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Ex-Purdue Pharma head Richard Sackler, seeking legal immunity, denies responsibility for opioid crisis

OxyContin pills. (Toby Talbot/AP)
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Richard Sackler, the former Purdue Pharma president who has rarely publicly spoken about the drugmaker’s part in the opioid epidemic, denied during bankruptcy proceedings Wednesday that he and his family as well as their company bore any responsibility for the public health crisis.

The rare public questioning of Sackler comes as members of the family are expected to receive immunity from a tidal wave of litigation.

A day before Sackler denied responsibility for the opioid crisis, his son, David Sackler, testified that the family wouldn’t agree to settle without guaranteed releases from current and future lawsuits. The billionaire family has vehemently denied wrongdoing that followed the 1996 launch of their blockbuster product OxyContin. The opioid crisis has claimed more than 500,000 lives in two decades in the United States.

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Richard Sackler’s testimony marks the fifth day of a contentious confirmation hearing to approve a complex bankruptcy plan for Purdue, which faces thousands of lawsuits claiming the company harmed people and communities. The plan, which creditors overwhelmingly endorsed, is widely expected to be confirmed by Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

The plan would turn the drugmaker into a public trust company overseen by an independent board no longer controlled by members of the Sackler family, who would contribute roughly $4.3 billion, paid out over nine years. The company has valued the deal at more than $10 billion.

Money would be paid to resolve the crisis and claims from people who became addicted to OxyContin, communities inundated with pain pills, babies born with opioid dependency and more.

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Richard Sackler, who had previously served as the company’s president and chairman of the board, testified Wednesday that he did not know how many people in the United States or globally have died while using OxyContin.

“You knew people were dying, but you didn’t look at how many?” an attorney asked Sackler.

“I looked at the same information that the media looked at," he responded.

“You didn’t think it was necessary in your role as chair or as president of an opioid company to determine how many people had died as a result of the use of the product?”

“To the best of my knowledge, recollection, that data was not available,” Sackler said.

Representatives for Richard and David Sackler’s side of the family declined to comment publicly.

Communities suing Purdue claim the company created a market for the use of opioids to treat all kinds of pain. After Purdue introduced OxyContin in 1996, the company minimized the risk of addiction and encouraged sales, a tactic deployed by other manufacturers, attorneys suing drug companies allege in court documents. Purdue said it ended its opioid marketing and sales practices in February 2018.

During the three-hour questioning, Richard Sackler responded “I don’t know” to multiple questions, including those about the company’s marketing and sales divisions. During other answers, he sounded muffled and, at one point, complained of laryngitis. The hearings have been plagued with audio and technical difficulties as proceedings continue virtually during the coronavirus pandemic.

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David Sackler, who has denied that Purdue or the Sackler family are to blame for the opioid epidemic, spoke Tuesday, saying the family nevertheless has a “moral responsibility” to address the health crisis and the family was taking steps to combat deaths and addiction.

“I think because of the product we produced that has helped millions of people has also been associated with the opioid epidemic, we bear moral responsibility to try and help," he said. "That’s what this settlement is designed to do.”

But Sackler added that the legal shield for the family and other entities was necessary for the Sacklers to agree to the settlement framework.

Critics of the plan have objected to what they contend is the family receiving bankruptcy-like protections without filing for bankruptcy. Some members of Congress have introduced legislation to prevent such a resolution in the future.

A handful of states and the Department of Justice filed objections to the plan, but that hasn’t stopped the plan from moving forward.

Reaching a resolution with other states that had objected to the plan in July, Purdue agreed to release more than 30 million documents to a public repository, expected to offer a fuller picture of efforts taken by the company and Sackler family members to market and sell OxyContin.

While the company and family would be released from civil claims, they would not be immune from criminal charges. Purdue has pleaded guilty twice to federal crimes over its opioid practices. Prosecutors said they have not ruled out criminal charges, but they have not publicly disclosed any ongoing investigations and no Sackler family member has been criminally charged.

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