The opioid epidemic is not over. Even as Covid-19 rages, opioid-related deaths continue to devastate communities across our states. In New Hampshire, overdose deaths rose in April and May over last year’s levels. In the first four months of 2020, Rhode Island overdose deaths jumped 29% from the same period last year and 38% from the same period in 2018. Opioid addiction remains a persistent, lethal menace.
We just learned a big reason why the opioid crisis was allowed to get so bad. The Guardian recently unearthed new details in the origin story of the opioid crisis. In 2006, career prosecutors at the US Department of Justice drafted a memo summarizing alleged criminal behavior by the major opioid maker Purdue Pharma. The memo, the culmination of a four-year investigation of Purdue’s opioid marketing and other business practices, was based on a review of millions of internal documents. The memo concluded that Purdue and its executives participated in mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy in pushing opioids, and recommended indictment.
But we still don’t know the whole story, and we need to in order to avoid a repeat of the deceptive marketing practices and corporate greed that’s cost the United States hundreds of thousands of lives.
Action in 2006 could have made an enormous difference. Bringing felony charges could have brought real accountability to executives who ran the scheme. More importantly, it might have forced the company to end its deceptive marketing practices, which contributed to millions of people becoming addicted to opioids. It could have saved the lives of an untold number of Americans.
The justice department could have made a stronger effort to stop a public health crisis in its tracks more than a decade ago. But it didn’t
Instead, that memo got buried. The justice department did not charge Purdue or its executives with the serious felonies it identified; it let them go with a slap on the wrist. And for the ensuing decade and a half, Purdue continued to push its highly addictive and wildly overprescribed opioid painkiller, OxyContin.
Based on what we know today, it appears the justice department could have made a stronger effort to stop a public health crisis in its tracks more than a decade ago. But it didn’t, and we still don’t fully know why. What we do know points to a troubling idea: that money and connections influence who gets prosecuted and who gets to break the law to enrich themselves.
We live in a country founded on the principle of equal administration of justice. Corporate executives should face the same consequences as anyone else who commits the same crime. The Department of Justice – the most highly regarded and powerful law enforcement agency in America – ought to be immune to attempts by big, powerful interests to win special treatment.
In this case, Purdue executives hired high-powered lawyers to influence the department’s prosecution decision, including a former federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani and Purdue’s team negotiated for lesser penalties for the lesser crime of “misbranding” its product.
We don’t know whether the department broke rules or procedures, but we should. We’ve asked the department for its documents and we have been stonewalled. We shouldn’t have to rely on the Guardian to get access to the facts.
Likewise, Americans ought to know how Purdue got off with a slap on the wrist – and the role that Rudy Giuliani and other former Department of Justice officials played. Giuliani is the president’s personal lawyer. Reports indicate he still has special access to top justice department officials. If he continues to influence the department’s criminal investigations to advance his clients’ interests, the public ought to know.
We cannot repeat this sad chapter in the justice department’s history. There will be other Purdue Pharmas. There will be other greedy executives willing to reach into our justice system and pull strings in their own favor. There will be other Rudy Giulianis. Next time, the justice department must take a different path.
Now, the attorney general of the United States and this administration need to answer questions from Congress and the American people about political mischief in the administration of justice. Everyone ought to know if those with power and connections are influencing prosecutorial decisions when tens of thousands of American lives are on the line.
Originally published: 2020-09-08 05:10:19