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Conn. attorney general calls Purdue Pharma settlement ‘a mirage’

Correction: This report explained that a settlement had been reached among the U.S. Department of Justice, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family over the opioids crisis. The report should have clarified that the settlement is with members of the Sackler family and does not include the entire Sackler family. Neither the late Arthur Sackler nor his widow or heirs profited from the sale of OxyContin, and they are not named in lawsuits filed against other members of the family, who own Purdue Pharma. Arthur Sackler died more than eight years before OxyContin came to the market and sold off his share of the company that would later become the modern version of Purdue Pharma.

A historic settlement was announced Wednesday among the Department of Justice, Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family over the drug giant’s role in the national opioid crisis. The CDC estimates roughly 450,000 people died from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2018. But some critics feel the settlement missed the mark. William Brangham talks to William Tong, Connecticut’s attorney general.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Much has been made of the historic settlement announced yesterday between the U.S. Department of Justice, Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family over the opioids crisis.

    Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer and distributor of OxyContin, one of the principal opioids that has fueled the crisis. The CDC estimates that roughly 450,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid between 1999 and 2018. That included both prescription opioids and the illegal market.

    As William Brangham tells us, in light of those consequences, some critics feel the settlement missed the mark.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, it was a historic settlement in a number of ways.

    The $8.3 billion settlement is the largest ever for a pharmaceutical company in the U.S., and Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to three criminal felonies. But the company also filed for bankruptcy a year ago, so its listed assets are well below $8 billion.

    And, of course, there's no way to measure the cost of the enormous death toll and the terrible ongoing damage to millions of people's lives.

    But the Sackler family insists they did not act illegally, and the company says it can't be held responsible for illegal opioids.

    A number of state attorneys general, all Democrats, who are part of a large national civil case criticized the agreement.

    That includes Connecticut's attorney general, William Tong. Purdue Pharma's headquarters are located in his state.

    Attorney General Tong, very good to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    You criticized this settlement and called it a — quote — "mirage of justice."

    How so?

  • William Tong:

    Yes, thank you for having me on.

    It's a mirage because we don't know that the executives, the managers, the wrongdoers, the ownership of Purdue Pharma, that they're going to get out of this business altogether.

    What we have is Purdue Pharma calling itself by a different name, possibly reorganizing itself under a different corporate form. But they're not totally shut down. And we have no guarantee that the Sacklers, the owners of this business, who have flooded the market with illegal opioids, that they're not going to go out and participate in this industry again, start a new company.

    So, we're not pushing them out of the business. And for me and many of my A.G. colleagues, that was and is nonnegotiable. We have to shut down Purdue and get these people out of business.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think — I know this is not your jurisdiction, per se, but do you think that there was evidence that the federal government could have brought tougher criminal penalties against the Sacklers themselves or Purdue Pharma executives?

  • William Tong:

    Yes, absolutely.

    And what outrages me and so many other people is, it appears that the Sacklers are paying something like $200 million, and they may never get prosecuted criminally. And that's beyond unjust.

    How can we look at the — take, for example, Connecticut — the 1,000 families that will lose somebody this year to addiction, more than $10 billion in damage to the state of Connecticut, how can we look at that and say, for a couple hundred million, the Sacklers, who are worth tens of billions of dollars, can avoid criminal prosecution?

    That's why this settlement is upside-down. What the Department of Justice should have done is focus on criminal prosecutions, holding the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma executives accountable criminally, sending them to prison, if they can, and leaving the civil cases to the states.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, the settlement doesn't preclude the government, the federal government, at a later date coming back and pursuing the executives or the Sackler family members. So it could happen.

  • William Tong:

    It doesn't say that they're going to. And they have had every opportunity to do this.

    And, in exchange for $200 million-plus, I expect that the Sacklers are going to want some kind of form of release, some releases from future liability.

    So, I'm very concerned about this. I'm very concerned about the roads that the Department of Justice is closing off to all of us to pursue justice and to make sure that the Sacklers' riches and the money that they made in profiteering off of other people's misery and addiction in this country, that that money makes it into the hands of people who need it, and that it funds treatment and prevention in our states.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that what the money would primarily go for, if you get whatever share of this settlement comes to Connecticut? Is that what the — that's what you want it for?

  • William Tong:

    Yes, that's what it should go to.

    And the states and our cities and towns, we have programs. We have therapists. We have strategies in place now to fund treatment, prevention and addiction science. Diverting $8 billion to the federal government, I don't know where that money is going to go.

    I know we're ready now. And we have been ready. And that's why the states, in concert with the victims, have been fighting in court and now in bankruptcy court, to hold the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma accountable, and, frankly, the entire addiction industry.

    We're working on a whole host of other companies and wrongdoers. And this settlement doesn't help.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, as you mentioned, your larger civil case is being held up in bankruptcy court.

    So, do you feel like you don't have any leverage anymore to effect any of these changes that you want?

  • William Tong:

    No, we're full steam ahead.

    And I know that my sister states and attorney general colleagues in those states, we are undeterred. Sure, it's hard in bankruptcy court. The Department of Justice in its settlement has made it harder. But we're full steam ahead. We are not going to let up. We are going to do everything we can to hold the Sacklers and the individual wrongdoers at Purdue Pharma accountable.

    The individuals need to answer for their crimes.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, thank you very much for being here.

  • William Tong:

    Thank you for having me.

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