Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, conducted what may be the most extensive investigation yet of the Sackler family, exploring whether they committed crimes or financial improprieties, but the company has kept most of its findings secret.
In a bankruptcy filing late Monday, the drugmaker acknowledged hiring attorneys, forensic accountants and other financial experts to probe members of the family who own the company and profited billions from opioid sales.
According to the filing, the team searched for evidence of wrongdoing by the family, reporting to a special committee of Purdue's board between April 2019 and earlier this month.
Yet in its filing, Purdue Pharma chose to reveal almost nothing of what investigators uncovered, a decision that infuriates opioid activists and some government officials.
"They're still trying to cover up the facts," said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who has sued the company and it owners, in a statement.
"Purdue's disclosure filing says it paid its lawyers for a 22,000-hour investigation of the Sacklers, but it doesn't disclose any of their findings," she added.
Members of the Sackler family have long denied any wrongdoing.
According to Purdue Pharma's description of the probe, investigators were given unprecedented access to "over 21 million" internal company documents, including private emails and other correspondence between the company's top executives.
They were also able to take part in depositions when members of the Sackler family were questioned.
Experts said the investigation appears to be the most sweeping effort yet to explore the Sacklers' alleged liability for the opioid epidemic, which has killed roughly 450,000 Americans.
Healey said Purdue Pharma has an obligation to release all documents and reports produced by the probe — not least because it was paid for with money owed to people harmed by company.
"Purdue's creditors paid tens of millions of dollars for that investigation," she said. "But the public can't see what the investigators learned."
Purdue Pharma declined to answer NPR's questions about the probe or the decision to keep most of its findings secret.
Sources speaking on behalf of the Sacklers downplayed the significance of the investigation and again maintained the family did nothing wrong.
"As we have said before, we support the release of documents and they will continue to show Sackler family members who served on Purdue's board acted ethically and legally," said Daniel S. Connolly, attorney for the Raymond Sackler family.
The Purdue Pharma document filed in a federal court in White Plains, N.Y., suggests the main goal of the investigation was to inform and shape bankruptcy talks still underway.
But the team also strove to resolve lingering questions about the Sacklers' conduct that have vexed the public and government officials:
- What role if any did the family play in Purdue Pharma's admitted criminal acts?
- Did the Sacklers dominate Purdue Pharma's internal decision-making as many have claimed?
- Did members of the family act improperly or illegally to shelter billions of dollars in opioid profits from lawsuits and injury claims?
- If so, could any of those assets be recovered?
"What is absolutely devastating about this disclosure document is that it dangles before us all the questions that the public may never see answered," said Charlotte Bismuth, a former prosecutor and now an opioid activist.
"These are questions that hundreds of thousands of families across America have been tortured by over the last couple of decades because they've lost a loved one and they want to know why," she added.
But experts interviewed by NPR said the bankruptcy document filed by Purdue Pharma did offer tantalizing clues about what investigators found.
The filing states the team uncovered evidence that "certain dealings between Purdue Pharma and the Sackler families and various Sackler entities were not conducted on arm's-length terms."
In separate documents filed this week, Purdue Pharma also disclosed the Sacklers' total cash withdrawals from the company totaled roughly $10.3 billion from 2008 through 2017.
Company investigators also found Purdue Pharma "transferred significant value" in non-cash assets to the Sacklers' other companies and private holdings. The exact nature of the assets transferred and their total value weren't disclosed.
Those named in Purdue's disclosure documents as receiving compensation from the firm include Dr. Kathe Sackler, Mortimer Sackler, Richard Sackler, David Sackler, Jonathan Sackler and Raymond Sackler, among others.
According to Purdue Pharma's filing, the Sacklers agreed in January to boost their settlement offer by roughly a billion dollars. It's unclear whether the investigation or its findings played any role in their decision.
Speaking on background, a source familiar with the situation asserted to NPR that family-members were not privy to the probe's findings.
Under the bankruptcy settlement now on the table Sackler family-members would give up ownership of the firm and pay a total of $4.2 billion from their private wealth in installments over the next decade.
The Sacklers have described the offer as a significant financial sacrifice. But they will again admit no wrongdoing and will remain one of the wealthiest dynasties in the country.
The deal would also shelter them from future lawsuits related to their role at Purdue Pharma.
Many lawmakers, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, have called for far more of the Sacklers' assets to be "clawed back" during the bankruptcy process and used to help communities ravaged by the opioid crisis.
"You and your family should compensate the American people for the harm you've caused and you should be held fully accountable for your actions," Maloney said during a hearing of the House oversight committee she chairs in December.
In his testimony before Maloney's panel, former Purdue board member David Sackler again denied wrongdoing and said the family's financial dealings had been "appropriate, documented and disclosed."
Only a few years ago, the Sacklers were viewed as one of the most respected families in America, ranking among the world's top philanthropists.
Their reputation has been shattered by disclosures of internal Purdue Pharma documents showing some members of the family pushed aggressively to boost Oxycontin sales long after overdoses and deaths linked to the painkiller skyrocketed.
Institutions ranging from Tufts University to the Louvre have stripped the Sackler family name from buildings.
The company has now admitted twice to illegally marketing Oxycontin in plea deals with the U.S. Justice Department, first in 2007 and again last year.
While declining to bring criminal charges, the DOJ accused the Sacklers of making "fraudulent transfers" in order to "hinder future creditors."
In 2019, facing an avalanche of opioid-related lawsuits, the Sacklers' privately held company filed for bankruptcy.
Throughout, Sacklers involved in the company have maintained they acted ethically and were unaware of wrongdoing.
One legal question that now remains is whether Purdue Pharma has disclosed enough information about the Sacklers' conduct and finances to allow parties involved in the bankruptcy proceeding to assess the deal now on the table.
Attorneys will argue that point before federal bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain next month in White Plains, N.Y.
Critics, meanwhile, point to one final twist in Purdue Pharma's decision to keep the findings of its Sackler probe secret.
In this week's bankruptcy filing, the company confirmed it will create a "public document repository" expected to reveal far more detail about the practices of the drug-maker and its owners.
But Purdue Pharma said that trove of internal documents will only be released after a final bankruptcy plan sheltering the Sacklers from future lawsuits has "become final and non-appealable."
In a statement this week on Twitter, Massachusetts AG Healey wrote, "Purdue says it will show the evidence to the public after the Sacklers get immunity. Huh."
The law requires a bankrupt company to disclose information that creditors need to make an informed judgment before a plan is approved. But Purdue says it will show the evidence to the public after the Sacklers get immunity.— Maura Healey (@MassAGO) March 16, 2021
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, conducted a massive investigation into members of the Sackler family. The Sacklers own the firm and have long denied any wrongdoing. But the company worked for nearly two years to learn whether the family committed crimes or if they improperly took assets from Purdue Pharma before it filed for bankruptcy in 2019. Results of that investigation are being kept secret by the company, and that decision angered some government officials. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been looking into this. Welcome back, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: How were you able to learn about this investigation? And why would Purdue Pharma actually investigate its owners?
MANN: So Purdue Pharma filed a bunch of documents in federal bankruptcy court this week, Audie. And one of those documents includes this extraordinary account of a sweeping and really unprecedented probe of the Sacklers. The company says it hired three outside firms, lawyers and forensic accountants and other financial experts, who scrutinized every aspect of the Sacklers' behavior, examining past allegations of possible misconduct. And this team had access to millions of internal company memos and records, and they took part in depositions with the Sacklers themselves.
The main goal of the probe was to inform and shape the bankruptcy negotiations that are now underway in federal court. But according to this document filed by Purdue Pharma, these investigators also asked much broader questions about the Sacklers' conduct. And this really appears to be the most thorough effort yet to find out what really happened inside this company at the center of the opioid crisis.
CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned, the findings in reports produced by Purdue Pharma's investigation are secret. Can you talk about why?
MANN: Yeah. So a handful of documents have been released, but because this probe was conducted as part of bankruptcy proceedings, experts tell NPR it's likely most of the key findings and documents will never see the light of day. And that infuriates Maura Healey - she's the Massachusetts state attorney general - who issued a statement about this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MAURA HEALEY: You know, Purdue's disclosure filing says it paid its lawyers for a 22,000-hour investigation into the Sacklers, but it doesn't disclose any of their findings.
MANN: And, Audie, Healey says one reason these findings from the investigation should be released is that it was paid for with millions of dollars that are owed by Purdue Pharma to people who are suing the company in bankruptcy court for all the harm caused by OxyContin. And that includes a lot of communities and governments and taxpayers. Healey says they should get to see what this probe found.
CORNISH: How did the Sacklers become the public face of the opioid epidemic?
MANN: Yeah. A lot of American companies did get involved in the opioid business, but Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family, they were really there at the start, aggressively marketing OxyContin and popularizing the idea that opioids could be used safely without a high risk of addiction. Hundreds of thousands of people, of course, have died in this epidemic. And Purdue pleaded guilty twice to federal criminal charges. But the Sacklers maintain they were unaware of any wrongdoing, even as they became incredibly rich from opioid profits.
I talked with Charlotte Bismuth about this. She's a former prosecutor and now an opioid activist. She says it's painful to know that this investigation might be able to tell us exactly what the Sacklers did or didn't do.
CHARLOTTE BISMUTH: They are questions that hundreds of thousands of families across America have been tortured by because they've lost someone, and they want to know why. What is absolutely devastating about this disclosure document is that it dangles before us all of the questions that the public may never see answered.
MANN: And we also know from the documents that Purdue Pharma filed that they - that their investigation looked at whether the Sackler family did anything wrong when they pulled billions of dollars in assets out of the company before it declared bankruptcy. Again, we just don't know what they found.
CORNISH: And the Sacklers' response?
MANN: Yeah. In a statement, Audie, to NPR today, an attorney for Raymond Sackler's family called for documents to be released. And I'm quoting here - they said, "Sackler family members who served on Purdue's board acted ethically and legally." The Sacklers have offered to pay roughly $4.2 billion to settle opioid claims against them.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Mann. Thank you.
MANN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.