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Economy & Business

Critics Want Individuals Held Accountable In Purdue Pharma's Opioid Case

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

New documents reveal even more of the role the Sackler family played in guiding Purdue Pharma. That company is the maker of OxyContin. The company pleaded guilty this week to three felony criminal charges tied to the company's role in the opioid epidemic. Yet up to now, members of the Sackler family who owned that company are facing no criminal charges. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is on the line. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do the documents say?

MANN: What they're doing is filling in this amazing portrait of how the Sackler family ran this company over these years when this criminal activity occurred that the company has now admitted to. The internal documents, emails between family members, they show the Sacklers pushing hard to boost opioid sales in ways that even seemed to make some of their own employees at Purdue Pharma nervous.

The Justice Department alleges in some of these newly public documents that members of the Sackler family played a hands-on role, pushing one marketing plan that boosted opioid sales in ways that were, and I'm quoting here, "unsafe and medically unnecessary." The DOJ also accuses the Sacklers of fraudulent financial activity as part of an alleged scheme to hide billions of dollars in assets from creditors. But again, as you pointed out, Steve, so far, no criminal charges against them. I should say, in a statement, the Sacklers say they've done nothing wrong. They say they ran their company ethically.

INSKEEP: Although, the allegation here is they certainly were not hands-off owners, that they were under the hood and doing things. How does that fit into what was already known?

MANN: Yeah. Well, this is Purdue Pharma's second time, under the Sacklers' watch, admitting criminal wrongdoing in their marketing of opioids, including OxyContin - the first time back in 2007. And, you know, after that, the company that the Sacklers ran agreed to follow strict, new federal guidelines for selling these drugs more safely. Instead, what Purdue Pharma has admitted now is that the company pretty much immediately launched a new series of criminal schemes to boost these opioid sales, including selling opioids to doctors who were diverting them for illegal uses. They also lied about their activities to federal regulators and paid illegal kickbacks.

INSKEEP: Is anybody going to prison?

MANN: You know, the short answer right now is no. You know, the Justice Department says criminal charges are still possible against individuals at Purdue Pharma. But under this settlement, the company's owners, you know, the Sackler family, they admit no personal wrongdoing, no criminal charges against them. And this is increasingly controversial because of what we're learning. You know, one of these documents that NPR was able to look at describes a key planning meeting focused on boosting opioid sales where family members were allegedly the only decision-makers in the room.

Another internal memo describes the Sacklers acting as de facto CEO of Purdue Pharma. And another document, Steve, outlines a plan that was never implemented where Purdue Pharma would make secret payments to insurance companies of thousands of dollars each time a patient became addicted or overdosed on one of Purdue Pharma's products. So a lot of these schemes that were implemented and not implemented, again, these happened on the Sacklers' watch.

INSKEEP: Brian, my jaw is on the floor. Did you say extra payments to people when someone becomes addicted to the product?

MANN: That's right. And the idea in these documents seems to be that insurers were becoming increasingly leery of Purdue Pharma's products. They were concerned about the risks of addiction and overdose. And so this is an effort that was, again, never implemented. But the details are there in the documents, where they were looking at ways to keep insurers covering products like OxyContin.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or two, why no criminal charges against individuals?

MANN: Look; legal experts we talked to say these are really hard charges to prove. Federal regulators are leery of taking individuals to court. But this has made members of Congress furious. They say street drug dealers go to jail for crimes. The Sacklers, meanwhile, stand to remain as one of the wealthiest families in America.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann. Thanks.

MANN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.