In 2016, a small-time drug dealer in Leesburg, Virginia named Darnell Washington sold a customer a batch of what he believed to be heroin.
It was fentanyl.
The client shared it with a friend and he died of an overdose.
Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. . Photo AP Photo / Jessica Hill, File.
To combat the opioid crisis, prosecutors have begun to view overdose deaths not as accidents, but as crimes, so they can use strict laws to prosecute the traffickers who sold the drugs.
Washington never knew the person who died of the overdose.
But, facing a mandatory minimum 20-year prison sentence for “death-causing distribution,” he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of distribution and is now serving a sentence of 15 years in a federal prison.
Pill bottles left in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family. AP Photo / Jessica Hill, File.
I thought about this the other day when it became apparent that it is very likely that members of the billionaire sackler family soon receive a wide grant of immunity against all litigation related to its intervention in precipitating the opioid crisis.
Through your control of Purdue Pharma, the families of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler they made a great fortune selling OxyContin, a powerful prescription opioid pain reliever that, like fentanyl, is a chemical cousin of heroin.
Although they are widely criticized for benefiting from a public health crisis that has killed half a million Americans, they have used their money and influence to manage our system at will.
It is no news that our society hits people like Darnell washington with the full weight of the law and people like the Sacklers with a rose petal.
But it’s worth wondering how they did it.
For a long time, the Raymond and Mortimer Sackler families simply dedicated themselves to dodging scrutiny and cultivating a good public image so that people would know about their philanthropic contributions, as the Oxford Sackler Library, but not the source of their wealth.
Since the press began writing reports in 2001 about how OxyContin had led to a wave of addiction, Big-money publicity agents went to the tough job of keeping Sackler’s name out of the question.
As the number of deaths associated with OxyContin increased, Purdue continued to argue in its marketing campaign that the drug it was rarely addictive.
When journalists asked tough questions, the company sent its lawyers to speak to its editors.
This “I can see your boss” strategy works even with judicial authorities.
In 2006, federal prosecutors in Virginia were preparing to charge Purdue with serious crimes.
They focused on three high-level executives who worked for the company in the hope that they would rat out the Sacklers – the ultimate goal, according to the chief prosecutor – for the possibility of going to jail.
However, Purdue had recruited two characters who had been United States prosecutors, Rudy Giuliani and Mary Jo White. White called Paul McNulty, who was then assistant attorney general:
“It’s Mary Jo White,” McNulty recalled recently.
“He is someone who considered himself with access.”
The Justice Department informed federal prosecutors in Virginia that they could not charge executives with crimes, depriving them of their most important weapon: the threat of going to prison.
The executives did not cooperate with the efforts to frame the Sacklers; instead, they pleaded guilty to misdemeanors while claiming that they had done nothing wrong.
The company pleaded guilty to the felony of “mislabeling”And paid a fine of 600 million of dollars.
If they detect a whiff of The Cosa Nostra, they are not the only ones.
In an expert report that was presented as part of a recent litigation, John C. Coffee Jr., who heads the Center for Corporate Governance at Columbia University School of Law, concluded that “there are few elements to differentiate the control that the Sackler exercised over Purdue the control that the Godfather exercised over his mob family. “
After the executives pleaded guilty, the Sacklers voted to pay one of them $ 3 million.
Another received five million dollars.
According to court documents, a single law firm billed Purdue more than fifty million dollars for the case.
However, the Sacklers did not chastise.
Last year, Purdue pleaded guilty to a new series of felonies related to the marketing of OxyContin.
Again, none of the Sacklers were criminally charged; instead, they agreed to pay the relatively modest amount of $ 225 million to resolve a civil investigation out of court without admitting that they had acted improperly.
Surprisingly, prosecutors appear to have settled with the Sacklers without them bothering to appear in person.
When asked in a statement if any of the Sacklers had had “direct contact with the Department of Justice regarding the investigation, ”David Sackler, who served on Purdue’s board of directors from 2012 to August 2018, responded:
“I don’t think any of them have.”
On this occasion, not even a particular executive was charged with minor crimes.
Instead, the Justice Department informed prosecutors in the Purdue case that it wanted to expedite its resolution.
In October, government officials announced that Purdue had reached an agreement to 8000 million dollars with the government.
This was something Awesome, Except that the company did not have $ 8 billion because by then it had filed for bankruptcy.
How is it possible that a company that has a product that has generated income estimated in $ 35 billion end up filing for bankruptcy?
One answer is that when Purdue joined the Chapter 11, In 2019, it was facing lawsuits from nearly every state in the country and had thousands more plaintiffs.
But there is another more pertinent explanation.
Apparently, in 2007, the Sacklers realized, as David Sackler pointed out, that at some point a lawsuit could “Reach the family.”
. They started to to take money out of Purdue and to insure it in own accounts, many of which are abroad.
According to an audit report, between 2008 and 2017 they withdrew more than $ 10 billion.
LFamily members have stated that the transfers were legal.
So in 2019, when Purdue was littered with lawsuits, the company sought protection from the bankruptcy court.
The devilish brilliance of that strategy is hard to overstate.
Now, the company would be protected from all those lawsuits while restructuring your debts.
By this time, however, some of the lawsuits had come to fruition: more than a score of states had filed lawsuits against members of the Sackler family who served on the board of directors.
But the Sacklers and Purdues have requested that the bankruptcy judge freeze lawsuits against family members, even if the family has not filed for bankruptcy.
US companies can choose the jurisdiction in which they file for bankruptcy and, therefore, the judge who will decide their fate.
Although Purdue has never had a real business presence in White Plains, New York, it was there that he filed his bankruptcy application.
Purdue has maintained that this choice was due to the proximity of the company’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.
But the fact that only one federal bankruptcy judge presides over White Plains may also have been relevant: Robert Drain.
In the past, Judge Drain has been willing to protect certain parties who had not even declared bankruptcy in his court from litigation.
From righ now agreed to the request, thereby temporarily protecting the Sacklers from those lawsuits.
Judge Drain is known for appreciating out-of-court settlements and efficiency, and has sought to shield proceedings from the complicated imperatives of justice and accountability.
As an army of lawyers haggled over Purdue’s remains, the Sacklers advocated for a “global settlement,” a single, comprehensive settlement that included all claims against the company and the family.
Your offer: $ 4.5 billion without the family admitting that they committed any crime and permanent immunity from all future civil litigation related to the opioid crisis.
At first glance it seems like a lot of money, but the multimillion dollar math can be misleading.
The Sacklers proposed to pay the $ 4.5 billion in nine years.
Your current fortune is calculated at least $ 11 billion.
. Doing a conservative calculation, with interest and investments, this means that they can expect a 5 percent annualized rate of return on that fortune.
In that case, they will be able to pay the fine without even touching their capital.
When they finish paying in 2030, probably they will be richer than today.
For months, a coalition of “dissident” states tried to come up with a better deal.
But Judge Drain said he was inclined to permanently bar states from pursuing their court cases against the Sacklers.
This would be essential, the judge observed, to achieve “true peace.”
On July 7, with less influence, 15 of the dissident states indicated that they would accept the agreement proposed by the Sacklers.
At a press conference, New York Attorney General Letitia James stated: “The fight is not over”, but it seems obvious that it is.
The company will be liquidated.
The Sacklers will be kicked out of the opioid business.
They will not admit that they broke the law.
Family members along with their army of lawyers, consultants and public relations experts will receive permanent immunity.
In principle, they could still be criminally prosecuted, but this seems unlikely; Through their representatives, the family members have maintained that they acted “ethically and in accordance with the law.”
A small consolation remains.
As part of the deal, the Sacklers agreed to release millions of corporate documents, including stacks of communications that include insider information from Purdue.
This corpus of information will one day be available to everyone.
It will be another kind of Sackler library: an archive that will provide the full truth about the origins of the opioid crisis, even though no one has been held responsible, and an indelible record of the family’s infamy.
And most importantly, the file will offer forensic accounting of the ways that money and influence can protect the wealthiest from the consequences of their own reckless decisions.
We can learnr of that story, and we are bound to do so.
c.2021 The New York Times Company