What the Sackler Family Won

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S1: At any one time. NPR’s Brian Mann is probably following about a dozen legal proceedings. All of them seeking some kind of accountability for the opioid crisis, but none of them quite like the hearing he went to a couple of weeks back. This was in bankruptcy court. It was over Zoom. What made it remarkable were the two dozen people giving searing testimony about the way addiction had upended their lives.

S2: And let me just say bankruptcy courts don’t usually do things like this. This is not a normal thing in bankruptcy court to have victim testimony like you might have in a criminal case or in some civil cases. But this judge said this felt right to me. And as part of the agreement, three members of the Sackler family did agree to sit through it and to watch it and listen as these families held up photographs of the dead and talked about what they’d lost it was, it was powerful and heart wrenching

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S1: to the people testifying. The billionaire Sackler family is a bunch of high end drug dealers executives who led Purdue Pharma as that company aggressively marketed OxyContin in Doctors’ offices and hospital wards all over the country. One parent forced the court to listen to a 9-1-1 call that still haunts her. In it, she’d just found her son dead from an overdose.

S2: One of the things that kept being said by these family members over and over again is that you, members of the Sackler family, deliberately tried to label people with addiction as criminals as the problem. They are the people who created this epidemic. They’re the bad guys in this story. And what people kept saying to them was, we we want you to see us, we want you to see that we were a real family. We had careers, we had hopes, we had a mortgage, you know, we were sending our kid to college and then he came home in a body bag.

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S1: This hearing was part of a settlement deal. The Sacklers, they’ve said they’ll give up control of their drug company. They’ll even cough up $6 billion. But in exchange, they want to be shielded from personal liability.

S2: You know, a lot of people, including the U.S. Justice Department and others have said, you know, is that how justice is supposed to work? We don’t really think so. That said, I spoke to a bunch of these people who testified, and they clearly felt that it was an important ritual. There is something human and profound about, you know, having a moment to confront a person that you believe did something terribly wrong.

S1: It’s interesting you say that the family members felt like this. Their ability to testify was a kind of relief, because it sounds like you’re saying. It may have felt like an emotional release. But it’s very unclear whether real accountability will happen here

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S2: for people in that room, these family members. Remember, they’ve been forced to live in this space for a long time, seeking justice, wanting some accountability and at the end of the day, here’s what I’m hearing from them. They think this is the best deal they’re going to get. They think this is the closest they’re going to get to justice.

S1: Today on the show, with half a million Americans dead. What does accountability in the opioid crisis look like? And is this accountability at all? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. How did the Sackler become the focus of so much anger from families and, of course, litigation too? When did that start?

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S2: Well, I think the first thing to say is that the Sackler were brilliant at managing their image for a long time, to distance themselves from opioids and from the main product that Purdue Pharma their private company made.

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S1: Yeah, I mainly knew them as like the name on art galleries. Not anything else.

S2: Yeah. And medical facilities and universities. And I mean, they were they were everywhere as one of the leading philanthropic families in the world, not just in the US, but in the world. And there was also a very careful effort to sort of, you know, when they would talk about their wealth to the extent that they did, it was not connected to, you know, how where did where did all this money come from? And I want to be fair here and contextual here. There were a lot of people regulators, law enforcement, doctors, pharmacists, all kinds of corporations that were all part of this. You know, the Sacklers and others were donating crap tons of money to create think tanks and endowed chairs, a new medical wing. So everybody got pulled into this vortex. Everybody was making money off of opioids. Opioids were a great quick fix for a lot of medical problems. So, you know, hospitals and doctors loved them. But slowly, as the opioid crisis deepened, there started to be more and more reporting connecting the dots back to this company. And there started also to be investigations that happened. And and and this is really troubling. I mean, as early as 2007, which is pretty early in the opioid crisis, the Justice Department had clearly figured out that this company was doing really dangerous things.

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S1: What do you mean when you say that?

S2: Well, basically what they said was, you’re marketing opioids. You’re this very addictive, very dangerous, you know, medication that probably should only be used in the most extreme cases end of life care, cancer, sickle cell, things like that. You’re marketing it to doctors and to hospitals that they should give it out for, you know, relatively minor things. And you’re assuring them that this new formulation that you’ve created is far less addictive. And, you know, we don’t think the evidence really supports that. And in fact, as early as 2007, Purdue Pharma pleads guilty to federal crimes that they had marketed OxyContin improperly.

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S1: This was a watershed moment for the Sackler drug company, or it should have been. Three executives, including the company’s president, pleaded guilty to misbranding opioids. That’s a criminal offense. The company agreed to an independent monitor and to pay $600 million in fines.

S2: But what we’ve learned in the years since is that almost as soon as that deal was cut with the Justice Department, members of the Sackler family started pushing again for even more aggressive sales of opioids. This is after we knew people were dying. We knew addiction rates were soaring. They partnered with a consultant called McKinsey, and McKinsey promised to turbocharge their opioid sales. That was their term. We’re going to turbocharge these sales

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S1: after this agreement with the Department of Justice

S2: after this agreement. And so again, in in 2020. 13 years later, Purdue Pharma pleads guilty again to federal criminal charges, admitting that they continued to market and push the sales of of opioids improperly. And so this is a company that has twice pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for pushing these very dangerous drugs during years when hundreds of thousands of Americans were dying.

S1: At this point, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Purdue Pharma, which has driven the company into bankruptcy for the Sackler family, though this bankruptcy has been an opportunity as a condition of settling their company’s financial affairs. The Sacklers have demanded full immunity from civil liability for themselves, even though the family is far from bankrupt.

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S2: Basically, the very simple way of thinking about it is that to use this maneuver, you find something that you can stick into bankruptcy that’s relatively disposable

S1: like a company, an asset, something that you can just like, get rid of.

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S2: Yeah, it’s a subsidiary, right? Here’s a here’s a subsidiary or in the case of Purdue Pharma, you know, here’s this company that’s bankrupt and the Sackler say, OK, yeah, the company is bankrupt. That’s that’s that’s that ship is sinking. We’re standing over here safe on our island. And we’re also facing a wave of lawsuits that could swamp our island, right? But what we’ll do? Hey, here’s here’s our idea will contribute x number of dollars to that sinking ship problem that you have out there. That is bankrupt, and in exchange for that, we’re immune, we’re no longer part of this at all. That’s the that’s the trade off you. You want a little bit more money out of that sinking ship. Fine will contribute. But then in exchange for that, we’re going to demand immunity from any role or any, you know, lawsuits going forward. And what lots of companies and organizations have found is that they can find something to throw into bankruptcy that’s relatively worthless. And then they contribute x number of dollars to that process and their rich organization or their rich individuals or their rich family in trade. For that contribution, they get a clean, a clean slate. They walk away. And that’s what we’re about to see happen with the Sackler is now they’re at the finish line as we speak.

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S1: You say that the families never acknowledged any wrongdoing, but they haven’t been completely silent. Like, I noticed that you were at a different hearing in December 2020 in front of Congress, where the Sackler actually spoke. What did they say there when confronted by lawmakers about what they’d done at Purdue Pharma?

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S2: The narrative that they put forward is that they were ethical and lawful board members, and to the extent that Purdue Pharma has acknowledged criminal behavior, they say they were not aware of it. And there’s this remarkable moment when Dr Cathy Sackler, who was on the board, said, You know, based on what I knew then and I’m paraphrasing her here. But she says, I don’t know what I could have done differently.

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S3: 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 is nothing that I can find that I would have done differently.

S1: What’s interesting is that when you hear her voice, she sounds reflective. She talks about I struggled and I looked back at my role, and that’s what stood out to me. Like, it sounded like she really knew how to say the words. But it was hard to know if they were genuine.

S2: You know, it’s really challenging. I’ve been reporting on the opioid crisis now for several years, and I’ve listened to a lot of different corporate executives testify, talk about their role in making decisions that just factually did flood the country with these highly addictive, very dangerous opioids. You know, and I hear that tone of voice a lot people talking about their decisions in ways that they’re just kind of there is they’re clearly struggling with it to some extent. But at the end, there’s just kind of this shrug. There’s this like what? You know, what could we have done differently? And and and I don’t know how to interpret it. I can’t get into Cathy Sackler heart, obviously, or the mind of all these other executives. But this resistance to accountability is profound. And let me just say just stepping back from what’s in their hearts and minds. The other thing that does leave somebody like myself kind of, I don’t know, sort of, I don’t know what to say about it, is that, you know, we’re a society that locks up a lot of people for selling drugs, right? We put a lot of people behind bars for a long time for selling drugs. And the fact that we look at people in corporate America who sold massive quantities of drugs at times when it was clear that those drugs were devastating whole communities. The fact that there is no clear mechanism to hold them accountable, it raises questions that I just can’t answer.

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S1: We’ll be right back. So let’s talk about this bankruptcy settlement and what it might mean. If it’s accepted, if it goes through, it’s $6 billion. How is that money theoretically going to be distributed?

S2: Well, one of the things that is really cool about this is that it kind of goes beyond theoretically and again, you’re right there is there a couple of moments that still have to come before this deal is finalized, but if it is finalized. It has been structured in a really deliberate way to funnel the money into drug treatment and health care and harm reduction to actually ease the opioid and addiction crisis, and so they’ve entered into this very solid set of agreements that will funnel the money out to states and then from there down to the local government level where there are very sort of clear pipelines that will send the money to public health departments that’ll send the money to do things like foster care programs in areas where so many parents have died or fallen into addiction that children need that kind of care.

S1: And families themselves can apply for compensation. Right?

S2: Yeah, there is a at the center of this, there is about a $750 million fund that is, you know, a compensation for victims. But I think it is important to say and this has been controversial. The lion’s share of of this money is not going to victims of past addiction. The lion’s share will go to actually easing the crisis going forward and will go towards helping more people get treatment. More people get the medical care that they need to stop this. And this has been a central part of the discussion. It’s weird because it’s in a bankruptcy court, but a lot of the time the conversation has turned toward how can this bankruptcy process fix this massive social crisis that’s killing, you know, more than 100000 people in the U.S. now every year? How can this actually help? And and I will tell you, this is a little ray of sunshine here that a lot of the public health experts I talked to think this will move the needle. It’s not going to solve it. It’s not enough money to begin to solve it. But it is something that you know there will be more people getting care.

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S1: Brian says the good this agreement will do, it’ll be multiplied by money coming out of other even bigger opioid settlements. In one case, from over the summer, three other drug distributors reached their own deal to give up $26 billion money. They could make a real difference in people’s lives. There’s a dark side to this cash flow, though. In Purdue’s case, at least the money going to victim compensation is going to come in part from the continued sale of opioids. And then there’s the issue of the Sackler themselves, who many see as ducking accountability.

S2: What a lot of people are saying is hold on a second wait. That’s not how American justice is supposed to work. If I want to sue the Sackler. I should get to go to court and make my argument. That’s what the Constitution promises me under due process provision. And what you’re saying is a bankruptcy judge as you can build a firewall around them. That’s crazy. And you know, lots of people are really alarmed by that, including the U.S. Justice Department, which has declared this whole arrangement unconstitutional. So there are big critics of this sacrificial animal process. But so far, it just it keeps making its way through and being signed in. And that’s what we’re about to see happen with the Sackler. Now they’re at the finish line as we speak.

S1: Yeah. I want to talk about that immunity and how far it goes, because at that hearing the other day, one of the people who testified was a criminal court judge, a guy named Bill Nelson, whose son died of an overdose. He seemed really frustrated that Richard Sackler wouldn’t show his face. But he also made the point that, you know, I put drug dealers away with a single wrap of a gavel. And I do it without blinking an eye. And I wish I could do the same to you. Why can’t there be criminal charges here or why aren’t there

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S2: in the paper trail of this long interaction between law enforcement and regulators and Purdue Pharma and the Sackler? There clearly have been moments when the Justice Department and others have have come up to the line and really strongly considered bringing criminal charges against at least some members of the family. That’s never happened. Instead, they’ve entered into these deals. They’ve they’ve, you know, secured payments from the Sackler. And in speaking to legal experts about why this happens, I think first of all, it’s important to just say that it’s very hard to hold corporate actors accountable for criminal behavior. You have to have really big smoking guns. You have to have just very clear intent. You have to have, you know, the paper trail has to be almost, you know, unavoidably clear that there was, you know, some kind of criminal conspiracy that happened. And what seems obvious is that the Sackler and Purdue Pharma have worked very aggressively to make sure that those charges were never filed. They’ve negotiated very aggressively. And I think it is also, you know, when you look now at whether the U.S. Justice Department or a state attorney general might take on some kind of a criminal probe or a criminal prosecution, it would be a very big legal fight against a family that has very deep pockets to hire, you know, the best legal team in the country. And I think that it’s so far at least been, you know, that’s a windmill that that no prosecutor has been willing to take on.

S1: It sounds a little bit like they have been able to pay their way out of accountability.

S2: I think that’s the the obvious takeaway for a lot of people. Yeah, I think that’s a I mean, and you know, there is there is. Let me just say this very simply, you know, the Sacklers are going to pay $6 billion in exchange. Let’s just talk about the civil lawsuits again for a second in exchange for immunity from civil lawsuits. That’s a luxury that most of us cannot afford. I mean, I cannot. I cannot. I’m guessing you cannot go to any court in the country, bankruptcy or otherwise and say, I have enough money that I can pay into a settlement and in exchange, I want to never be sued over something that I’m accused of again. Right. And so that’s just clear that that’s is what’s happening here. They’re going to pay for walking away. And in terms of this, you know, this other question, this controversial question about criminal charges. Again, to be clear, what the Sackler say is we just did nothing illegal. So you know, you would be, you know, barking up the wrong tree. But what others have said is that, you know, the Sackler have managed this very carefully so that, you know, criminal accountability would be difficult to prove. It would be difficult to weed through all the regulatory decisions, all the moments when you know their business decisions were channeled through lots of other actors and lots of other players. It would be very difficult to bring that back to their doorstep and and and win that case. And so I don’t think there’s a strong chance that they’ll ever face criminal charges.

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S1: Huh. I mean, you’ve covered so much of this opioid litigation all around the country and the legal settlements. And I wonder how you as a reporter? Come down at this moment on. How these legal remedies work and don’t work for the victims because it sounds like the subtext of our whole conversation. Is that the legal system allows for all these loopholes and ways for individuals, but also companies to. Manipulate a complicated system.

S2: Yeah, it’s terrifying, honestly, because that clearly happened and clearly, you know, I’ve heard judges, I’ve heard victims, I’ve heard regulators all say the entire system here did fail, and in some cases it failed by design, you know, lobbying of Congress, defending of regulatory agencies, you know, hiring former regulators to come work at higher salaries in these big Pharma firms. You know, there was this whole ecology where a lot of people made a lot of money and made their careers because this was just a profitable business. And they did that while more and more people were dying. And I think through this legal process, there have been reforms. There have been efforts to reach new agreements with the drug industry to tighten up their act and to get better. But the fact that this all happened kind of out in plain sight that everybody sort of let it keep going on, even as we saw more and more people dying. It’s not a pretty picture. And you know, it’s it’s a really big question that I think about a lot like like, what is the next thing like this? Like if we allowed something this obviously destructive to keep happening not just for a year or two, but year after year? You know, what else will regulators look the other way over? What else will law enforcement declined to really lean in and prosecute because of, you know, powerful interests? It’s really scary.

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S1: Oh. Brian Mann, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Brian Mann covers addiction for NPR. If this settlement is finalized even after paying $6 billion, the Sacklers will remain one of the richest families in the world. And that’s the show before we go, I just want to tell you that Slate is currently having a sale. We are offering our Slate Plus membership at 25 percent off for the first year. You listen to our coverage of all kinds of stuff from Ukraine to the Supreme Court. We’re about to be talking about the upcoming midterms. And you know that the reason we’re able to do this is because of support from listeners and readers like you when you joined Slate. Plus, you get all kinds of benefits, including ad free listening to this show and every show on the slate network. You get member exclusive segments on shows like Amicus and the Political Gabfest and, of course, unlimited reading on Slate.com. So help us keep what next going by signing up for Slate Plus, go over to Slate.com. What next? Plus, again, it is 25 percent off your first year for a limited time. So sign up now at Slate.com. So what next plus? What next is produced by Elinor Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We get a little help these days from Laura Spencer and Anna Rubanova, and we are led by Alicia Montgomery, the Mary Harris. I will catch you back here bright and early tomorrow morning.