Congress Excoriates Sacklers Over Purdue Pharma’s Role In Opioid Crisis

Dec 17, 2020
In The News

Two members of the Sackler family, heirs to the Purdue Pharma fortune built off the profits of the blockbuster pain drug OxyContin, expressed regret during a Congressional hearing on Thursday, though they did not admit wrongdoing. But members of the House Oversight Committee said the apology was too little, too late, as more than 750,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the last two decades, with opioids responsible for 70% of overdose deaths in 2018.

“I’m not sure that I’m aware of any family in America that’s more evil than yours,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, which has the third-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country at 81.8 prescriptions for every 100 residents. 

“I want to express my family’s deep sadness about the opioid crisis,” David Sackler, a Purdue board member from 2012 to 2018, said in his opening statement. “Far too many lives have been destroyed by addiction to, and abuse of, opioids, including OxyContin.”

It was a rare public appearance and first time any members of the Sackler family have testified before Congress on the issue. David and his cousin, Kathe Sackler, both denied knowing of illegal activity at the company. “I thought Purdue was acting responsibly,” said Sackler, who was a board member from 1990, before OxyContin was launched, until 2018. “I believe I conducted myself legally and ethically,” said David. “I believe the full record will demonstrate that.” 

Congressional committee members challenged the Sacklers’ portrayal of their roles at the company. Cooper noted that until 2018, Sackler family members held a majority of board positions, and that documents from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office show the family’s close involvement in Purdue’s management. 

There was bipartisan condemnation of the company and the Sacklers. "We don’t agree on a lot in this committee in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. James Comer, the committee’s top Republican, “but I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of your family I think we all agree are sickening."

The hearing comes weeks after two developments in the fallout over the company now synonymous with the opioid crisis. In November, Purdue pled guilty in federal district court to lying to the Drug Enforcement Administration about its anti-addiction program and giving kickbacks to two doctors so that they would prescribe more of Purdue’s opioids. Settlements by Purdue and members of the Sackler family with the Justice Department, totaling more than $8 billion on paper but likely to be much lower, were announced in October. 

The settlement has put a dent in the Sackler family fortune. Its net worth in 2015, an estimated $14 billion according to Forbes, has fallen to an estimated $10.8 billion. Even so, the Sacklers remain one of the wealthiest family dynasties in the U.S., according to Forbes’ latest ranking of America’s Richest Families.

Both Sacklers and Purdue CEO Craig Landau fended off attempts by committee members to get new information on the record.  

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the committee chair, asked whether David Sackler and other members of his family withdrew billions of dollars from Purdue to shield their money from future lawsuits. In the decade following Purdue’s 2007 guilty plea to lying about OxyContin’s addictiveness, the family took more than $10 billion out of the company. “Were you trying to cash out profit so that opioid victims couldn't claim them in future losses?” She cited a 2007 email he wrote asking “We’re rich? For how long? Until which suits get through to the company?”

Maloney, who has pledged follow-up hearings, asked the Sacklers to respond with information on the family’s shell companies. She also pressed Landau for the names of people responsible for the illegal activity Purdue has admitted to. “Crimes were committed,” she said. “Who did them? Who are the ones that bribed doctors and pharmacies? Who are the ones that conspired to defraud the US government?”