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Opinion The Justice Department failed to do its job in settling with the Sackler family

A pharmacist holds a bottle OxyContin made by Purdue Pharma. (George Frey/Reuters)

Maura Healey, a Democrat, is attorney general of Massachusetts.

The Justice Department cut a deal on Wednesday with the Sackler family, the billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma who are accused by my office and others of causing much of the opioid epidemic through their illegal marketing of OxyContin. Selling opioids made the Sacklers one of the richest families in the world, with a fortune reported at $13 billion beyond the value of Purdue. But the Justice Department decided to let the Sacklers pay $225 million and walk away.

It did not have to be this way. President Trump’s Justice Department failed to do its job.

First, the Justice Department failed to listen to the families and survivors calling for justice. This summer, more than 100,000 people filed claims against Purdue, alleging that the company was responsible for overdoses, addiction, and other injuries and deaths. Parents whose children were killed by OxyContin wrote to Attorney General William P. Barr and asked for one hour to meet with his lawyers investigating Purdue and the Sacklers. The Justice Department never replied.

The families that it ignored are the latest in a tragic history. In 2006, career Justice prosecutors recommended charging Purdue executives with felonies for deceiving the public about OxyContin. Parents pleaded with the court to stop Purdue before more lives were lost. But higher-ups at the agency cut a deal with no prison time. Now, when it had a second chance to get things right, the Justice Department turned its back on victims again.

Justice requires listening to people who are hurt. The way to achieve justice and accountability in the opioid crisis is to end the stigma around substance-use disorders and listen to the survivors.

Second, the Justice Department failed to expose the full record of what happened at the company. Every member of the Sackler family that controlled Purdue should testify under oath, and all the evidence should be posted online for the public. When I filed the first lawsuit by any state against the Sacklers, we laid out our case so the people of Massachusetts and the nation could see the evidence against them, including their own words from emails, board minutes and business plans.

This fall, in response to demands by my team and others, many Sackler family members are scheduled to testify under oath for the first time. But the Justice Department cut a deal without even hearing them testify. It’s almost as if the administration was rushing to beat the election. Justice must be built on facts, but federal prosecutors did not do the work to uncover them.

Third, the Justice Department failed to enforce the law against billionaires the same way it would against the rest of us. Beginning with Massachusetts two years ago, most state attorneys general in the nation alleged that members of the Sackler family broke the law and injured thousands of people. This week, Purdue admitted to multiple felonies, but not a single person was charged with committing them.

Fourth, the Justice Department announced that the Trump administration will try to mandate that states and local governments must carry on the OxyContin business and operate it as a “public benefit company” to give the Sacklers a family legacy. Just last week, 25 attorneys general rejected that perverse proposal. We refuse to compromise our law enforcement responsibilities by starting a government-backed opioid business.

Finally, the Justice Department touted that it had reached an $8 billion settlement with Purdue, when in fact the agreement it negotiated only requires Purdue to pay $225 million (just like the Sacklers). Instead of inflating the numbers, the government should tell the truth.

Americans are right to be angry. The Justice Department let us all down.

So, what happens next? We will not back down. We will keep working for justice. Together with attorneys general from across the nation, we will question the Sacklers, reveal the facts to the public and insist that victims of the opioid crisis are treated fairly. We will shut down Purdue Pharma and ensure that any future for its opioid business is in the private sector, with no special protection from government. We owe this to the loved ones we have lost, to the advocates who have called out for justice and to the people we still have an opportunity to protect.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The opioid crisis didn’t disappear amid the pandemic. It still calls for urgent action.

Maura Healey: Why I and other attorneys general are saying no to Purdue Pharma’s settlement

Robert Gebelhoff: Opioid deaths are down for the first time in decades. But the crisis of addiction is as severe as ever.

The Post’s View: We’re finally getting some accountability for the opioid crisis — long after victims are dead

Robert Gebelhoff: This is not the response to the addiction crisis that Trump promised