did not cooperate. Indeed, they sought to derail publication. Keefe raises the possibility he was placed under surveillance, an attempt to intimidate him and his family. Nonetheless, the Sacklers’ indifference and smugness rise off the pages like steam from a sewer.
In one 1996 email, Richard Sackler, Purdue’s chairman and president, demands the company become as feared as a “tiger with claws, teeth and balls”. Asked repeatedly at deposition years later if Purdue played any role in the opioid crisis, he steadfastly answers: “I don’t believe so.”
A cousin, Kathe Sackler, actually boasts that OxyContin was a “very good medicine” and a “safe medicine”. She also claims credit for coming up with the “idea”. But she doesn’t end there.
Confronted with the question, “Do you recognize that hundreds of thousands of Americans have become addicted to OxyContin?”, she can only muster: “I don’t know the answer to that.”.
The Sacklers agreed to pay a $225m civil penalty, little more than the 2% they had taken from Purdue. But no one would be prosecuted. Asked why the government had not brought criminal charges against the Sacklers, Jeffrey Rosen, Bill Barr’s deputy attorney general, declined to say.
The government, Keefe writes, was “so deferential toward the Sacklers that nobody even bothered to question them”.
They should all be in jail.