Tufts University announced Monday it had hired a former U.S. attorney to investigate its relationship with Purdue Pharma and the billionaire Sackler family that owns the maker of OxyContin and other opioid painkillers, following allegations that Purdue sought to gain influence at the school through donations.
“The anguish that opioids have inflicted on so many individuals and families is tragic and deserves our serious attention,” Tufts President Tony Monaco wrote in a letter addressed to the Tufts community. In naming Donald K. Stern, a former U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, to lead the review, Monaco added: “I strongly believe it is important to both our university and those who have suffered as a result of the opioid crisis to investigate these allegations thoroughly.”
Tufts and the Sackler family have a long history, dating back at least to 1980, when family members endowed the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.
Scrutiny of the ties has been building amid the growing opioid crisis — which critics say OxyContin and Purdue’s aggressive marketing of its drugs helped trigger. It came to a head when a lawsuit filed last year by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey against Purdue and members of the Sackler family revealed that the company allegedly influenced educational and research programs at Tufts and sought to use the Tufts brand to bolster the company’s.
Tufts announced it had started an internal review in January after the release of detailed allegations when a more expansive version of the lawsuit was made public.
Purdue has denied the allegations in the lawsuit. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the company also denied it controlled programs at Tufts and said that the donations were just educational and charitable grants, which the company provides to a number of organizations.
The Tufts announcement Monday comes as medical centers and cultural institutions around the world grapple with the millions in donations they have received from the extended Sackler family. For years, the family was known primarily as a benefactor of the arts and sciences, with little attention paid to the key source of the family’s wealth: the privately held drug company that they founded and controlled. Advocates have been pressing institutions to detach themselves from the Sacklers, even holding a public protest at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in February. The museum said on Friday it would no longer take gifts from the Sacklers.
The Guggenheim’s announcement came the same week as the Tate in London said it wouldn’t accept donations from the Sacklers anymore, and London’s National Portrait Galley and a Sackler charitable organization agreed not to go forward with a planned $1.3 million donation.
On Monday, the Sackler Trust, a philanthropic organization funded by the family, said it had halted donations in the U.K., the BBC reported.
The Massachusetts lawsuit alleges that Purdue and the Sacklers didn’t just donate to Tufts — they got something in return.
According to the lawsuit, the Sackler family provided the funding to start Tufts medical school’s Pain Research, Education, and Policy Program in 1999. Purdue-written materials were approved for teaching to Tufts students in 2014, and in 2011, a Purdue employee was named an adjunct associate professor, the lawsuit says.
With the pain program, “Purdue got to control research on the treatment of pain coming out of a prominent and respected institution or learning,” the lawsuit contends.
In his letter, Monaco wrote that the lawsuit alleges the donations to the pain program “were part of an effort to legitimize the marketing of those drugs. These allegations are deeply troubling.” He said Stern, who is at the firm Yurko, Salvesen & Remz, would look into Tufts programs that received funding from the Sacklers, their family foundations, and Purdue.
“The review will determine if we adhered to our policies and if our policies adopted best practices with respect to academic and research integrity and conflicts of interest in accepting those funds,” Monaco wrote.
Critics of the relationship have noted that the main Tufts campus sits on the Somerville-Medford line, straddling two communities that have been hard hit by the addiction crisis.
Stern served as U.S. attorney in Massachusetts from 1993 to 2001, and during that time oversaw the indictment of infamous gangster Whitey Bulger. He has been in private practice since 2001 and has taught at Harvard Law School, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Last year, Stern and Yurko, Salvesen & Remz were hired by the Archdiocese of Boston to investigate sexual misconduct allegations at seminaries.