'Too Little Money Over Too Long Of A Time:' AG Donovan Says He Opposes Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Plan
This week, 15 states dropped their opposition to a bankruptcy plan by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, which would lead to a settlement of over $4 billion for the drug maker's role in creating the opioid epidemic. But Vermont is not one of those states.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan says the proposal does not hold the Sackler family, the founders and owners of Purdue Pharma, “sufficiently accountable.”
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Donovan about his decision not to support the deal. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, 15 states, including New York and Massachusetts, signed on to this deal. Why did you choose not to join them?
T.J. Donovan: Well, I don't think the plan as proposed holds the Sackler family accountable. The Sackler family founded and owns Purdue Pharma, which manufactured and sold OxyContin, which really fueled the opiate crisis in the state of Vermont. The human toll that it's taken on Vermont is something I think we're all painfully aware of.
I don't think you can talk to a Vermonter who doesn't know somebody, whether it's a family member, or a friend, who's been impacted by opiates — whether it’s OxyContin or heroin. Many people have lost their lives. Many people's lives have been ruined. Many families have been destroyed as a result of this addiction.
And why I object to it is that the Sackler family — by adding money to the deal through a bankruptcy proceeding — will have all the state claims, including the state of Vermont's claim, dismissed.
And [they] will not be held to account, will have no liability, simply by virtue of using their enormous wealth, which they've made from the sale of OxyContin and putting it towards this deal, and I object to it.
"I think it's too little money over too long of a time, and does not hold the Sackler family accountable."
I mean, what more are you holding out for? Is there something more in a deal that that would satisfy you?
Sure. Well, let's put $4.5 billion in perspective first. The Sackler family are billionaires. They will be walking into bankruptcy court, which, by the way, they're not going bankrupt; they will walk out of bankruptcy court as billionaires.
They will have all their state claims released against them, including the state of Vermont’s.
And Vermont's share of the $4.5 billion is approximately, ballpark, and this will change, there will be set-offs — $13 million over nine years. I don't think that is sufficient to address the crisis that so many of our friends and family members and neighbors are facing in this state.
We need to make sure that we're investing in prevention, that we're investing in treatment, that we're giving people the opportunity to enter recovery and lead productive lives here as Vermonters. That costs money.
But this is a process that's going to continue here for the next couple of weeks, and I think there's a few more innings to be played. I'm going to keep an open mind and continue to negotiate. But right now, I think it's too little money over too long of a time, and does not hold the Sackler family accountable. And that's why I oppose it.
OK, so what's your plan now, then? I mean, what options do you have to continue to pursue the lawsuits that you've brought against Purdue and the Sacklers?
Well, again, this is a bankruptcy proceeding, and the plan has to be presented to the court and has to be essentially adopted by the court. And we obviously have the right to either agree to it or to object to it. And whether or not the court orders it is to be determined. And if there is that court order, whether or not there's an appeal process that should be pursued, are a few of the options.
Are your hands tied somewhat here, though, because some larger states, including Massachusetts, New York — states with larger attorneys general offices — signed on to this deal. Does that limit your options going forward?
Well, look, Vermont, certainly is a small state. And that does pose some challenges. But I’ve always said, Vermont, I think, as a whole, has always punched above its weight. I would note that California is one of the states that opposes this plan, as does Vermont. The answer to your question is: this is a process. I'm not willing or ready to say yes.
In any way that you go about this going forward. I mean, is it enough? Is it too little too late, no matter where the settlement ends up?
It's a great question, Henry. I don't think it's ever going to be enough. When you talk about the impact that this crisis has had on Vermonters, on our community, on so many people who have just had their lives destroyed as a result of this addiction.
So I don't think there's ever going to be enough money, and I want to be clear about that. And I don't think we would ever achieve true accountability. That being said, I do think that the Sackler family needed to answer questions in a Vermont courtroom, to a jury of Vermonters, to understand their role in this crisis, and whether or not they should be held to account.
But the idea, again, that a case would be dismissed because a third party is adding value to a settlement in a bankruptcy proceeding, and the bankruptcy court would dismiss a state claim against that third party, I don't support that.
"I don't think there's ever going to be enough money, and I want to be clear about that. And I don't think we would ever achieve true accountability."
Just finally, you mentioned the idea of Sackler family members going before a Vermont jury. Is there any avenue for that to realistically happen at this point?
Bluntly, it's unlikely, given where we are right now in bankruptcy court. It's unlikely. And that is something that is difficult to comprehend. It is difficult to rationalize. It truly feels like there's a different system for billionaires.
Perhaps part of this is fueled by my time as a prosecutor in Vermont courtrooms, who saw too many people come into court because of their addiction and who had to answer those questions. And I just don't think that is consistent with what's happening in bankruptcy court with the Sackler family today.
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