If the idea was to polish the image of what could be the most hated family in America, it did not go well.
Little has been heard directly from members of the Sackler family who owned and ran Purdue Pharma, the company that made them billionaires by selling the drug widely held responsible for creating America’s opioid epidemic, OxyContin.
As the revelations of greed and criminality spread over the years, the Sacklers denied the allegations that they had become rich by driving addiction and death. So, when a US Congressional committee announced that David and Kathe Sackler, former Purdue board members, were stepping out of the shadows to finally answer questions about their family’s involvement in a drug epidemic that has raged. claimed more than 500,000 lives, there was an expectation that the country might get some answers.
House oversight committee chair Carolyn Maloney told the Sacklers she wanted to hear them “acknowledge their wrongdoing.” in the audience Thursday. “Families and communities whose lives have been ruined deserve at least that,” he said.
Instead, an angry audience saw members of Congress enraged comparing the Sacklers to the leader of the Mexican drug cartel, El Chapo, and to the billionaire con artist, Bernie Madoff. One congressman said he thought they were possibly the most evil family in America.
Surprisingly, both Republicans and Democrats were united in their disgust.
“We don’t agree on much in this committee in a bipartisan way,” James Comer, the highest-ranking Republican, told the Sacklers. “But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of his family, we all agree, are disgusting.”
When it was over, David and Kathe Sackler walked out of the hearing with calls for prosecution from members of their family ringing in their ears.
The two Sacklers misjudged the mood from the start. The committee members had lined up a long list of allegations about Purdue’s illegal marketing of OxyContin, a very high-strength opioid pain reliever that federal agents called “heroin in a pill.” The company made false claims to downplay his addiction, aggressively marketed the drug to people who didn’t need it, and pushed for a change in medical culture that led to the prescribing of narcotics at much higher rates than in other countries. That, in turn, laid the foundation for an opioid epidemic that has spanned two decades and shows no signs of ending.
Purdue already had a criminal conviction in 2007 for the illegal marketing of OxyContin and two months ago it admitted to more crimes, including bribery of doctors to unnecessarily prescribe the drug. So Maloney wasn’t alone on her committee in hoping that the time had come for the Sacklers to apologize and comply.
Instead, David Sackler began his testimony with a nonchalant expression of regret for the OxyContin role as if it were an inevitable accident, not the result of a business strategy.
“I still feel absolutely terrible that a product created to help, and that has helped so many people, has also been associated with death and addiction,” he said.
Kathe Sackler was unhelpful when she spoke of how “my heart breaks for parents who have lost their children,” as if it had nothing to do with the decisions their family makes.
The mood among the committee members was further clouded when their detailed questions were met with denials and evasions.
When Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan Democrat, asked David Sackler about passing an opioid sales campaign that pushed drugs across the United States, he responded, “It was a leadership-led initiative.”
Tlaib replied, “Yes, you ran the management.”
For decades, Purdue was firmly under the control of the Sacklers as their sole owners. But with the company slipping out of the family’s control amid bankruptcy proceedings and the new board admitting its criminal activities, David and Kathe Sackler attempted to assert that key decisions were the responsibility of Purdue executives, not the family.
But committee members pointed out that it was David’s father, Dr. Richard Sackler, who ran the company’s marketing department during the OxyContin sales drive and later became the president of Purdue.
Kathe Sackler exasperated some committee members when she said at the hearing, “I can’t find anything I would have done differently” as a Purdue board member from 1990 to two years ago.
Congressman Peter Welch mocked his persistent attempt to take responsibility from his family.
“Your testimony is that you don’t know anything about anything. And things happen but you don’t know how. And people are responsible, but you don’t know who, ”he said.
Maloney, the committee chairman, also scoffed at attempts to deny responsibility.
“In the Sackler family’s version of the story, they are totally innocent, a family caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have pointed the finger at so-called bad apple employees, the FDA, consulting firms, and prescribers. In the past, they even blamed the patients, “he said at the hearing.
Committee members suspected that the refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was part of a strategy to hold on to the benefits of addiction.
Last month, Purdue agreed to pay $ 8 billion in fines as part of its plea to criminal charges, but the company is in the process of bankruptcy and it is unlikely that most of that money will be paid. So the committee members looked at the Sacklers who took billions of dollars out of Purdue.
David Sackler faced a memo he wrote to other members of his family in 2007, shortly after Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges for illegally marketing OxyContin and amid a growing number of civil lawsuits from families ruined by addiction.
“Were they rich? For how long? Up to what costumes do they reach the family? He wrote.
Sackler denied that the memo had anything to do with the family taking $ 10 billion out of the company over the next decade.
The committee members weren’t buying it. One after another, they demanded that the Sacklers hand over the proceeds from OxyContin. Maloney accused them of trying to “fraudulently protect money for their own personal gain.”
“When it began to appear that his estate might be at risk of loss, he left it out of reach, preventing the money from reaching the victims of the crisis they created (the Sacklers),” he said. “They have taken money out of the company, so it would be forever out of the legal reach of the people they hurt.”
Maloney told the Sacklers that “a lot of people agree” that they are “one of the most evil families in America.”
“You now have the ability to mitigate at least part of the damage record. Stop hiding and offshoring your assets, ”he said.
Others focused on another form of justice. Comer, representing a district in Kentucky, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, was not the only one wondering why people who traffic drugs on the streets are locked up while “bad actors” like Sackler go free.
“The overwhelming majority of the people who are incarcerated in Kentucky are there because of drug problems. They had to give up their assets. They have broken homes and the cost to society is immeasurable. You have all created the same damage to society. Yet you are one of the richest families in America. I hope the courts will hold him accountable, ”he said.
If the Sacklers expected Thursday’s hearing to make that outcome less likely, they may have miscalculated.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.