New York state Attorney General Letitia James leveled the fiercest legal broadside yet against the Sackler family, owners of the privately-held Purdue Pharma which makes the powerful prescription painkiller Oxycontin.
A civil suit filed Thursday accuses eight members of the family of personally contributing to the deadly opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans over the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At a press conference, James described the Sacklers as "masterminds" of an illegal scheme that "literally profited off of the suffering and death" of New Yorkers and others around the U.S.
"This lawsuit contains detailed allegations about the Sackler family and their attempt to hide the vast fortunes they collected at the expense of actual lives," she added.
State officials hope to force the Sacklers to forfeit some of that wealth — estimated as high as $13 billion, according to Forbes — to help pay the cost of curbing the addiction epidemic that still claims more than 130 lives every day.
In a statement sent to NPR, the Sackler family "strongly" denied the allegations and declared that they would fight them in court.
"Expanding this baseless lawsuit to include former directors of Purdue Pharma is a misguided attempt to place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis," the statement read.
But New York's 251-page suit claims to offer new details of how the Sacklers serving on Purdue's board pushed year after year to boost the sale and consumption of their powerful opioid medications, reaping huge profits even as evidence mounted that the drugs posed a deadly risk.
State officials claim they then squeezed the company, funneling billions of dollars out of its coffers into a complex network of trusts, subsidiaries and private off-shore accounts.
"We allege that the family has illicitly transferred funds from Purdue to personal trusts, so that they are potentially outside the reach of law enforcement and our efforts to seek restitution," James said.
This suit is the latest indication of a profound reversal of fortune for the Sacklers, who once ranked among the wealthiest and most respected families in America. Known primarily as first-rank philanthropists, they supported institutions ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to the Louvre in Paris.
In recent months, however, legal documents made public in Oklahoma, Massachusetts and now New York have focused unprecedented scrutiny on the Sacklers and their controversial business practices.
With Purdue executives now telling NPR that a bankruptcy filing is one of the options being considered, those attempting to sue Big Pharma over the opioid crisis have increasingly targeted the Sacklers' vast private holdings. A January court filing by the Massachusetts attorney general also singled out eight of the family's members who served on Purdue's board.
Just this week, the Sacklers agreed to donate $75 million of their personal wealth to help fund an opioid treatment and research facility in Oklahoma, as part of an agreement with that state's attorney general. In a statement, the family described the funds as a "voluntary" donation, while Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter characterized it as the product of lengthy, combative negotiations.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Now to New York where the Sackler family and its company Purdue Pharma are facing more legal trouble. Purdue manufactures that powerful opioid OxyContin. And now, in a sweeping lawsuit, New York's state attorney general says eight individual members of the Sackler family are personally to blame for much of the country's deadly opioid epidemic.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann tracks opioid litigation for NPR, and he joins me now. Hey.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So you and I have already talked this week about how Purdue Pharma has been sued more than a thousand times around the country for its aggressive marketing of OxyContin. How is this lawsuit different?
MANN: Well, I would say that New York's attorney general just made this personal. I mean, these opioid lawsuits tend to be corporate affairs. The targets are usually companies like Purdue or Johnson & Johnson or CVS. But Letitia James says this one group of individuals is responsible for tens of thousands of opioid deaths.
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LETITIA JAMES: But let us not forget the masterminds, the family enterprise behind this crisis, the family that literally profited off of the suffering, the death of countless New Yorkers - the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue.
MANN: So she named today these eight members of the Sackler family as defendants along with Purdue and a whole bunch of family trusts and other legal entities.
CHANG: And why name the Sacklers personally? I mean, why doesn't New York state just go after the companies?
MANN: Yeah. I think this part is interesting. This lawsuit in documents filed recently as part of civil suits in Oklahoma and Massachusetts have revealed a lot of new details about how the Sacklers ran Purdue. And the claim is that they personally pushed for the aggressive sale of these opioids even as evidence grew that people were dying. And what's alleged here in this New York lawsuit goes even a step further. New York claims the family began squeezing Purdue Pharma, draining billions of dollars as rapidly as possible. Here's Letitia James again.
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JAMES: Now, as Purdue sold more and more opioids, the Sackler family transferred more and more and more wealth to their personal accounts. And as the lawsuits have piled up against the Sackler family and Purdue for their roles in this crisis, they continue to move funds into trusts and, yes, offshore accounts to be out of the reach of any potential recovery.
MANN: So in this lawsuit, New York is now saying they're going after the Sacklers' vast private wealth, seeking damages and penalties that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
CHANG: And how has the Sackler family responded to this latest lawsuit?
MANN: Well, the Sacklers sent NPR a statement saying they strongly deny these allegations and will defend against them. They say drugs like OxyContin provide life-changing relief for millions of pain patients who need it. And they added this quote. They say, "we have always acted properly."
And I should say that in addition to singling out members of the Sackler family, this lawsuit in New York does go further. It names other companies that made and sold and distributed opioids around the country and around New York. So state officials are highlighting the Sacklers, but they say there is plenty of blame to go around.
CHANG: That's Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio. Thank you, Brian.
MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.