Ex-chair of Purdue denies responsibility for opioid crisis
The former president and board chair of the company that makes OxyContin told a court Wednesday that he, his family and the company did not cause the opioid crisis in the United States.
Richard Sackler, a member of the family that owns Purdue Pharma, was asked under oath during a federal bankruptcy hearing whether he, his kin or the company bear responsibility. For each, Sackler answered simply: “No.”
In statements and court papers, Sackler family members have consistently denied wrongdoing in the opioid crisis, even as the company they own has twice pleaded guilty to federal crimes over its opioid practices.
But it’s rare for family members to be asked about it point-blank in open court. The hearing in federal Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y., was held via videoconference.
The drugmaker Purdue Pharma launched OxyContin two decades ago with a bold marketing claim: One dose relieves pain for 12 hours, more than twice as long as generic medications.
Richard Sackler has not appeared in public forums in recent years outside video of a deposition he gave in a lawsuit in 2015. His denial of responsibility for the opioid crisis comes a day after his son testified that the family wouldn’t accept a settlement without guarantees of immunity from further legal action.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert D. Drain said Wednesday that he expected testimony to be completed Thursday and final arguments to begin Monday, and that a decision is likely later next week.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Sackler said he had laryngitis, and his voice was sometimes soft.
In response to more than three hours of questions, mostly from Maryland Assistant Atty. Gen. Brian Edmunds, his most common answer was, “I don’t recall.”
Sackler, whose father was one of three brothers who nearly 70 years ago bought the company that later became Purdue Pharma, didn’t recall emails he wrote a decade or more ago; whether Purdue’s board approved certain sales strategies; whether a company owned by Sackler family members sold opioids in Argentina; or whether he paid any of his own money as part of a settlement with Oklahoma to which the Sackler family contributed $75 million.
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Often, he answered questions with more questions, asking for precision.
When Edmunds asked him if he knew how many people in the U.S. had died from using opioids, Sackler asked him to specify over which time period.
Edmunds did: 2005 to 2017.
“I don’t know,” Sackler said. He said that he had looked at some data on deaths in the past, though.
(The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tallied more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. from opioid overdose, including both prescription drugs and illicit ones such as heroin and illegally produced fentanyl, since 2000.)
At another point, Edmunds asked whether he ever had conversations with sales managers.
“Can you define what you mean by sales managers?” Sackler asked.
Edmunds did. Then Sackler said he didn’t recall any such conversations.
Edmunds asked about a disagreement over company sales targets at one point. Sackler corrected him.
“You used the word ‘dispute,’” he said. “It wasn’t a dispute. It was a difference of opinion.”
The previous words of Sackler, 76, are at the heart of lawsuits accusing the Stamford, Conn., company of a major role in sparking a nationwide opioid epidemic.
At the OxyContin sales launch in 1996, he told the company’s sales force that there would be “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.”
Five years later, as it was apparent that the powerful prescription pain drug was being misused in some cases, he said in an email that Purdue would have to “hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” describing them as “the culprits and the problem.”
For those reasons, the activists crusading against companies involved in selling opioids often see Sackler — who was president of the company from 1999 to 2003, chair of its board from 2004 through 2007, and a board member from 1990 until 2018 — as a prime villain.
Members of the wealthy family have long avoided the spotlight in the business world and welcomed it in philanthropy. But in recent years, museums, including the Louvre in Paris, and universities, such as Tufts in Massachusetts, that they’ve supported have cut ties over the opioid crisis.
Richard Sackler’s testimony came a day after his son, David Sackler, testified.
The younger Sackler, who also served on Purdue’s board, reiterated what has long been the family’s position: They will agree to their part of the plan to restructure Purdue only if family members receive protection from lawsuits over opioids and other Purdue action.
If those provisions do not stay in the deal, David Sackler said, the family would instead face lawsuits. “I believe we would litigate the claims to their final outcome,” he said.
On Wednesday, Richard Sackler said the family would not agree if states that oppose the deal were not bound by it and allowed to move ahead with lawsuits against the company and family members.
Under the proposed settlement, members of the Sackler family would give up ownership of Purdue and contribute $4.5 billion over time in cash and control of charitable funds. Most of the money, along with Purdue’s future profits, would be used to abate the opioid crisis. Some would go to victims and their families.