John Oliver on Purdue Pharma: ‘We’re not getting anything approaching justice’

Building on previous episodes of Last Week Tonight on Purdue Pharma’s role in stoking and profiting from the opioid crisis, John Oliver returned focus Sunday evening to the Sackler family, owners of the OxyContin producers, as they wheedle out of accountability. Purdue Pharma did, in October 2020, plead guilty to three criminal charges, including paying kickbacks to regulators and doctors, as part of an $8bn settlement.

The company also filed for bankruptcy and, in March, submitted a reorganization plan that would end Sackler family ownership. And while “this might all sound like a major victory, that the Sacklers are finally experiencing significant consequences”, said Oliver, “unfortunately, that could not be farther from the truth”.

Oliver first recapped the family’s efforts to rehabilitate their image. Descendants of brothers Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, including former Purdue Pharma president Richard Sackler and cousin Kathe Sackler, who expressed no regret for her role in developing OxyContin at a 2020 congressional hearing. The family launched a website aimed to “correct the record” called, “which is shocking for a number of reasons,” Oliver explained, “first, because billionaires, for some reason, chose not to splurge for the dot-com, but also for just how petty the website is.”

The “terrible website of self-serving nonsense”, as Oliver called it, features a list of outlets which mistakenly used the brand name OxyContin for the generic term oxycodone, as well as seven hours of video in which a “catastrophically uncharismatic lawyer” attempts to disprove seemingly every legal claim made against the family.

The public sympathy battle, however, is the veneer on top of a legal battle. As Oliver explained: “While the details of what the Sacklers are doing are incredibly complicated, the end result is both simple and absolutely infuriating.”

There have been, to date, no individual felony convictions for any members of Purdue Pharma or the Sackler family. “The Sacklers might argue that Purdue was controlled by many people, including non-family members, and while they’re not facing criminal charges, they are still facing consequences,” Oliver said. “But here is the thing: are they? Are they really?”

The bankruptcy deal proposed by Purdue is “the vehicle through which the Sacklers are likely to escape any true accountability”, he added. Of the $8bn settlement, only $4.3bn is owed by the Sacklers themselves, who have a hidden net worth of about $11bn.

But the “really insidious part”, said Oliver, is that while there are about 400 civil suits naming the Sacklers themselves, the family will agree to the $8bn settlement only with a non-consensual third-party release precluding all future individual liability. “This thing is bullshit,” Oliver explained, “because if they get it, all current lawsuits against the Sacklers evaporate, and no future lawsuits can be filed, meaning that the Sacklers, who didn’t file for personal bankruptcy themselves, remember, are basically off the hook.

“And if it sounds weird to you that a company can basically declare bankruptcy and then a bunch of individuals get shielded from liability, that’s because it is,” he continued. “It’s really fucking weird. In fact, some bankruptcy courts don’t allow these types of third-party releases at all, but Purdue very carefully chose one that they knew probably would.” A few months before the bankruptcy filing, Purdue changed one of its corporate addresses to White Plains, New York – a place where it had never done business, but where there was a bankruptcy court judge known to be sympathetic to third-party releases.

The “ludicrously broad” release spares over 200 companies and 200 more trusts from “any and all Claims” of “any kind” from “the beginning of time.” Attorneys general of nine states and the District of Columbia oppose the deal, as do two branches of the Department of Justice, which said it violates the US constitution and due process in not allowing individual victims the opportunity to be heard.

“It might well be true that this is the best deal we can get under our current system,” said Oliver, “but the fact that that’s the case doesn’t speak well to this deal or, indeed, the system itself.

“When your family’s company recklessly sold a product as damaging as oxycontin, the question might not be ‘how many billions is it right for you to pay?’ It’s ‘how many billions is it right for you to keep?’” Oliver added. “And I would argue: no billions.” The $4.3bn the Sacklers have agreed to pay is scheduled over nine years, which means they could recoup costs from interest and investments and never touch the principal. To quote Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain: “When they’re done paying in 2030, they will probably be richer than they are today.”

“We’re not getting anything approaching justice here,” Oliver concluded. “And the Sacklers, in sparing no expense, seem to have successfully bought their way out of this problem.”

There’s one small bit of comfort, Oliver added – Last Week Tonight purchased, featuring video of the actor Richard Kind as Richard Sackler. “I know that it does absolutely nothing to even the scales here,” said Oliver, “but it does give me the tiniest bit of comfort to imagine it might irritate the Sacklers a bit to know that when people go to that site in the future, this is what they’re going to see.”

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