Various news outlets have picked up the revelation by the Associated Press that, after the OxyContin scandal went public, the Sackler family who created and control Purdue Pharma — the notorious purveyor of addictive painkillers — transferred to themselves more than $10 billion.
Daniel Connolly, a lawyer for a branch of the Sackler family, is working hard on an agreement with the justice system to get the purveyors of the greatest wave of drug addiction in US history off the hook. Connolly explains: “The Sackler family hopes to reach a productive resolution where they contribute Purdue for the public benefit and provide at least $3bn of additional money to help communities and people who need help now, which makes more sense for everyone than continuing litigation that only squander resources.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An arrangement by which people who have acquired ill-gotten gains accept to sacrifice a symbolic percentage of their ill-gotten gains as a means of escaping the full force of criminal law, while at the same time ensuring that enough of their wealth remains for them to still be recognized as obscenely rich
The two ideas contained in the expression “productive resolution” tell us a lot about the values of the world the Sacklers represent.
Within the productivist culture of the modern US economy, the Sackler family have been active producers. In their way, they represent a paragon of everything the idea of being “productive” represents. Here are some of the things they produced that have brought them to the point of now requiring a “productive resolution.”
1) They have produced a fortune that Forbes estimated in 2015 at $14 billion.
2) They created and produced “the most popular and controversial opioid of the 21st century — OxyContin.”
3) They produced a time-release formula for an addictive painkiller that enabled them to claim that the drug wasn’t addictive while counting on its addictive properties to build their fortune.
4) With OxyContin, they produced recurrent annual revenues of $3 billion.
5) They have produced “an extensive philanthropic legacy” through gifts to museums and universities, with the requirement that these institutions affix the family name to the buildings funded by them.
6) They produced the powerful marketing campaign that got venal doctors on board, ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people would get hooked.
7) They produced a nation-wide opioid addiction crisis.
8) They have helped produce the current figure of 130 people in the US dying of an overdose every day.
9) They ended up producing a scandal that has brought shame on the family, in turn producing a reaction by the beneficiaries of their philanthropy who have started removing their associations with the Sackler brand.
10) They have produced a declaration of bankruptcy for the pharmaceutical company that produced their fortune, protecting their wealth from most of the claims resulting from their criminal actions.
That’s a lot of production. You could say they were over-productive, especially when, fearing the worst, the family started paying themselves when they realized the possible consequences to the family finances of the scandal they had produced.
Here is what prosecutors find suspicious: “[I]n the first dozen years that OxyContin was approved — from 1995 through 2007 — Purdue’s payouts to the Sacklers totaled just $1.32 billion; from 2008 through 2017, the period of intense scrutiny by the auditors, the payments totaled $10.7 billion.” The Los Angeles Times adds: “In each year from 2008 through 2013, the distributions to the family — or tax payments on their behalf — totaled well over $1 billion. The number went down to less than $800 million in 2014 and 2015, $651 million in 2016 and just over $200 million in 2017.”
At least their takings declined regularly between 2014 and 2017. Imagine the anguish felt by people of their wealth, used to raking in a billion a year, who suddenly must make do with a mere $200 million in a single year. This should demonstrate, if proof was ever needed, that the wealthy are always ready to make a painful sacrifice if the situation requires it. We even learn that the family “has stopped taking distributions from Purdue.” Drug addicts call that “cold turkey.” The Sacklers demonstrate that even long-term addicts can kick the habit and get the monkey off their back.
Superficially, the settlement looks like a victory for some form of justice. “[T]he Sacklers, who have agreed to relinquish ownership and control of Purdue, would pay $3 billion over seven years, as well as much of the proceeds of the sale of their other companies that manufacture opioids internationally.”
Even if the Sacklers themselves are no longer addicted to the profits from OxyContin, the damage they have spread across the landscape over the past three decades would appear irredeemable. What resolution — let alone “constructive resolution” — could be possible?
In its legal sense, “resolution” means an agreement to settle a conflict. In music, it means a return to the fundamental harmony, from the dominant to the (non-addictive) tonic. In ordinary English, it possesses a moral overtone. It means a positive, responsible decision as in the phrase “New Year’s resolution.” “Constructive resolution” therefore sounds like something more than a mere financial arrangement. It suggests a moral reckoning. But after so much destruction, measured not only in hundreds of thousands of human lives but also in the damage done to the fabric of society, can any resolution be deemed “constructive”?
From the Sacklers’ point of view, this clearly is constructive. It means that with at least $10 billion stashed away elsewhere, the $3 billion they expect to pay out won’t put too much of a dent in their collective retirement savings. And is it only $10 billion? No one should be surprised by this predictable fact remarked by The New York Times: “Ultimately, it does not answer a key question for investigators — how much the Sacklers are actually worth and where their money is located.”
Not content with resolving the legal issue, the Sacklers are also seeking some form of redemption (from a PR point of view, of course). “Purdue sees today’s filing as part of its ongoing effort to position itself as a public benefit company for the benefit of the American public.”
That sounds generous. It even sounds like something of a moral conversion. But as Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan points out, it may just be another Sackler scam. Vermont is one of the states that has not accepted the terms of the settlement. Thousands of other suits against Purdue are pending, all of which will make claims against the company but, thanks to bankruptcy, not against the family if a settlement can be reached.
Donovan remarked that “the value of the settlement — reported at $10-12 billion — is not guaranteed” because, in bankruptcy, the liquid value of the company’s assets is unknown. In his eyes, the idea of giving the firm the status of a public benefit company is just a ploy by the family to shirk their own accountability.
Will the Sacklers manage to cough up the $3 billion they have agreed to surrender over the next seven years, or will they find other legal dodges to avoid that? We will have to wait till 2026 to learn the solution or resolution to that mystery while hoping such a resolution will be constructive.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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