OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma reached a tentative deal Wednesday with about half the states and thousands of local governments over its role in the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic, but the state of Wisconsin isn’t a part of it.
The tentative settlement does, however, involve a portion of a lawsuit that Dane County brought last year against Purdue and a number of distributors, pharmacies and doctors.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a statement the tentative settlement agreement, reportedly worth up to $12 billion, doesn’t go far enough in bringing the Sackler family — Purdue’s Pharma’s owners — to justice.
“The Sackler family has made billions of dollars from the sale of opioids,” Kaul said. “Wisconsin has alleged that two Purdue Pharma entities and Richard Sackler contributed to the opioid epidemic through unlawful conduct. We’re committed to getting justice and, in my view, Purdue’s current position doesn’t achieve that.”
Kaul’s objections mirror criticism levied by several state attorneys general that cloud prospects for an end to litigation against the company and its owner, the Sackler family.
Kaul spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said the state is continuing to pursue legal action against the company but declined to provide details.
Drummond on Wednesday confirmed the Purdue settlement was, in fact, the undisclosed case Kaul brought to the Legislature’s budget committee two weeks ago to approve if terms were appropriate. Drummond said the DOJ is able to disclose the case because the fact the states had been in negotiations is now public.
The case, which Kaul kept confidential, caused a stir among members of the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, who did not want to sign confidentiality agreements Kaul said were necessary to discuss details of the case.
The DOJ and committee lawmakers with DOJ oversight authority have still not agreed on a process for approving settlement agreements under laws Republicans passed in December limiting Kaul’s authority and that of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Kaul said earlier in the week the impasse could affect hundreds of millions of dollars of settlements.
On Wednesday, the budget committee’s co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the DOJ’s disclosure of the case makes clear Kaul’s supposed need for confidentiality agreements was a sham.
“Now we know there wasn’t an ‘emergency’ settlement to present to the committee two weeks ago,” they said in a statement. “The attorney general should stop playing games, follow the law, and work with the Joint Committee on Finance.”
Republicans on the committee have previously argued confidentiality agreements were unnecessary, arguing that discussing lawsuits in closed session would suffice.
But the state’s open meetings law does not prohibit committee members from discussing matters from closed session after the meeting is over.
Committee co-chairs later proposed hiring a taxpayer-funded attorney to sign a confidentiality agreement that would apply to all committee members so they could discuss pending settlements, but the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said secrecy agreements would only apply if each member signed one individually.
In May, the state sued Purdue Pharma and Richard Sackler, the company’s former co-chairman and president, in Dane County Circuit Court for alleged misconduct in marketing and sales of opioids that contributed to the opioid epidemic.
Additionally, more than two dozen Wisconsin counties including Dane County have filed a number of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for deceptive marketing practices.
Joshua Wescott, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, said terms of the tentative settlement haven’t been shared with the county yet, and the county does not know how it would be affected by the settlement.
He stressed that claims against Purdue are just a piece of Dane County’s lawsuit, which is still proceeding against drug distributors, large pharmacies and some physicians.
“We certainly have great interest in the outcome and are carefully monitoring these legal matters as the impacts of opiate overdoses continue to significantly impact our community and criminal justice system,” Wescott said. “They take an enormous toll on families, public health and safety, and any settlement dollars will go to offset the numerous treatment and recovery programs we’ve put in place in Dane County.”
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said Wednesday’s tentative agreement included more money from the Sackler family, which had become a sticking point during the recent talks.
“Talks are progressing rapidly, but this is the quickest and surest way to get immediate relief for Arizona and for the communities that have been harmed by the opioid crisis and the actions of the Sackler family,” Brnovich told The Associated Press.
Sources with direct knowledge of the talks say that Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue will pay up to $12 billion over time and that the Sackler family will give up control of the company. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Even with Wednesday’s development, roughly half the states had not signed on and several state attorneys general vowed to continue their legal battles against the company and the Sacklers. Roughly 20 states have sued the Sacklers in state court.
New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut were among the states saying they were not part of the agreement.
“Our position remains firm and unchanged and nothing for us has changed today,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement. “The scope and scale of the pain, death and destruction that Purdue and the Sacklers have caused far exceeds anything that has been offered thus far. Connecticut’s focus is on the victims and their families, and holding Purdue and the Sacklers accountable for the crisis they have caused.”
He said the state would continue to pursue Purdue if it files for bankruptcy under the settlement agreement, as expected.
News of the tentative agreement comes as the first trial federal date draws near in the hundreds of lawsuits aiming to hold Purdue and others in the drug industry accountable for a nationwide opioid crisis.
The lawsuits assert that Purdue aggressively sold OxyContin as a drug with a low risk of addiction despite knowing that wasn’t true.
In court filings, Purdue has pointed out that its products were approved by federal regulators and prescribed by doctors.
In March, Purdue and members of the Sackler family reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma to avoid a trial on the toll of opioids there.
A court filing made public in Massachusetts this year asserts that members of the Sackler family were paid more than $4 billion by Purdue from 2007 to 2018.
Much of the family’s fortune is believed to be held outside the U.S., which could complicate lawsuits against the family over opioids.
The Sacklers have given money to cultural institutions around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Tate Modern.
State Journal reporter Ed Treleven and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Wisconsin in May sued Purdue Pharma and Richard Sackler, the company’s former co-chairman and president, in Dane County Circuit Court for alleged misconduct in marketing and sales of opioids that contributed to the opioid epidemic.