STAT is asking a Kentucky court to make public sealed documents that could provide new information on how Purdue Pharma marketed its potent pain pill OxyContin — including what top executives knew about how addictive it was, and whether they downplayed the risks.
Purdue has faced hundreds of lawsuits and numerous government investigations over its aggressive promotion of OxyContin, which some blame for helping spawn the national opioid abuse crisis. In 2007, three corporate executives and an affiliated company pleaded guilty to fraudulently marketing the drug as less addictive than other pain medications and paid $634 million in fines.
Despite the years of litigation, Connecticut-based Purdue has successfully kept millions of company records out of view through judicial secrecy orders or settlement agreements mandating their destruction.
article continues after advertisement
A $24 million settlement in December of a lawsuit brought against Purdue by the Kentucky attorney general included such a provision.
But STAT learned that some documents in the case were not destroyed and are filed under seal in Pike Circuit Court in Eastern Kentucky.
The sealed documents include a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a Purdue board member and former company president who is a member of the family that controls the closely held company — and that is widely known for the tens of millions of dollars it has donated to museums and universities. The deposition, taken last year in Kentucky, is believed to be the only time a member of the Sackler family has been questioned under oath about the marketing of OxyContin and the addictive properties of the opioid pain reliever.
The Sackler family, which has reaped billions of dollars in profits from the sale of OxyContin, is better known for its philanthropy than its ownership of the pharmaceutical company. The Purdue website makes scant mention of the family; there is one sentence noting its founding in 1952 by brothers Raymond and Mortimer Sackler.
The aggressive and illegal marketing of OxyContin by Purdue executives following its US approval in 1995 has been blamed for fueling an explosion in opioid painkiller abuse and a resulting surge in overdose deaths. Fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers quadrupled from 1999 to 2013, when they killed more than 16,000 people in the United States. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled the spike a “public health epidemic.” Congress and state governments are scrambling to fund new prevention and treatment programs as the opioid scourge spreads from drugs like OxyContin to heroin and fentanyl.
STAT confirmed the existence of the Richard Sackler deposition, as well as other company documents filed under court seal, from a public records request filed last month with the Kentucky attorney general. The office, in its response, said it was barred by court order and a settlement agreement with Purdue from releasing the documents to the public.
“The parties filed numerous motions and exhibits with the court under seal,” Assistant Attorney General S. Travis Mayo wrote in response to the STAT records request. Releasing the deposition and other records would expose the attorney general’s office to potential sanctions, he added.
To unseal the records, STAT is making a motion to intervene in the settled Kentucky lawsuit. The motion was sent to the Pike Circuit Court Monday via overnight courier.
The motion argues that STAT and the public have a constitutional right to the records that trumps Purdue’s interest in keeping them secret. The motion also states there is a substantial public interest in the case, citing the epidemic of drug addiction and related crime stemming from the abuse of OxyContin in Kentucky and other states. STAT is requesting the court make the documents available immediately.
Purdue was given wide discretion to designate documents as confidential through an agreement with the attorney general on how evidence in the case was produced. Any document designated as confidential was filed under seal.
Purdue declined to comment on STAT’s motion, and, instead, pointed to a statement it provided in December on the Kentucky settlement. Privately held Purdue does not report its revenues. Among its products are other painkillers, laxatives, and antiseptics.
DOCUMENT: Read STAT’s motion to unseal records of OxyContin maker
When the three Purdue executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to fraudulent marketing of OxyContin, Purdue blamed the bad acts on “certain of its supervisors and employees” and argued OxyContin has “done far more good than harm.” More recently, the company has developed a tamper-resistant version of the drug that makes it harder to abuse and funded law enforcement training to curb opioid abuse.
The same settlement that resulted in the guilty pleas set aside money for states as compensation for Medicaid spending and other costs related to OxyContin as a result of the company’s bad behavior. Kentucky was the only state to refuse to participate in that agreement, rejecting the $551,561 it would have received under the deal as woefully inadequate.
Kentucky filed its own lawsuit against the company in 2007 in Pike County, a rural coal-mining center hit hard by OxyContin abuse. In a survey of local residents conducted on behalf of Purdue, 9 out of 10 people said OxyContin had a “devastating effect “ on the community.
In December, Purdue agreed to pay Kentucky $24 million to settle the lawsuit. The money is to be used for addiction prevention and treatment programs, and other public health initiatives. Purdue did not admit to any wrongdoing.
The settlement required the attorney general to “completely destroy” or return to Purdue all documents it received from the company or from any other party through a subpoena. The attorney general was given 60 days from the Dec. 18 agreement to comply. The agreement also prohibits the attorney general from sharing the documents with any other entity investigating or litigating against Purdue.
The attorney general’s office destroyed millions of pages of documents within the 60-day period, according to spokesman Terry Sebastian.
While the attorney general destroyed the records in its possession, copies of some of those records remain under seal in the Pike County courthouse, including the Sackler deposition.
Richard Sackler is the son of Purdue founder Raymond Sackler. A physician, Richard Sackler served in a number of different positions at Purdue before being named president in 1999 as sales of OxyContin were ramping up. In 2003 he was named cochairman of the Purdue board. He remains a board member, according to the company’s most recent corporate filing. He is listed as serving on advisory boards at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.
Purdue is owned by holding companies and family trusts that benefit the families of founders Mortimer and Raymond Sackler. Nine members of the Sackler family serve on the company board. The family name is perhaps best known for its vast philanthropy, which has resulted in the naming of museum wings, university buildings, and even an asteroid. There is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington; the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London; and the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The family has also endowed professorships and institutes at several well-known medical schools.
The Kentucky case is not the first to result in the expungement of huge amounts of records related to Purdue’s campaign to turn OxyContin into a bestseller and the resulting trail of abuse, crime, and death in communities across the country.
The 2007 federal settlement with Purdue also required the government to destroy all items obtained by law enforcement agents during the investigation and to return any original Purdue files to the company. The investigative file included millions of documents, according to Senate testimony from the US attorney overseeing the case.
One of the prosecutors in the case, Rick Mountcastle, said in an interview with STAT that the evidence was stored in 2,000 boxes.
A large number of records were similarly destroyed when Purdue settled more than 5,000 personal injury cases from across the country. All of the plaintiffs were people who received OxyContin through prescriptions and became addicted to the drug, said Paul Hanly, one of the plaintiff lawyers involved in the settlement.
The details of the $75 million settlement in 2007 were never filed in court, Hanly said. As part of the deal, plaintiff attorneys destroyed 1 million to 2 million pages of records acquired during the litigation, he said. About 10,000 documents, which Hanly described as the most compelling, were not destroyed. The state of Kentucky subpoenaed those records last year. Hanly said he was contacted soon after by a Purdue lawyer who told him he should have destroyed every record. Hanly said he interpreted the settlement differently.
He granted the investigators from the Kentucky attorney general access to the records, which they reviewed in a New Jersey warehouse with Purdue lawyers present. Hanly said he is unsure how many of those records Kentucky officials may have copied, or whether they became evidence in the state’s case against Purdue. Hanly said he could only grant access to those records through a subpoena.