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Billionaire Sackler Family Gets Immunity From Civil Lawsuits Over Opioid Crisis

The billionaire Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, maker of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that members of the Sackler family can receive immunity from all current and future civil litigation related to their role in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic. The billionaire Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, maker of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin. The legal shield could lead to a settlement in the range of $6 billion for thousands of plaintiffs, including states, local governments and tribes. Opioid overdoses have killed over 500,000 people in the U.S. over the past two decades, according to the CDC. For more, we speak with Ed Bisch, founder of the group Relatives Against Purdue Pharma, whose 18-year-old son, Eddie, died of an OxyContin-related overdose in 2001. He says drug company executives responsible for the opioid crisis should be prosecuted by the Department of Justice. And in Mexico City, Christopher Glazek is the investigative reporter who was the first to publicly report how the Sackler family had significantly profited from selling OxyContin while fully aware it was directly fueling the opioid epidemic in America. “The Sacklers did what they’ve always done: They struck a deal, they paid a bribe, and they’re getting away with it,” Glazek says of the latest settlement.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This week, a federal appeals court ruled members of the Sackler family, the billionaire owners of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, can receive complete immunity from all current and future civil litigation related to their role in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic. The legal shield could lead to a settlement in the range of $6 billion for thousands of plaintiffs, including states, local governments and tribes. Tuesday’s ruling reverses a 2021 court decision that did not protect Sackler family members from liability as part of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy declaration. The case can still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Opioid overdoses have killed over half a million people in the United States over the past 20 years, this according to the CDC, including prescription and illicit drugs.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Ed Bisch’s 18-year-old son Eddie died of an OxyContin-related overdose in 2001. He was 18. Ed Bisch founded RAPP — that’s Relatives Against Purdue Pharma. He wrote an essay for STAT News titled “My son died of an Oxy overdose. Drug company execs who are responsible should be sent to jail.” Ed Bisch has long called on the Department of Justice to prosecute the Sacklers. And in Mexico City, Christopher Glazek joins us, investigative reporter who was the first to publicly report how the Sackler family had significantly profited from selling the opioid OxyContin while fully aware that the highly addictive drug was directly fueling the opioid epidemic in America.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ed Bisch, let’s begin with you. If you can talk about why you oppose this court decision this week, what it means for you and your family?

ED BISCH: Well, what it means is, the best part of this deal is it doesn’t — has nothing to do with criminal prosecution. So, for that, I am happy. Otherwise, that is, in my opinion, the only good part of this deal. There’s many reasons. Most of the news stories are saying that 95% of the “victims” approved of the deal. Well, only 20% of the “victims” voted. So, you know, that’s very misleading. I mean, I have a long list. Number one, the total deal’s valued about $10 billion. The victims get $750 million. OK? That is 7.5%. Out of that — that’s before the lawyer fees and expenses. So, the “victims” are going to wind up with around 4%. Does that sound fair to you?

AMY GOODMAN: What does that come to per person, Ed?

ED BISCH: Well, that’s another thing. They have a point system. And you need valid records. So, I talked to one lady who actually got addicted to OxyContin, went to prison for forging OxyContin prescriptions to feed her own addiction — went to prison. She filed, and the lawyer said, “Well, we need proof.” She said, “I went to jail for two years. What kind of proof do you” — they want a lot of records, and some of them go back — a lot of people couldn’t get the records. There’s a lot of people who are going to be very disappointed. And please follow up with these people in a year or two.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed, just to be clear, you’ve been calling for the prosecution of the Sackler family. This court ruled they get total immunity. Your response to that?

ED BISCH: Well, they get civil immunity. They don’t get criminal immunity. Maura Healey, the Massachusetts governor, has stated she has seen the evidence, and the DOJ should do their job and prosecute. “Punishable by fine” means legal for a price. You know, these companies, not just Purdue, they look at it as the cost of doing business. They made billions and billions. They pay a portion in a fine, and they walk away. In this case, the Sacklers get to walk away with civil immunity. They get to sleep like a baby at night. They’re still billionaires. Without any criminal prosecutions, this is going to go on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Christopher Glazek into this conversation. You have been covering this for decades, just as Ed Bisch has been living the horror of losing his son for over 20 years now. He lost him in 2001. Can you talk about this latest deal, how it differs from previous ones, and the overall scope of it, Chris?

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: Yeah. You know, looking at the agreement, you’d have to say that the Sacklers did what they’ve always done: They struck a deal, they paid a bribe, and they’re getting away with it. There’s no admission of wrongdoing anywhere in the agreement. And the question is: Is this really accountability?

It’s really important for people to understand the deal has this big fancy number in it, like the Sacklers are going to pay $6 billion. Well, they’re going to pay that over 18 years. And when you have a giant fortune that’s more than $10 billion, just the interest you earn every year is going to be enough to pay out that settlement. So it’s important for people to understand, the Sacklers are not losing their fortune. In fact, their fortune will probably be bigger in five years than what it was five years ago. So, you know, there’s a real question whether there’s any accountability here in reality. You know, the question is: How did they get this sweetheart deal?

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. Wait, wait, I want to follow up —

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to follow up on what you just said. You’re saying that their profits will grow. What do you mean?

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: I’m saying, when you have a fortune that’s more than $11 billion, you know, just from your investments alone, from interest, even if you bought T-bills, Treasury bills from the federal government, you’re earning so much money every year from your investments. And so it’s not like the Sacklers are going to send a wire over tomorrow for $6 billion. They have 18 years to pay a lot of the money. That means that the impact on them, on their day-to-day lives, on the number of dollars in their bank account is way, way, way, smaller than it first appears.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2019 —

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: And in literal dollar terms — go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: No, go ahead, Chris.

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: Oh, no. Just that, you know, in literal dollar terms, their fortune is not going to shrink. And it probably will grow even larger. And so, you know, when we ask the question, “Have the Sacklers paid? Is this a big judgment for them? Is this going to change their lives?” the answer is probably not.

And then the question becomes: How did they get such a sweetheart deal? And there’s a couple things to say about that. The first, the original judge in this case was handpicked by the Sacklers. They did this crazy legal maneuver where they changed their headquarters at the last minute to White Plains, New York, because there was only one bankruptcy judge in that district. And then that judge ended up being very favorable for the Sacklers. He announced during the case that it would be his last case ever, he was retiring. And then, since retiring, he got a job with one of the law firms representing the Sacklers. That’s number one.

Number two — and this is really important for people to understand — the Sacklers had a giant fortune, most of which is held in offshore accounts. A lot of it’s in the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel. And it is beyond the reach of U.S. government prosecutors. So, the Sacklers said in the court case — they made the argument, “Hey, if you don’t take this deal, it doesn’t matter what judgment you get against us in the future. Maybe a court will award you $30 billion. You’re not going to get a cent, because all the money is offshore, and you can’t get at it.”

So the Sacklers had this really big leverage in the negotiation, which is that their money was protected. U.S. regulators could not get at their money. And for that reason, they said, “Hey, if you don’t take this deal, you’re going to get nothing.” So, you know, those two things are really important to point out.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. In —

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: And then, the other thing, which — go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: Well, and then, the third thing, you know, how did this deal come about? They use this kind of novel legal procedure to insulate themselves from any future civil prosecution. And the reason that it is raising eyebrows is because they had this company that went bankrupt. Well, they extracted all the money out of the company, so it was really like a shell. And then, as part of the bankruptcy agreement, they said, you know, “You can’t ever go after us,” as if the family had declared bankruptcy, because it’s normal, when you declare bankruptcy, people can’t go after you for civil judgments. But in this case, the family did not declare bankruptcy. And far from being bankrupt, they remain among the very richest people in the history of the world. And they’re going to remain so for generations to come.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2019, the investigative news organization ProPublica published video of Dr. Richard Sackler of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. A part of his deposition he gave in a 2015 lawsuit in Kentucky, we’re going to play a clip of. The company waged a three-year legal battle to keep the video secret. Sackler was questioned by attorney Tyler Thompson.

TYLER THOMPSON: Sitting here today, after all you’ve come to learn as a witness, do you believe Purdue’s conduct in marketing and promoting OxyContin in Kentucky caused any of the prescription drug addiction problems now plaguing the commonwealth?

DR. RICHARD SACKLER: I don’t believe so.

TYLER THOMPSON: Sitting here today, after all you’ve come to learn as a witness, do you believe that Purdue’s conduct in Kentucky has led to an excessive or unnecessary amount of opioids being located throughout the commonwealth of Kentucky?

DR. RICHARD SACKLER: I don’t believe so.

TYLER THOMPSON: Do you believe that any of Purdue’s conduct has led to an increase in people being addicted in the commonwealth of Kentucky?

DR. RICHARD SACKLER: No.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Richard Sackler was chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Ed Bisch, you lost your son in 2001 at the age of 18. Your response to what he says in this testimony, that was long concealed?

ED BISCH: I’m glad that it got out, it saw the light of day. A lot more documents are going to see the light of day. Am I surprised? Not even a little. How he sleeps at night, I don’t know.

The crimes are well documented. Chris has written some great articles. Dopesick on Hulu, Crime of the Century on HBO, and on August 10th, Painkiller is going to show on Netflix. 2003, the very first book documenting their crimes, Painkiller, was published.

2001 was the very first congressional hearing on OxyContin deaths. 2001! I went to that hearing. And, you know, I read the headline, “Purdue Going Out of Business.” “Oh, finally!” As soon as I started reading it and I saw the Sacklers were demanding immunity, I said, “This is a bankruptcy scam.” And that’s one thing this bankruptcy scam has exposed, the crazy bankruptcy laws, like judge shopping, like these third-party releases. And I hope it does go to the Supreme Court and they do the right thing. Will they? I have no idea.

The only thing that can make up for this travesty is, DOJ, do your job. Follow the evidence. Maura Healey says she’s seen the evidence. She was the attorney general. And they should prosecute. And so I pray every night that they do their job.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Glazek, we’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and post it at democracynow.org. But I wanted to ask you about the many organizations that have dropped the Sackler name from buildings, like the Guggenheim, like the Louvre, most recently Oxford University. Can you talk about the significance of this, and also, you know, just the fact that you say their wealth is ever-increasing in their offshore accounts?

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: Yeah. Well, so, there’s one provision in the bankruptcy agreement which is quite interesting and important. And it says that any institution that has the Sackler name on it can take down the name, and the Sacklers cannot challenge that, even if they had some contracts, some prior agreement. And you’ve seen over the last few years, in the wake of media coverage and activism, there’s been this kind of domino effect of first museums and then universities taking down the Sackler name. And it was really interesting to see this process play out.

You know, I wrote this piece. There were other articles. There was a lot of media attention around the Sacklers in late 2017. But at first, you know, I called all these museums, and they said, “We’re not doing anything. We’re not taking this down. This isn’t our business.” I called universities, you know, Yale; they said, “No. No, thank you.” And then the activism started. And, you know, there had always been activism. But Nan Goldin, in particular, in the art world, conducted a series of really public actions that got a lot of media attention and really hit the Sacklers where it hurt. And she, using her own influence in the art world and gathering all these people together, essentially forced a lot of museums to take down the name.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Glazek —

CHRISTOPHER GLAZEK: Academia took a little longer.

AMY GOODMAN: — we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to talk about that activism in Part 2. Thank you so much for being with us, investigative reporter, and Ed Bisch, founder of Relatives Against Purdue Pharma. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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