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Sacklers Deny Wrongdoing During House Panel Over Purdue Pharma Oxycontin Sales

Updated at 1:22 p.m. ET

Members of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma's CEO say they did nothing wrong during the years their company illegally marketed Oxycontin and other opioids.

"There's nothing I can find that I would have done differently," said Dr. Kathe Sackler who served on Purdue's board for nearly 20 years.

She testified under oath Thursday during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. The Sacklers appeared before the panel voluntarily after being threatened with a subpoena. It was the first time members of the family faced a public accounting for their alleged role in the nation's deadly opioid epidemic, which has left more than 400,000 Americans dead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC, roughly 230,000 of those deaths were caused by prescription opioids including Oxycontin.

David Sackler, who also served on the board for six years, also denied any personal wrongdoing.

"The family and the board acted legally and ethically," he testified.

Both left Purdue Pharma in 2018 as legal and financial pressures on the company grew, but their family continues to own Purdue Pharma.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers took turns blasting the witnesses, describing their alleged actions as "criminal" and "obscene."

"We don't agree on a lot on this committee in a bipartisan way," said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., co-chair of the committee. "But I think our opinion of Purdue Pharma and the actions of your family, we all agree are sickening."

Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin in the mid-1990s, falsely marketing the pills as a safer, less addictive option for doctors treating pain in their patients.

The company has now twice admitted — in 2007 and this past October — to criminal wrongdoing for misleading doctors, regulators and the public about the dangers of Oxycontin.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the committee demanded to know who would be held accountable for that misconduct.

"You pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Who committed these crimes? Which individual at Purdue committed those crimes?" Maloney asked.

"We're taking full accountability and full responsibility for those crimes," Purdue Pharma CEO Craig Landau said, pointing to billions of dollars in fines and penalties levied against the firm as part of the latest plea agreement with the Justice Department.

But Landau accepted no personal responsibility. He also declined to forfeit a $3 million bonus he's slated to receive, despite the fact that Purdue Pharma is now in bankruptcy.

Critics have pointed out the company currently lacks the assets to pay the full amount of settlements agreed to as part of the DOJ settlement and lacks the funds to compensate tens of thousands of opioid victims who have sued Purdue Pharma over its false marketing.

Forbes has estimated the Sacklers are worth roughly $13 billion largely because of profits generated by Oxycontin sales. Numerous lawmakers suggested Thursday that money should be "clawed back" by the federal government to compensate victims. They also said members of the Sackler family should face criminal charges like other alleged drug dealers.

"If one of my clients sold five pills of Oxycontin on the street, you know what their criminal penalty is?" said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. "It's a 10-year minimum mandatory minimum sentence."

Armstrong said the Sacklers' claim that they didn't understand the danger posed by their company's products "defies believability and is absolutely abhorrent and appalling to the victims of opioid addiction."

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Corrected: December 16, 2020 at 8:00 PM AKST
A previous version of this story incorrectly called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the Centers for Disease Control and Addiction.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.