• January 26, 2021

OxyContin Comes to Congress: Sackler Family Grilled Over Opioid Epidemic

 OxyContin Comes to Congress: Sackler Family Grilled Over Opioid Epidemic

David Sackler whose family owned Purdue Pharma testifies remotely to the House Oversight Committee. Photo by Matt Laslo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of the Sackler family, one of the nation’s wealthiest families faced a grilling on a Capitol Hill today over their role in helping create and foment the nation’s raging opioid epidemic that has now claimed close to 450,000 lives.

Under threat of a subpoena, former board member Dr. Kathe Sackler, along with her cousin, David, agreed to testify voluntarily — and under oath — before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The company already pleaded guilty to criminal charges in a settlement reached with the Department of Justice, but House lawmakers heard little remorse from the family members.

“I have tried to figure out if there’s anything that I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, not what I know now,” Kathe Sackler testified. “I have to say that there’s nothing that I can find that I would have done differently based on what I believed and understood then.”

That wasn’t good enough for lawmakers of all stripes.  

“We don’t agree on a lot on this committee in a bipartisan way,” committee co-chair, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) told the Sacklers. “But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of your family, we all agree are sickening.”

The opioid epidemic has claimed more than over 470,000 lives in the past two decades alone. The settlement between the federal government and the Sacklers is expected to only cost the multi-billionaires some $225 million, while also allowing all family members to escape facing federal criminal charges. That’s likely why the chair of the committee was even more blunt in her assessment.

“It was a crime. It was a crime against the American people,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said of the Sacklers in her opening statement. “They should not escape criminal prosecutions this time around.”

The settlement has angered the family members and friends of those who have overdosed on opioids — or the heroin many move to once addicted because it’s cheaper than prescription pills. The case also highlights the injustices built into the criminal justice system, according to many.

“There are a lot of Americans in this country in jail right now — most of them are people of color, Black — [for selling marijuana],” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the committee, said. “And here’s this family — this powerful, powerful family — it’s really sad. $78.5 billion it costs Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 91 Americans, on average, lose their lives every day.”

Still, David Sackler — who was a board member of Purdue Pharma for six years — testified neither he, his family members nor the board did anything wrong.   

“The family and the board acted legally and ethically,” he told lawmakers.  

Even as the opioid epidemic rages on, David Sackler defended the pill that’s made his family infamous and wealthy beyond belief.  

“OxyContin is a medicine that Purdue intended to help people, and it has helped, and continues to help, millions of Americans,” he testified.

Purdue Pharma is no longer owned by the Sackler family, and it’s currently going through bankruptcy proceedings. Even though bankrupt after the family pulled out as much as $13 billion from the company and into their personal coffers, Purdue’s current president and CEO, Craig Landau, is seeking a $3 million bonus this year.    

“Shame on you, Dr. Landau,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said at the hearing before showing pictures of luxurious homes David Sackler maintained in Bel Air, Calif. And Manhattan.

“I would submit that you and your family are addicted to money,” Krishnamoorthi told David Sackler.

Since 1996 — the year OxyContin went to market — Purdue raked in more than $30 billion, with as much as a third of that fortune going directly to the family.

“You want to ask what you could have done differently?” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) asked. “Look at your own damn balance sheet.”

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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