||Saturday, March 02, 2002
Its hiring of law enforcers threatens to undermine lawsuits, criminal investigations involving OxyContin, he says
Lawyer: Perdue Pharma co-opts critics
By hiring police and prosecutors who have worked with OxyContin abuse, the company is trying to gain a better understanding of the problem, a spokesman said.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
Landon Gibbs has fought the OxyContin war on two fronts.
When abuse of the prescription painkiller first surfaced in Southwest Virginia two years ago, Gibbs supervised health fraud investigations as a first sergeant for state police in Salem.
Gibbs now works for Purdue Pharma, the company that grossed $1.5 billion in OxyContin sales last year.
Purdue Pharma's recruitment of Gibbs and other law enforcement officials into its fold as consultants threatens to undermine lawsuits and criminal investigations involving OxyContin, according to an Ohio attorney suing the company.
In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, Joseph Hale is asking a judge to prohibit Purdue Pharma from using Gibbs and two of its consultants - former U.S. attorneys from Kentucky and Maine - in defending a lawsuit involving a fatal OxyContin overdose.
Hale is seeking a restraining order that would also prevent the company from relying on Gibbs' expertise in other cases involving OxyContin, including a federal lawsuit pending in Western Virginia.
And, he says, the company should be barred from offering high-paying jobs in the future to police and prosecutors who have previously been critical of its best-selling product.
"It is inescapable that Purdue Pharma's 'police hire' program conveys the impression that justice is for hire," the motion states.
Gibbs, who still lives in the Roanoke Valley, took a job with Purdue Pharma in August. Other recent hires by the company include Joseph Famularo, who as U.S. attorney in Kentucky called OxyContin abuse a "locust plague," and Jay McCloskey, who as a federal prosecutor in Maine once likened the drug to a "killer," the motion states.
Hale's motion notes that since the former prosecutors began to work for Purdue Pharma, Famularo has called OxyContin a "fine drug" and McCloskey has said its abuse is a "medical problem" that should not be a top priority for law enforcement.
"By luring these active law enforcement personnel away from their current duties and putting them on the private corporate payroll, Purdue Pharma is taking valuable knowledge and information from the public domain," Hale's motion states.
A spokesman for the Connecticut-based company discounted the allegations.
"It's ridiculous, and if it wasn't so personally focused on three fine individuals, it would be funny," spokesman Tim Bannon said.
By hiring police and prosecutors who have worked with OxyContin abuse, Purdue Pharma is simply trying to gain a better understanding of the problem, Bannon said. The company hopes to fill four positions in its law enforcement liaison unit by the end of the year.
"Who else would you try to engage in working with law enforcement but people with excellent reputations from law enforcement?" he said.
"The fundamental issue here is that we're trying to do something about the problem, and this lawyer appears to be making an effort to profit from the problem."
Since OxyContin became the drug of choice for many addicts in far Southwest Virginia, Purdue Pharma has met with police and prosecutors to discuss the problem and has pledged money for such initiatives as a prescription-monitoring system.
Although Hale refers to Famularo as a Purdue Pharma employee, Bannon said he was an unpaid consultant who only received travel expenses from the company.
When Gibbs was a state police sergeant, he said OxyContin was often overprescribed in far Southwest Virginia, where widespread crime, addiction and more than 60 overdose deaths have been linked to the drug's active ingredient.
Last year, then-Attorney General Mark Earley appointed Gibbs to a task force studying prescription drug abuse. Gibbs resigned from the panel after accepting a job with Purdue Pharma.
Gibbs could not be reached for comment Friday.
According to Hale, Purdue Pharma's hiring of law enforcement officials gives the company an unfair legal advantage in several ways: It deprives the plaintiffs of potential witnesses, it gives the company potential access to confidential information gained through earlier criminal investigations, and it could impair criminal investigations.
"Phenomenal profits" generated by OxyContin allow Purdue Pharma to pay police and prosecutors far more than what they earn from the government, Hale said. Bannon declined to say how much the company pays its employees.
In the past year, about 50 lawsuits have been filed against Purdue Pharma. One of the first was Hale's, which he brought on behalf of the family of a 28-year-old woman who reportedly died from an OxyContin overdose.
The woman used OxyContin illegally, Bannon said, and "now her estate seeks to frustrate our efforts to fight drug abuse by denying us the guidance of experts. The world is upside down."
So far, Purdue Pharma has fared well in early rounds of OxyContin litigation.
The company was successful in removing a lawsuit filed in Lee County Circuit Court to federal court, where a judge later ruled that the case would not proceed as a class-action lawsuit. Similar lawsuits have been dismissed in Mississippi, North Carolina and Maine. And earlier this week in Kentucky, a judge declined to certify a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma into a class-action proceeding.
"On behalf of all innocent victims of pain, I am deeply gratified by this ruling," said Paul Goldenheim, the company's vice president for research.
In the past, the company has complained that negative publicity about OxyContin abuse could have a chilling effect on doctors, who would become reluctant to prescribe the medication to those who truly need it.
But according to recent figures from market research firm Scott-Levin, OxyContin sales were up last year. In 2000, the drug - which accounts for the vast majority of the private company's earnings - generated sales of slightly more than $1 billion, making it the top selling opium-based painkiller in the country.
Last year, OxyContin sales totaled more than $1.48 billion.