'Your actions are sickening': Sackler hearing inspires rare bipartisan disgust

By Chris McGreal

If the idea was to burnish the image of what might be the most hated family in America, it didn’t go well.

Little has been heard directly from those members of the Sackler family who owned and ran Purdue Pharma, the company that turned them into multibillionaires by selling the drug widely held responsible for creating the US opioid epidemic, OxyContin.

Even as revelations of greed and criminality spilled out over the years, the Sacklers denied accusations that they had become rich by driving addiction and death. So when a US congressional committee announced that David and Kathe Sackler, former members of Purdue’s board, were coming out of the shadows to finally answer questions about their family’s part in a drug epidemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives, there was an expectation that the country might get some answers.

The chair of the House oversight committee, Carolyn Maloney, told the Sacklers she wanted to hear them “acknowledge your wrongdoing” at the hearing on Thursday. “The families and communities whose lives have been ruined deserve at least that much,” she said.

Instead, a hearing bubbling with anger saw infuriated members of Congress likening the Sacklers to the Mexican drug cartel leader, El Chapo, and the multi-billion dollar fraudster, Bernie Madoff. One congressman said he thought they were possibly the most evil family in America.

Frank Huntley looks at his sculpture made out of the opiod pill bottles he got when addicted, in February.
Frank Huntley looks at his sculpture made out of the opiod pill bottles he got when addicted, in February. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters

Strikingly, Republicans and Democrats alike were united in their disgust.

“We don’t agree on a lot on this committee in a bipartisan way,” James Comer, the highest ranking Republican, told the Sacklers. “But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma, and the actions of your family, we all agree are sickening.”

When it was over, David and Kathe Sackler left the hearing with calls for prosecution of members of their family ringing in their ears.

The two Sacklers misjudged the mood from the start. Members of the committee had lined up a long list of accusations over Purdue’s illegal marketing of OxyContin, a very high-strength opioid painkiller that federal agents called “heroin in a pill”. The company made false claims to downplay its addictiveness, aggressively marketed the drug for people who didn’t need it, and drove a change in medical culture that led to the prescribing of narcotics at much higher rates than other countries. That in turn laid the foundations for an opioid epidemic that has lasted two decades and shows no sign of ending.

Purdue already had a 2007 criminal conviction over the illegal marketing of OxyContin and two months ago admitted further felonies, including bribing doctors to unnecessarily prescribe the drug. So Maloney was not alone on her committee in expecting that the time had come for the Sacklers to apologise and make good.

Instead, David Sackler began his testimony with a detached expression of regret for OxyContin’s role as if it were an unavoidable accident, not the result of a business strategy.

“I still feel absolutely terrible that a product created to help, and has helped so many people, has also been associated with death and addiction,” he said.

Kathe Sackler did not help matters when she spoke about how “my heart breaks for the parents who have lost their children”, as if it had nothing to do with the decisions made by her family.

The mood among the committee members darkened further as their detailed questions were met with denials and evasion.

When Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan Democrat, asked David Sackler about the approval of an opioid sales campaign that pushed the drugs across America, he replied: “It was a management-led initiative”.

Tlaib snapped back: “Yeah, you ran the management.”

For decades, Purdue was firmly under the Sacklers’ control as its sole owners. But with the company slipping out of the family’s grasp amid bankruptcy proceedings, and the new board admitting to its criminal activities, David and Kathe Sackler attempted to claim that key decisions were the responsibility of Purdue executives, not the family.

But committee members noted that it was David’s father, Dr Richard Sackler, who ran the company’s marketing department during the OxyContin sales drive and who was later Purdue’s president.

Kathe Sackler exasperated some committee members when she told the hearing: “There’s nothing that I can find that I would have done differently” as a member of Purdue’s board from 1990 until two years ago.

Congressman Peter Welch mocked her persistent attempt to shift responsibility from her family.

“Your testimony is you don’t know nothing about nothing. And things happen but you don’t know how. And people are responsible, but you don’t know who,” he said.

Maloney, the committee chair, also poured scorn on the attempts to deny responsibility.

“In the Sackler family’s version of the story, they are totally blameless, a family caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have pointed a finger at so-called bad-apple employees, the FDA, consulting firms and prescribers. In the past, they even blamed the patients,” she told the hearing.

Committee members suspected the refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was part of a strategy to hang on to the profits of addiction.

Last month, Purdue agreed to pay $8bn in penalties as part of its guilty plea to criminal charges but the company is in bankruptcy proceedings and most of that money is unlikely to be paid. So committee members looked to the Sacklers who took billions of dollars out of Purdue.

David Sackler was confronted with a memo he wrote to other members of his family in 2007 shortly after Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges over illegally marketing OxyContin and amid growing numbers of civil suits from families blighted by addiction.

“We’re rich? For how long? Until which suits get through to the family?” he wrote.

Sackler denied that the memo had anything to do with the fact that the family took $10bn out of the company over the following decade.

Kathe Sackler is sworn in to testify virtually during the US House oversight committee hearing.
Kathe Sackler is sworn in to testify virtually during the US House oversight committee hearing. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Members of the committee weren’t buying it. One after another they demanded the Sacklers hand over the profits from OxyContin. Maloney accused them of trying “to fraudulently shield money for your own personal benefit”.

“When it began to look like your wealth could be at risk for losses, you moved it out of reach, preventing the money from going to the victims of the crisis (the Sacklers) created,” she said. “They have taken money out of the company so it would be forever beyond the legal reach of the people they were harming.”

Maloney told the Sacklers that “a lot of people agree” that they are “one of the most evil families in America”.

“You have the ability now to mitigate at least some of the damage record. Please stop hiding and offshoring your assets,” she said.

Others were focused on another form of justice. Comer, who represents a district in Kentucky, one of the states worst hit by the opioid epidemic, was not alone in wondering why people dealing drugs on the streets are locked up while “bad actors” like the Sacklers walk free.

“The overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated in Kentucky are there because of drug problems. They had to forfeit their assets. They have broken homes, and the cost to society is immeasurable. You all have created the same harm to society. Yet you’re one of the wealthiest families in America. I hope that the courts hold you accountable,” he said.

If the Sacklers hoped that Thursday’s hearing was going to make that outcome less likely, they may have miscalculated.