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Prosecutors bring rare criminal charges against Ohio opioid distributor

Benjamin C. Glassman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, at a news conference on Thursday in Cincinnati. Federal authorities say Miami-Luken, an Ohio-based wholesale drug distributor, has been charged in a painkiller pill conspiracy case. (John Minchillo/AP)

Federal prosecutors in Cincinnati filed criminal charges Thursday against an opioid distributor and two of its former executives, accusing them of conspiring with doctors and pharmacies to pour millions of addictive pain pills into Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.

The indictment of Miami-Luken, its former president and its former compliance officer was the second time in three months that federal prosecutors have used criminal laws against a drug distributor in their efforts to stem the prescription opioid epidemic. That is a more aggressive posture than the Justice Department has adopted since 2007, when it began using civil and administrative actions to enforce laws against drug distributors.

“There’s a need, in my opinion, to devote sufficient charges right here and now to stop the dying,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin C. Glassman said.

The DEA database: Find the data for where you live

The single count of the grand jury indictment accused former Miami-Luken president Anthony Rattini and former compliance officer James Barclay of knowingly distributing powerful narcotic painkillers for other than medical reasons. The company itself, which went out of business late last year, also was charged.

Two West Virginia pharmacists, Devonna Miller-West and Samuel R. Ballengee, who owned small-town drugstores that allegedly received millions of pills, were also charged. All face as much as 20 years in prison.

The Washington Post could not reach the four people indicted via telephone or email, or identify their attorneys. Richard Blake, an Ohio attorney, said he represents the defunct company.

The indictment says Miami-Luken ignored “obvious signs” that drugs were being diverted to illegal users and dealers between 2011 and 2015. Prosecutors said the company sent 4.9 million pills to Miller-West’s drugstore in Oceana, W.Va., where the population is 1,394.

Miami-Luken  sent  more  than 6 million pills between 2008 and 2014 to Ballengee’s Tug Valley Pharmacy in Williamson, W.Va., where about 2,800 people live, according to the charges. The pharmacy is now closed.

Glassman said investigators found “many overdose deaths that could arguably be linked to the conduct” of people accused in the conspiracy, but did not obtain enough evidence to charge anyone.

The conspirators “unlawfully enriched themselves” by “distributing and dispensing large amounts of opioids to known pill mills,” prosecutors charge. The conduct continued, the indictment alleges, even after warnings from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Some of the drugs went to other unnamed pharmacists and physicians, the indictment alleges. Starting in 2008, for example, the company sent more than 750,000 pills to a physician despite knowing the doctor was under DEA investigation for illegal drug distribution.

In 2016, The Post reported that a Wheelersburg, Ohio, physician ordered large amounts of oxycodone from Miami-Luken the company did not investigate, according to the DEA.

Miami-Luken was a midsize drug distributor that shipped pharmaceuticals to more than 200 locations in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, some of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.

In April, the U.S. attorney in New York brought criminal charges against Rochester Drug Cooperative, another opioid distributor, in the first use of that tactic against a middleman in the drug supply chain.

Under federal law, those wholesalers are required to monitor the flow of controlled substances and alert the DEA when they identify suspicious purchases that could indicate pills are being diverted to the black market. But many companies ignored that responsibility as profits soared, authorities allege.

The Post and “60 Minutes” reported in 2017 that DEA investigators wanted criminal charges filed against executives of the largest drug distributor, McKesson Corp., after they built a case against the firm involving suspicious orders from drugstores across the country. But they were rebuffed by federal prosecutors and the Justice Department, which settled with the     company     and     fined     it $150 million.

The Post revealed this week that previously undisclosed DEA data shows drug distributors saturated the country with 76 billion opioid pills between 2006 and 2012, many more than previously known.

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