In late January 2012, drug distributor Cardinal Health got word that the Drug Enforcement Administration was about to take action against the company's Lakeland, Fla., warehouse, which supplied 36 million opioid painkillers to customers in three Southern states every month.

Large numbers of pills had been leaking onto the black market and Cardinal had failed to report warning signs to the DEA, agency records show. Cardinal was concerned that the DEA was about to hit the warehouse with an "immediate suspension order" — a tactic that instantly halts all commerce in controlled substances.

Cardinal retained one of Washington's best-connected power lawyers, Jamie Gorelick, a partner at WilmerHale, who had served as deputy U.S. attorney general from 1994 to 1997. Gorelick quickly reached out to the man who then held the post, James M. Cole, and his aides, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post through a lawsuit filed against the Justice Department.

Gorelick phoned one of them, Stuart M. Goldberg, the principal associate deputy attorney general, on the night of Feb. 1, the emails show.

Gorelick's impact was immediate. On Feb. 2, Cole summoned Joseph T. Rannazzisi, the DEA official leading the aggressive campaign against Cardinal, to his office to ask why he planned to shut down the warehouse. Rannazzisi had never before been asked to defend an investigation in the seven years that his Office of Diversion Control had been waging its battle against opioid distributors accused of failing to keep prescription painkillers off the streets. He interpreted the rancorous meeting with Cole as a clear signal to back off on Cardinal but refused and filed the suspension order that day.

Gorelick emailed Goldberg that evening.

"Stu," she wrote, "I am stunned by the events of the past couple days as we have tried to interact with DEA to no avail. I don't think I have ever seen anything like this."

There is nothing illegal or unethical about Gorelick's communications, an expert said. But the emails provide fresh evidence that special treatment in the halls of power is available to companies that employ the right people — former high-ranking government officials with contact lists full of the most important phone numbers.

"This is a perfect picture of the power of influence and who you are in Washington. She wasn't just anyone. She was the former deputy attorney general," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that tracks conflicts of interest in government.

"Had this been a country lawyer from Dublin, Ohio, writing to the deputy attorney general, you would not see this activity."

Rannazzisi said he was angry that Deputy Attorney General Cole questioned his motives and tactics based on the complaints of Gorelick, a lawyer representing a drug company. Previous DEA actions — including the shutdown of Cardinal warehouses in 2007 — had gone unquestioned by Justice officials.

"It's a fairness issue," Rannazzisi said after he was shown the emails. "Why does she get to discuss with the [deputy attorney general's] office her problems with the matter? Do they do that for everybody?"

The Justice Department and Goldberg declined to comment for this story. Cole has denied trying to exert any influence over the DEA investigation, saying that he only wanted to make sure that Rannazzisi's investigators had listened to Cardinal's side of the matter. In a statement to The Post last year, Cole said "my conversation with Mr. Rannazzisi was simply to confirm whether he had refused to meet with Cardinal regarding a potential DEA action and, if so, share my view that it made good sense to listen to what Cardinal had to say.

"Hearing what Cardinal had to say could inform DEA of facts they may not have known. I did not tell Mr. Rannazzisi how to come out on the Cardinal matter and certainly did not discourage him from going after any company in violation of any statutes or regulations," he said.

Rannazzisi said Cole should have contacted then-DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart for information on the case.

Through a spokeswoman at his current law firm, Sidley Austin, Cole declined to comment for this story.

In emailed responses to written questions, Gorelick said that she did not ask Cole to speak with Rannazzisi about the case and had not contacted Cole before she sent a Nov. 22, 2011, email about the same matter.

Asked whether Cardinal hired her because of her past connections to the deputy attorney general's office, Gorelick wrote: "My tenure as the Deputy Attorney General ended in 1997—14 years before these events occurred. Cardinal hired WilmerHale to represent it in connection with a potential DEA enforcement action. WilmerHale was lead counsel for Cardinal in the judicial challenge to DEA's immediate suspension order."

Nearly 200,000 people have died of overdoses from prescription opioids since 2000. Beginning in 2006, the DEA mounted an aggressive campaign aimed at major drug distributors, reasoning that controlling the flow of opioids from wholesalers would be more effective than enforcing the law against pharmacies and doctors. That strategy resulted in hundreds of millions in fines against distributors and promises from the companies to tighten procedures.

But beginning in 2013, DEA attorneys began dramatically slowing enforcement, in part because of warnings from a drug industry lawyer, D. Linden Barber, who had worked in the DEA legal office until 2011, The Post and "60 Minutes" have previously reported. Some DEA lawyers were concerned that their cases rested on uncertain legal ground.

Frustrated investigators in the field said cases against some companies were delayed or blocked as the opioid problem became more critical.

The Post and "60 Minutes" also have reported that Congress effectively stripped the DEA of its power to use immediate suspension orders by passing a law in 2016 that Barber helped craft.

On May 11, 2016, The Post requested under the Freedom of Information Act any correspondence, including emails, that Gorelick and other individuals had with the office of the deputy attorney general regarding DEA investigations. Eight months later, the Justice Department said the search for the records had been completed and was awaiting processing.

But Justice did not release the records until more than nine months after that, on Oct. 30 of this year, after The Post hired the law firm of Ballard Spahr and sued the department. The Post's lawyers, Charles D. Tobin and Adrianna Rodriguez, won an order from U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta in August mandating that Justice turn over Gorelick's emails and other records.

Rannazzisi said he was forced into retirement in 2015 under pressure from drug company supporters in Congress. After being shown Gorelick's emails by The Post, he said he was especially concerned about an email she had sent months before her communications with Goldberg in February 2012.

In a Dec. 5, 2011 email to Associate U.S. Attorney General James H. Dinan, another Cole aide, Gorelick wrote that someone in the DEA had told Cardinal "that action is not likely to be taken before Dec. 5 and they will consider meeting with us."

Rannazzisi said that communication, which he previously did not know about, could have compromised an active investigation.

"It appears she knew when we were or were not going to do an enforcement operation,"
Rannazzisi said. "They're not supposed to know that." He said standard procedure is never to inform the target of an enforcement action when investigators might move in.

The emails, and a seven-page letter from Gorelick to Cole, make clear that the attorney kept up the pressure on the DEA by communicating with the Justice Department at least twice. Justice supervises the DEA.

Gorelick's communications with Cole's office began more than two months before the February exchange, shortly before Thanksgiving 2011, when Cardinal erroneously concluded that Rannazzisi's investigators were set to issue the immediate suspension order.

Gorelick sent Cole and four aides the seven-page letter, attached to a Nov. 22 email, that included Cardinal's view of the law on use of those orders, efforts the company had undertaken to combat illegal diversion and the harm that an immediate suspension would do.

Such an order "would cause severe harm not only to Cardinal Health, but also to its customers in the region, including hospitals that urgently need the medicines for patient care," she wrote. "Oncology, surgical, urgent care and emergency room patients would experience delays and disruption in their access to crucial pain medicine. And Cardinal Health would experience a daily loss of customers and goodwill that could never be fully restored."

She said the DEA had failed for weeks to respond "to our attempts to begin a dialogue" and requested a meeting with Cole to discuss the agency's approach, which she described as "both unlawful and inconsistent with the public interest."

Rannazzisi and other DEA supervisors have said the agency's standard practice was first to warn companies about violations and ultimately to cut off communication once it became clear the agency planned to begin enforcement proceedings.

According to Rannazzisi and his investigators, the DEA repeatedly warned Cardinal over the years to report huge orders of drugs by pharmacies. Two CVS stores in Sanford, Fla., had purchased millions of painkillers from Cardinal and were accused by DEA of diverting drugs to the black market.

Less than three hours after Gorelick's Nov. 22 email, Dinan referred her to the DEA's top lawyer, Wendy Goggin. But he also called Rannazzisi and cautioned him not to take actions that couldn't be undone, Rannazzisi has said.

In her email to The Post, Gorelick said that "my November 22, 2011 letter to Deputy Attorney General Cole indicates that DEA had failed to respond to prior attempts by Cardinal to begin a dialogue with DEA regarding the agency's concerns. I was not involved in those prior communications."

The meeting between Cardinal and DEA apparently never occurred. As the DEA prepared to take action in February 2012, the conflict flared again. In her Feb. 2 email, Gorelick wrote "if, in fact, the DEA intends to issue an [immediate suspension order], I would ask that the Deputy's Office assure itself that the Chief Counsel has found a legal and factual basis for that drastic action."

Rannazzisi has said that his meeting that month with Cole became adversarial almost from the start. He questioned why this case merited a briefing when others had not. Rannazzisi said Cole interrupted.

"Because I'm the deputy attorney general of the United States, and I want to know about it," he recalled Cole saying.

"Then I say, 'Well, that doesn't really answer the question,' " Rannazzisi said.

Despite the letter and the meeting, the DEA filed immediate suspension orders against Cardinal and the two CVS drugstores the same day. Both companies went to court, initially winning temporary restraining orders that barred the DEA from cutting off the flow of drugs. Gorelick sent those decisions to Goldberg, along with other legal documents that were not released.

"There are underlying policy issues that should concern the Deputy," she wrote on Feb. 7.

But a federal court judge later removed those obstacles after determining that the DEA had enough evidence to file the immediate suspension orders.

By May Cardinal settled the case and agreed to shut off the flow of controlled substances from the Lakeland warehouse for two years. In January of this year, more than four years later, the company agreed to pay a $44 million fine for the violations there and at two other sites. That was $10 million more than Cardinal paid to settle the previous round of violations in 2008. CVS settled in 2015 and agreed to pay a $22 million fine.