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Sacklers Deny Wrongdoing During House Panel Over Purdue Pharma Oxycontin Sales

Dec 17, 2020
Originally published on December 17, 2020 4:45 pm

Updated at 1:22 p.m. ET

Members of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma's CEO say they did nothing wrong during the years their company illegally marketed Oxycontin and other opioids.

"There's nothing I can find that I would have done differently," said Dr. Kathe Sackler who served on Purdue's board for nearly 20 years.

She testified under oath Thursday during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. The Sacklers appeared before the panel voluntarily after being threatened with a subpoena. It was the first time members of the family faced a public accounting for their alleged role in the nation's deadly opioid epidemic, which has left more than 400,000 Americans dead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC, roughly 230,000 of those deaths were caused by prescription opioids including Oxycontin.

David Sackler, who also served on the board for six years, also denied any personal wrongdoing.

"The family and the board acted legally and ethically," he testified.

Both left Purdue Pharma in 2018 as legal and financial pressures on the company grew, but their family continues to own Purdue Pharma.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers took turns blasting the witnesses, describing their alleged actions as "criminal" and "obscene."

"We don't agree on a lot on this committee in a bipartisan way," said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., co-chair of the committee. "But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of your family, we all agree are sickening."

Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin in the mid-1990s, falsely marketing the pills as a safer, less addictive option for doctors treating pain in their patients.

The company has now twice admitted — in 2007 and this past October — to criminal wrongdoing for misleading doctors, regulators and the public about the dangers of Oxycontin.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the committee demanded to know who would be held accountable for that misconduct.

"You pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Who committed these crimes? Which individual at Purdue committed those crimes?" Maloney asked.

"We're taking full accountability and full responsibility for those crimes," Purdue Pharma CEO Craig Landau said, pointing to billions of dollars in fines and penalties levied against the firm as part of the latest plea agreement with the Justice Department.

But Landau accepted no personal responsibility. He also declined to forfeit a $3 million bonus he's slated to receive, despite the fact that Purdue Pharma is now in bankruptcy.

Critics have pointed out the company currently lacks the assets to pay the full amount of settlements agreed to as part of the DOJ settlement and lacks the funds to compensate tens of thousands of opioid victims who have sued Purdue Pharma over its false marketing.

Forbes has estimated the Sacklers are worth roughly $13 billion largely because of profits generated by Oxycontin sales. Numerous lawmakers suggested Thursday that money should be "clawed back" by the federal government to compensate victims. They also said members of the Sackler family should face criminal charges like other alleged drug dealers.

"If one of my clients sold five pills of Oxycontin on the street, you know what their criminal penalty is?" said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. "It's a 10-year minimum mandatory minimum sentence."

Armstrong said the Sacklers' claim that they didn't understand the danger posed by their company's products "defies believability and is absolutely abhorrent and appalling to the victims of opioid addiction."

: 12/16/20

A previous version of this story incorrectly called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the Centers for Disease Control and Addiction.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, for the first time, members of the Sackler family spoke publicly about their role at Purdue Pharma, the company they own that makes Oxycontin. David and Kathe Sackler testified under oath before a House oversight committee along with Purdue Pharma CEO Craig Landau. The Sacklers and Landau said they did nothing wrong. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins me now. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: So these are the people who run Purdue - who own Purdue Pharma. They were running Purdue Pharma during a time when the company has admitted misleading doctors and patients about how dangerous Oxycontin can be, and yet today they're saying they are not at fault. Square that for us.

MANN: Yeah, this is really controversial. First in 2007 and again in October of this year, the company pled guilty to criminal efforts to boost sales of this highly addictive opioid drug, Oxycontin. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who heads this oversight committee, today demanded to know in the virtual hearing who would actually be held accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROLYN MALONEY: You pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Which individuals at Purdue committed those crimes?

MANN: But the fact is, right now, while the corporation has pleaded guilty, no individuals are facing criminal charges. No one at the company has admitted to any personal wrongdoing.

KELLY: I want to follow up on some of the lines of questioning that lawmakers were pursuing today. I gathered more than one. They were calling the Sacklers conduct - and I'm quoting - "criminal and abhorrent." How did the Sacklers - sitting there, listening, how did they respond?

MANN: Yeah, it was fascinating to watch. The Sacklers, who appeared voluntarily after being threatened with subpoenas, spoke at length. David Sackler said all his actions on the board were legal and ethical. And then Kathe Sackler spoke, and here's what she said when asked about her culpability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHE SACKLER: I have struggled with that question. I have asked myself over many years - I have tried to figure out, is there anything that I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, not what I know now. There's nothing that I can find that I would have done differently.

MANN: What the Sacklers say is that, as board members, they weren't involved in day-to-day management. But lawmakers today pointed out that court documents show members of the family allegedly playing a really hands-on role, pushing Oxycontin sales. And at times, this back-and-forth was pretty intense. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, represents a state that's been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. At one point, he said - and I'm quoting - "I'm not sure that I'm aware of any family in America that's more evil than yours."

KELLY: Wow. Lawmakers were also quite focused on how rich the Sacklers are. They are really rich. According to Forbes magazine, members of the family profited more than $10 billion from opioid sales. What is happening with that money?

MANN: Yeah, there's a big fight over the money. The Sacklers have already paid $225 million in a deal with the Department of Justice. They've offered to give up control of Purdue Pharma as part of bankruptcy proceedings. They say they're willing to forfeit another $3 billion of that private wealth. But today, some lawmakers said the Sacklers should pay a lot more. Here's James Comer. He's a Republican from Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMER: And look - we don't agree on a lot on this committee in a bipartisan way. But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of your family, I think we all agree, are sickening.

MANN: Several lawmakers today pointed out that while a street dealer involved in the illegal sale of just a few Oxycontin pills could face up to a decade in federal prison, the Sacklers so far, again, haven't faced any criminal charges.

KELLY: Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.