Tong: Doc­u­ments show dis­re­gard for opi­oid abusers

The News-Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Schott

STAM­FORD — Con­necti­cut At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Tong re­leased Tues­day an unredacted ver­sion of the state’s law­suit against OxyCon­tin maker Pur­due Pharma, re­veal­ing emails from 2001 that he said showed com­pany co-owner and for­mer CEO and Pres­i­dent Richard Sack­ler’s “shock­ing and of­fen­sive” dis­re­gard for vic­tims of the opi­oid cri­sis — an as­ser­tion con­tested by Sack­ler’s at­tor­ney.

The lat­est ver­sion of the com­plaint ratch­ets up the al­ready-in­tense pres­sure on Pur­due and, par­tic­u­larly, Dr. Richard Sack­ler, who is ac­cused of

de­scrib­ing opi­oid abusers as “vic­tim­iz­ers.” While seven other Sack­ler fam­ily mem­bers who own the firm are also named in the law­suit, he has emerged as a par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure be­cause of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of al­le­ga­tions that he or­ches­trated the fraud­u­lent and reck­less mar­ket­ing of OxyCon­tin — prac­tices that Tong and other prose­cu­tors blame for fu­el­ing the opi­oid cri­sis in their states.

“These emails are far more than a mo­men­tary lapse in judg­ment be­tween friends — they en­cap­su­late the de­praved in­dif­fer­ence to hu­man suffering that in­fected Pur­due’s en­tire busi­ness model,” Tong said in a state­ment. “Pur­due and de­fen­dant mem­bers of the Sack­ler fam­ily knew peo­ple were dy­ing, but they con­tin­ued to push their opioids in blind pur­suit of profit. Pur­due and the Sack­lers must be held ac­count­able.”

Richard Sack­ler’s at­tor­ney, David Ber­nick, dis­puted the law­suit’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of his client.

“Dr. Sack­ler has apologized for us­ing in­sen­si­tive lan­guage that doesn’t re­flect what he ac­tu­ally did,” Ber­nick’s state­ment said. “These emails were writ­ten two decades ago fol­low­ing news reports about crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing pre­scrip­tion opioids, such as drug-store rob­beries. Dr. Sack­ler was ex­press­ing his worry that this news cov­er­age would stig­ma­tize an es­sen­tial FDA-approved medication that doc­tors feel is crit­i­cal for treating their pa­tients in pain.”

Pur­due, as a com­pany, re-is­sued an ear­lier state­ment that de­nied the law­suit’s al­le­ga­tions and de­scribed the lit­i­ga­tion as “part of a con­tin­u­ing ef­fort to try these cases in the court of pub­lic opin­ion rather than the jus­tice sys­tem.”

Al­leged leader of mis­con­duct

The pre­vi­ously undis­closed 2001 emails were sent about mid­way through Richard Sack­ler’s four-year stint as CEO and pres­i­dent of Pur­due, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

Their im­pli­ca­tion that “addiction is not caused by opioids, but by the patient, is con­sis­tent with a long-held po­si­tion” of Richard Sack­ler, the law­suit said.

Among the com­mu­ni­ca­tions ref­er­enced in the lit­i­ga­tion is an exchange be­tween Richard Sack­ler and an un­named ac­quain­tance, in which the ac­quain­tance said that “abusers die; well, that is the choice they made. I doubt a sin­gle one didn’t know of the risks.”

Richard Sack­ler re­sponded that “abusers aren’t vic­tims; they are the vic­tim­iz­ers.”

In a sep­a­rate 2001 email cor­re­spon­dence with the same ac­quain­tance, Richard Sack­ler sought the per­son’s reaction to a Time mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle on OxyCon­tin, the law­suit said. The as­so­ciate said “the whole thing is a sham, and if peo­ple die be­cause they abuse it, then good rid­dance.”

“Un­for­tu­nately, when I’m am­bushed by ‘60 Min­utes,’ I can’t eas­ily get this con­cept across,” Richard Sack­ler replied. “Call­ing drug ad­dicts ‘scum of the earth’ will guar­an­tee that I be­come the poster child for lib­er­als who want to do just want (sic) to dis­trib­ute the blame to some­one else, as you say.”

Parts of the law­suit were ini­tially redacted due to a fed­eral judge’s or­der re­quir­ing that the in­for­ma­tion be kept con­fi­den­tial un­less the pro­duc­ing party agreed that the in­for­ma­tion could be dis­closed. Con­necti­cut has since ob­tained an agree­ment to re­lease these com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Richard Sack­ler tes­ti­mony

The unredacted law­suit also cites a de­po­si­tion taken in March of Richard Sack­ler that it said ex­em­pli­fies his and the other de­fen­dants’ “cal­lous in­dif­fer­ence to the truth of their de­cep­tions and the pub­lic health im­pact.”

He gave the de­po­si­tion for a group of “Mul­tidis­trict Lit­i­ga­tion” cases, con­sol­i­dated in a fed­eral court in Cleve­land, in­volv­ing about 1,700 ci­ties and coun­ties across the coun­try that have sued Pur­due and other opi­oid mak­ers.

In the de­po­si­tion, Richard Sack­ler re­peat­edly said “I don’t re­call” when asked ques­tions such as whether the com­pany had ever tried to quan­tify the num­ber of deaths re­sult­ing from OxyCon­tin pre­scrip­tions.

He gave a more ex­pan­sive an­swer when he was asked whether Pur­due should have con­ducted — be­fore OxyCon­tin was approved in 1995 by the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion — stud­ies on addiction rates fol­low­ing treat­ment.

“This was not part of the approved plan for stud­ies that would lead, if suc­cess­ful, to ap­proval,” Richard Sack­ler said. “With the full­ness of time, maybe that would have been a good idea. Maybe it would have pre­vented some — some mis­for­tune. But that’s spec­u­la­tive.”

He ex­pounded on the 2001 emails — say­ing that he “prob­a­bly was quite emo­tional” when he wrote them — ac­cord­ing to ad­di­tional tes­ti­mony ex­cerpts, which were pro­vided by a Sack­ler spokesman and not in­cluded in the law­suit.

“I’ve got­ten a lot more in­for­ma­tion about addiction, in gen­eral ... or opi­oid addiction, in par­tic­u­lar, and of course, my views have evolved and changed,” Richard Sack­ler also said in the de­po­si­tion. “At that time, I was very con­cerned that the bal­ance had been struck by the FDA be­tween the ben­e­fits and risks of strong opioids might be up­set, per­haps with ter­ri­ble consequenc­e for pa­tients and doc­tors, who wanted to treat them.”

Richard Sack­ler was also de­posed in 2015, as part of Ken­tucky’s then-law­suit against Pur­due, in what has been de­scribed as the only time — not in­clud­ing Con­necti­cut’s law­suit — that a Sack­ler fam­ily mem­ber had been ques­tioned un­der oath about OxyCon­tin mar­ket­ing.

Health-and-science news site STAT waged a long le­gal bat­tle to un­seal the 337-page de­po­si­tion. It re­mained un­der seal, but ProPublica re­cently ob­tained a copy of the doc­u­ment.

Other law­suits, in­clud­ing Mas­sachusetts’ com­plaint, have also ac­cused Richard Sack­ler of in­sti­gat­ing de­cep­tive opi­oid mar­ket­ing.

At a launch party for OxyCon­tin, which went on the mar­ket in

1996, he pre­dicted a “bl­iz­zard of pre­scrip­tions that will bury the com­pe­ti­tion,” ac­cord­ing to the Mas­sachusetts suit.

Richard Sack­ler com­prises one of eight Sack­ler fam­ily mem­bers who own Pur­due and are named in Con­necti­cut’s, Mas­sachusetts’ and New York’s law­suits. The oth­ers are Bev­erly Sack­ler, David Sack­ler, Ilene Sack­ler Le­f­court, Jonathan Sack­ler, Kathe Sack­ler, Mor­timer D.A. Sack­ler and Theresa Sack­ler.

Since 1979, Richard Sack­ler has owned a home in Green­wich, ac­cord­ing to Con­necti­cut’s law­suit. He now lives in Con­necti­cut and Florida.

As the lit­i­ga­tion has bur­geoned against Pur­due — more than

1,000 mu­nic­i­pal, county and state law­suits have been filed — Richard Sack­ler and the other Sack­ler de­fen­dants have re­signed from Pur­due’s board. The last of the Sack­lers on the panel stepped down at the be­gin­ning of this year, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany.

Aside from the Sack­ler emails, the unredacted com­plaint is largely sim­i­lar to the pre­vi­ous ver­sion filed April 22.

The com­plaint in­cludes a litany of other al­le­ga­tions fo­cused on Pur­due’s opi­oid mar­ket­ing and also ac­cuses the Sack­ler de­fen­dants of try­ing to avoid per­sonal li­a­bil­ity through hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in fraud­u­lent trans­fers.

Next steps

Tong has re­it­er­ated his in­tent to take the case to trial, de­spite Ok­la­homa reach­ing in late March a $270 mil­lion set­tle­ment with Pur­due to re­solve a sim­i­lar law­suit.

Ok­la­homa At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mike Hunter “made a judg­ment that $270 mil­lion was the right deal for the peo­ple of Ok­la­homa. It would not be the right deal for the peo­ple of Con­necti­cut,” Tong said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “In my view, this is a na­tional pub­lic health cri­sis, and the dam­ages are extensive and sig­nif­i­cant and go far be­yond any dol­lar (amount) I can put on it right now. They go far be­yond $270 mil­lion.”

A prospec­tive Pur­due bank­ruptcy would not de­ter the state’s push for ac­count­abil­ity, Tong has also said.

Mean­while, the Sack­lers have in­di­cated that they want to avoid a trial. An at­tor­ney for four of the Sack­ler de­fen­dants has said that her clients would pre­fer to set­tle and reach a “global res­o­lu­tion” of the pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

“De­pend­ing on how widely these state­ments in these emails from Richard Sack­ler are pub­li­cized, they could im­pact the con­text of a set­tle­ment,” said Robert Bird, a pro­fes­sor busi­ness law at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut. “And if pre­sented to a jury, these state­ments could cer­tainly in­flame the sen­ti­ments of a jury against the Sack­lers and Pur­due.”

Matthew Brown / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Pur­due Pharma is head­quar­tered at 201 Tresser Blvd. in down­town Stam­ford.

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