U.S. FAILS TO PROSECUTE PRESCRIPTION OPIOID DISTRIBUTOR

After years of work by U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigators building a case against a major drug distributor for fraudulently shipping millions of prescription opioid pills, high-ranking lawyers at the DEA and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) recently decided to settle the case and not pursue criminal charges. Instead, the lawyers settled for a $150 million fine (from a corporation with roughly $200 billion per year in revenue) and a temporary suspension of shipments of narcotics from four of its 30 distribution centers. The lenient settlement was agreed to despite the corporation having promised in a 2008 settlement to be diligent in preventing fraudulent shipments of controlled substances. However, rather than improving its oversight of narcotics shipments, its fraudulent shipments increased. [1]

The DEA team had compelling evidence that McKesson Corporation, the fifth largest public company in the U.S., had fulfilled and failed to report suspicious orders for millions of highly addictive painkillers from pharmacies, including Internet pharmacies. The nationwide DEA team, working with U.S. attorney’s offices in 11 states, wanted to fine the corporation over $1 billion and pursue criminal charges against the corporation and perhaps some of its executives. A senior DEA official stated that the corporation could have been put out of business through an indictment or a very large fine.

But when the team turned over the evidence to top lawyers at DEA and DOJ, the lawyers negotiated a settlement with the corporation and never even discussed possible criminal charges. They even allowed McKesson to keep its $31 billion federal government contract to supply drugs to the Veterans’ Administration, federal prisons, and the Indian Health Service.

Meanwhile, a pharmacy owner in a small town in Colorado that McKesson supplied was found guilty of drug trafficking and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. From 2008 (when McKesson had settled the first set of charges) to 2011, McKesson’s shipments of oxycodone (the narcotic drug that is OxyContin) to this small-town pharmacy had increased 15-fold.

The DEA team had convincing evidence that McKesson’s activities had fueled the nationwide opioid drug crisis. The $150 million fine was a slap on the wrist for a $200 billion corporation that paid its top executive $100 million last year, has 76,000 employees, and makes $100 million a week in profits. The DEA team felt insulted, undermined, and was demoralized.

This is another example of a powerful corporation, as well as its senior executives, getting off with a slap on the wrist for significant criminal activity that harmed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Purdue Pharma, the major player in the prescription opioid drug scandal, also has (so far) gotten off with a slap or two on the wrist, despite the deaths of over 200,000 Americans. (See my previous posts on Purdue Pharma here and here.) The Wall St. financial corporations and their executives have also gotten off with slaps on the wrist despite a long trail of criminal activity across many years and many business lines.

One must ask why this is happening today when in the late 1980s, during the savings and loan (S&L) bank scandal, 750 S&Ls were forced into bankruptcy and out-of-business and over 1,000 of their executives went to jail.

Since the 1980s, corporations have grown in size and power, while government regulation and oversight have been weakened. As corporations have grown, they have gained power in the economy and in the halls of government. In the economy, their size has led to monopolistic power, a lack of competition, and, therefore, the power to control prices and make huge profits.

In the halls of government, the deregulation of campaign financing now allows wealthy corporations and individuals (often business executives) to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on candidates’ campaigns for legislative, executive, and judicial branch offices. As a result, elected officials – legislators, governors, presidents, and judges – are indebted to wealthy donors. These wealthy special interests further influence government decision making by spending millions of dollars on lobbying and by having individuals move back and forth between government roles and private sector jobs, in what is referred to as the revolving door. An example of this is that one of McKesson’s lawyers negotiating the settlement with the DEA and DOJ was a former top DEA official.

Therefore, government decisions tend to favor the interests of wealthy corporations and individuals. Examples include the lack of meaningful punishment for serious wrong doing, favorable tax policies, a failure to protect the public from rip offs in the market place, and weak regulation of the safety of consumer products and our air and water.

In this environment of market place power and weak regulation, the greed of large corporations and their executives is unconstrained and ethics, morality, and often legality get pushed aside. The public interest is overwhelmed by the power of wealthy special interests. This power imbalance is exacerbated by the growing inequality of income and wealth.

We need to elect officials who will represent the public interest and not wealthy corporations and individuals. We also need to let our elected officials know that we are watching and that we know when they are doing the bidding of the wealthy interests, such as in the recent tax bill. And we need to hold them accountable by being informed and voting. That alone could create dramatic change in our country if more people did so.

Only 53% of eligible voters voted in the last presidential election. Many of them were understandably voting against the tilt in favor of the wealthy in Washington. However, they were hoodwinked by the promises of a con man who, now that he is in office, is tilting the scales even further in favor of the wealthy.

Hopefully, this election woke people up to the fact that democracy is NOT a spectator sport. We need a broad, informed, and engaged electorate for our democracy to deliver on its promise of government of, by, and for the people.

[1]      Bernstein, L., & Higham, S., 12/17/17, “‘We feel like our system was hijacked’: DEA agents say a huge opioid case ended in a whimper,” The Washington Post

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