Lawsuits ramp up pressure on family that owns opioid company
By GEOFF MULVIHILL
Saturday, January 19
The legal pressure on the prominent family behind the company that makes OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic, is likely to get more intense.
The Sackler family came under heavy scrutiny this week when a legal filing in a Massachusetts case asserted that family members and company executives sought to push prescriptions of the drug and downplay its risks. Those revelations are likely to be a preview of the claims in a series of expanding legal challenges.
Members of the family that controls Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma are also defendants in a lawsuit brought by New York’s Suffolk County. Few, if any, other governments have sued the family so far.
But Paul Hanly, a lawyer representing the county, said he expects to add the Sacklers to other opioid suits. He explained last year that he was targeting the family, known for its donations to some of the world’s great museums and universities, in part because they took “tens of billions” of dollars out of Purdue Pharma.
Looming as potentially the biggest legal and financial risk for the family is a massive consolidated federal case playing out in Ohio.
More than 1,000 government entities have sued Purdue, along with other drugmakers and distributors, claiming they are partly culpable for a drug overdose crisis that resulted in a record 72,000 deaths in 2017. The majority of those deaths were from legal or illicit opioids.
The company documents at the heart of the Massachusetts claims also could be evidence in the Ohio lawsuits, which are being overseen by a federal judge. The allegations ramp up pressure on the industry — and perhaps the Sacklers — to reach a settlement, said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who studies the role of state attorneys general.
Having Sackler family members named as defendants in Massachusetts “indicates that the government attorneys believe they have the ‘smoking guns’ necessary to broaden the potential liability of those at the top of the organization,” he said in an email.
The allegations could tarnish a name that is best known for its generosity to museums worldwide including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a Sackler wing, and London’s Tate Modern. The Sackler name also is on a gallery at the Smithsonian, a wing of galleries at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and a museum at Beijing’s Peking University. The family’s best known and most generous donor, Arthur M. Sackler, died nearly a decade before OxyContin was released.
The Cleveland-based judge, Dan Polster, has been pushing for a settlement since he took over the federal cases a year ago, arguing that the parties involved should find ways to end this man-made crisis, rather than hold years of trials. A court order prohibits participants from discussing most aspects of settlement talks publicly.
In its lawsuit filed last year, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office went after members of the Sackler family and Purdue, which is structured as a partnership and is not publicly traded.
The company’s flagship drug, OxyContin, was the first of a generation of drugs that used a narcotic painkiller in a time-release form. That meant each pill had a larger amount of drug in it than other versions and could get abusers a more intense high if they defeated the time-release process.
Many of the attorney general’s specific allegations — based on company documents — were blacked out at the request of Purdue and the Sackler family. The state recently filed a new version of its complaint that made public many of their allegations for the first time.
The state is asserting that Richard Sackler, a son of a company founder and at the time a senior vice president for Purdue, as well as other family members pushed selling OxyContin even when they knew it could cause problems. When the drug was first sold in 1996, the filing said, Sackler told the sales force “the launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.”
In 2007, the company and three current and former executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they deceived regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s addiction risks. The company agreed to fines of $634 million.
The next year, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit, the company pressed ahead with a new version of the drug designed to be harder for abusers to crush. It did so without first conducting trials and despite a warning from the company’s CEO that the new version “will not stop patients from the simple act of taking too many pills.”
Purdue responded to the Massachusetts filing with a strong statement: “In a rush to vilify a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than 2 percent of opioid pain prescriptions rather than doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis, the complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl.”
A spokesman for the Sackler family declined to comment separately.
Abbe Gluck, a Yale law professor who is following the federal case in Ohio, said the documents could make Purdue seem more liable or bring the Sackler family into the case in a way that presents obstacles to a settlement. But she said that might not change things for the other companies involved.
“The drug companies have an interest in settling their own claims globally,” she said.
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Patient’s widow: Hospital safeguards ‘failed tremendously’
By KANTELE FRANKO
Thursday, January 17
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The 44-year-old excavator was taken to the emergency room with shortness of breath. Breathing trouble also sent a 64-year-old woman to the same hospital. A third patient, a 79-year-old woman with health problems, was transferred from an assisted care facility.
Now their relatives allege each died because employees at a hospital in Ohio either negligently or intentionally gave them inappropriately large doses of powerful pain medicine.
The families’ wrenching personal stories about loved ones’ deaths are emerging in wrongful death lawsuits after the Columbus-area Mount Carmel Health System announced this week that a doctor ordered pain medicine for at least 27 near-death patients in dosages significantly bigger than necessary to provide comfort.
The announcement involving patients from the past few years raised questions about whether drugs were used to hasten deaths intentionally and possibly illegally. Mount Carmel publicly apologized and said it fired the intensive care doctor, reported its findings to authorities, removed 20 employees from patient care pending further review, and notified affected families.
Christine Allison, of Columbus, said the recent notification that her 44-year-old husband, Troy, was among those cases re-started her grieving process and left her shocked that such a scenario could happen despite procedural and technological safeguards in hospital care.
“The system failed tremendously,” Allison said Thursday.
She said she is sure her husband’s July death wasn’t a case of assisted suicide because he wasn’t communicating with caregivers at the time.
Her lawyer, Gerry Leeseberg, said Troy Allison experienced multi-system organ failure, but Leeseberg said medical records raise questions about whether the man’s condition was as grave as his family was told or might have been treatable.
Allison’s lawsuit is among at least three so far against William Husel, Mount Carmel and other employees who approved and administered drugs.
Husel’s lawyers aren’t commenting on the allegations.
Leeseberg said he is representing families of at least a dozen of the 27 patients. He said he’s also been contacted by other families asking questions about the medical care of loved ones who were treated by Husel or received hefty doses of drugs but weren’t among the 27 notified by Mount Carmel.
President and CEO Ed Lamb has said Mount Carmel is taking action to understand what occurred and ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Columbus attorney Adam Todd, who was notified that his grandmother’s death was among the 27 concerning cases, said his family feels Mount Carmel has tried to “cover their actions and to reduce their financial responsibility.” His 83-year-old grandmother Thelma Kyer died in June. Todd is following what happens with Mount Carmel but has not filed a lawsuit.
Todd said when Mount Carmel contacted him in December, the hospital wouldn’t say why it had reviewed the doctor’s work. But the health system said this week that the situation came to light because an employee reported a safety concern. It shared no information about what might have prompted employees to approve and administer excessive dosages.
A prosecutor confirmed an investigation is ongoing in Franklin County.
Husel’s work also is under internal review by the Cleveland Clinic, where he was a supervised resident from 2008 to 2013. The medical center said its preliminary review found his prescribing practices were “consistent with appropriate care.”
Records show the State Medical Board in Ohio has never taken disciplinary action against Husel.
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Charges dropped for 3 supervisors in Ohio police shooting
Friday, January 18
EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — A prosecutor has dropped misdemeanor charges against three of the five police supervisors accused of dereliction of duty for failing to control a high-speed chase that ended with two unarmed black people being killed in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.
Cleveland.com reports East Cleveland Law Director Willa Hemmons announced the dismissals Wednesday but did not provide an explanation. She says she’s preparing to try the other two supervisors’ cases.
Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were killed in East Cleveland in November 2012 after a miles-long chase. Cleveland subsequently paid their families a total of $3 million to settle a lawsuit.
The supervisors were originally indicted in Cleveland. The case was moved to East Cleveland after the acquittal of a Cleveland police officer who fired 49 shots that night.
Information from: cleveland.com, http://www.cleveland.com
Trump signs Brown, Portman bill to clean up Ohio lakes and rivers
January 15, 2019
WASHINGTON — The president signed U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown’s and Rob Portman’s Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act into law that would provide local communities with increased flexibility when complying with Clean Water Act requirements for updates to sewer systems.
The bill also encourages cost-saving green infrastructure and gives communities more autonomy as they prioritize and plan for wastewater and storm water investments.
“Red tape shouldn’t force communities to spread their resources thin just to meet an arbitrary timeline,” said Brown, a Cleveland Democrat. “Let’s be smarter and work with communities so they can prioritize their wastewater investments while reducing pollution. This bipartisan bill will help support jobs and protect local drinking water.”
“Many local communities with aging water infrastructure systems are working to upgrade them but too often struggle with the costs of inflexible government mandates, and families are forced to pay higher utility bills as a result,” said Portman, a Cincinnati-area Republican. “This legislation would give local communities more flexibility in ensuring they meet Clean Water Act requirements and encourage the EPA to work with them in developing innovative and cost-effective ways to upgrade our water infrastructure so it’s healthy and safe for all Ohioans.”
— The Youngstown Vindicator
3 years later, no one is in jail over Flint tainted water
By ED WHITE
Friday, January 18
DETROIT (AP) — Michigan’s attorney general in 2016 promised to investigate “without fear or favor” the scandal over Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water and pledged that state regulators would be locked up for fudging data and misleading the public.
Yet three years later, no one is behind bars. Instead, seven of 15 defendants have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors, some as minor as disrupting a public meeting. Their records eventually will be scrubbed clean.
That has angered some people in Flint who believe key players who could have prevented the lead disaster are getting off easy. Four of five people at the state Department of Environmental Quality who were on the front line of the crisis have struck deals. The remaining cases mostly center on a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and early disastrous decisions to use water from the Flint River.
“I’m furious — absolutely furious,” said LeeAnne Walters, a mother of four who is credited with exposing the lead contamination. “It’s a slap in the face to every victim in the city of Flint.”
Walters, 40, said she was repeatedly brushed off by the Department of Environmental Quality, known as DEQ, even as she confronted officials with bottles of brown water. She testified in Congress after then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2015 finally acknowledged the lead mess, and she later was honored with an international prize for grassroots environmental activism.
“Instead of people being held accountable, they’re getting a free pass,” Walters said. “The fact remains there wouldn’t have been a problem with the lead and the legionella if the water had been treated properly, if MDEQ would have done their job.”
Flint was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history. While waiting for a new pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron, the majority-black city of 100,000 pulled water from a river in 2014-15 without treating it to reduce corrosive effects on old pipes. Lead infected the distribution system in Flint, where 41 percent of residents are classified by the government as living in poverty.
Due to poor finances, Flint was being run by financial managers appointed by the governor. The uproar over water quality reached a peak by fall 2015 when a doctor reported high levels of lead in children, which can cause brain damage. The water no longer comes from the river and has significantly improved, but some residents are so distrusful that they continue to use bottled water.
Liane Shekter Smith, who was fired as head of Michigan’s drinking water office, was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty. Special prosecutor Todd Flood later put her on notice that he would pursue an involuntary manslaughter charge, arguing that she could have shut down the Flint water plant and reduced the threat of legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’.
But charges were dropped on Jan. 7 in exchange for a no-contest plea to an obscure misdemeanor that will not result in any jail time: disturbance of a lawful meeting. She had declined to accept a report about water quality from Walters and others. Two other key agency employees, Michael Prysby and Stephen Busch, made deals on Dec. 26. All three will have their records erased if they cooperate with Flood.
Shekter Smith wanted “to put some closure on this matter,” attorney Brian Morley said of her plea agreement. “Criminal charges weren’t warranted.”
State Sen. Jim Ananich of Flint, who runs his water through a filter, said he’s listened to frustrated residents.
“At the beginning there was a feeling of good, someone is going to be held accountable. Now people don’t believe anyone is going to be held accountable,” he said.
The outcome so far is different than the dramatic scene in 2016 when Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican who was poised to run for governor, traveled to Flint to announce felony charges against Prysby, a DEQ engineer, and Busch, a DEQ regional supervisor.
“Mr. Busch and Mr. Prysby misled federal and local authorities, regulatory officials, and failed to provide safe and clean water to families of Flint,” Schuette declared at that time. “When we prove these allegations — and we will — Mr. Busch and Mr. Prysby will be facing five years in prison for this count alone.”
Andy Arena, a Flint water investigator and former head of the FBI in Detroit, believes the plea deals are appropriate.
“There are culpable folks out there that we need to get to,” he said. “This is how it works: You cut deals with certain people to move the case up the line. I believe these people have some information that could significantly assist in our ongoing investigation.”
Schuette, who lost the governor’s race and is out of public office, said: “I stand with Andy,” referring to Arena. Flood declined to comment on his strategy.
The new attorney general, Dana Nessel, has asked a Detroit-area prosecutor to review the remaining cases , including involuntary manslaughter charges against Nick Lyon, the former head of the Michigan health department who has been ordered to trial.
Lyon is accused of failing to alert the public in a timely manner about the Legionnaires’ outbreak, which has been linked to foul water and at least 12 deaths. Dr. Eden Wells, who was Michigan’s chief medical executive, also is facing an involuntary manslaughter trial, although both cases are tied up in appeals by aggressive defense teams.
Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley, who were state-appointed emergency managers when Flint was using river water, are also charged. They’re accused of being obsessed with saving money instead of protecting residents. All have pleaded not guilty.
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MORPC Receives Financial Reporting Award for 30th Consecutive Year
Columbus – Jan. 18, 2019: The Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting has been awarded to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA). The award is for MORPC’s comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) for FY 2017. This marks the 30th consecutive year MORPC has received the distinction.
The Certificate of Achievement is the highest form of recognition in the area of governmental accounting and financial reporting, and its attainment represents a significant accomplishment by a government and its management.
“I’m so proud of our team for receiving this mark of distinction for the 30th year in a row,” MORPC Executive Director William Murdock said. “Our annual financial report serves as a snapshot of MORPC’s accomplishments in a given year, and it also adds another level of transparency for the public and our local government members to see how our financial resources are being put to good use.”
The CAFR has been judged by an impartial panel to meet the high standards of the program, which includes demonstrating a constructive “spirit of full disclosure” to clearly communicate its financial story and motivate potential users and user groups to read the CAFR.
Additionally, MORPC Chief of Staff & Director of Operations Shawn Hufstedler – as the person designated as primarily responsible for preparing the award-winning CAFR – has received an Award of Financial Reporting Achievement.
“We have an outstanding finance team at MORPC with many years of professional experience,” Hufstedler said. “They often put in long hours to ensure we dothings the right way, and I specifically want to thank MORPC Finance Director Susan Tsen for the leadership she provides and Accounting Manager Steve Sova for leading the financial reporting process.”
MORPC’s comprehensive annual financial report can be viewed at: http://www.morpc.org/about-morpc/budget-and-finances.
The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) serves as a resource for local officials as they make decisions about economic growth, development, transportation, energy, and environmental sustainability. Through a variety of transformative programs and services, we work to improve the lives of all Central Ohio residents and make the region stand out on the world stage. For more information, please visit www.morpc.org.
Commissioner Thomas W. Johnson will not seek reappointment
Public Utilities Commission of Ohio
COLUMBUS, OHIO (Jan. 18, 2019) – Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) Commissioner Thomas W. Johnson announced that he will not seek reappointment.
“I am blessed for the opportunity to have served as a commissioner of the PUCO. Public service has been my passion throughout my career as a state legislator, budget director and in other roles,” stated PUCO Commissioner Johnson. “I am proud of the work thePUCO has accomplished during my term, and will certainly miss the many great colleagues and friends I have made along the way. I look forward to continuing my service to Ohioans in the future.”
Commissioner Johnson was appointed to the PUCO in 2014. During his time at the PUCO, he continually advocated for consumers, rural Ohioans, and the State’s business community.
Commissioner Johnson is a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Subcommittee on Education and Research, Committee on International Relations, and Subcommittee on Pipeline Safety. He is also the co-vice-chair of the Subcommitteeon Clean Coal and Carbon Management.
His term expires on April 10, 2019.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) is the sole agency charged with regulating public utility service. The role of the PUCO is to assure all residential, business and industrial consumers have access to adequate, safe and reliable utility servicesat fair prices while facilitating an environment that provides competitive choices. Consumers with utility-related questions or concerns can call the PUCO Call Center at (800) 686-PUCO (7826) and speak with a representative.