OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma should not be able to make any more political contributions without a judge's permission, lawyers for its creditors said in a court filing.
The issue came up this week after it was reported that the company, which has a long history of influencing policymakers, made contributions to national associations representing state attorneys general and governors.
The money was sent after Purdue entered bankruptcy protection last year in an effort to settle thousands of lawsuits accusing it of helping spark an opioid addiction and overdose epidemic that has contributed to more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S.. State attorneys general are among those trying to negotiate a nationwide settlement.
The committee of creditors that asked for recipients to return the money to Purdue said the contributions represent a conflict.
“The Political Contributions — $185,000 in donations to associations whose members include the very public servants with whom the Debtors are attempting to negotiate a consensual resolution of these cases — are precisely the sort of transaction that demand close scrutiny,” they said in a filing.
Parts of the legal skirmish had been resolved by the time lawyers filed a motion Friday night. The filing asked a federal bankruptcy court judge to require Purdue to seek permission before making more contributions.
Purdue said it would stop giving money to the Democratic and Republican attorney general associations, and both of those groups agreed to return contributions made since late last year. The Republican group said it would send back $60,000, while the Democratic organization said a check was already in the mail to return the $25,000 it received.
The donation to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, along with $50,000 each to the associations representing Democratic and Republican governors, were first reported by The Intercept, an online investigative news outlet. The AP subsequently found the Purdue contribution to the Republican Attorneys General Association.
The governors groups did not respond to messages Friday from The Associated Press and did not publicly commit to returning the money.
Ed Neiger, a lawyer who represents people with opioid addictions and their families in the case, said the contributions are a big problem.
“I’m not sure that can be interpreted as anything other than a bribe,” he said in an interview.
Purdue defended the payments, describing them as “memberships,” although the only members of the organizations are the elected attorneys general and governors.
“We have maintained long-standing membership in organizations that allow us to follow key industry-related issues that are relevant to our wide range of products and pipeline,” the company said in a statement. “These memberships are completely proper and in line with payments Purdue and hundreds of other companies have made for years."
The company noted that when it filed for bankruptcy, it stopped making contributions to individual candidates and closed its political action committee.
In 2016, an investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that Purdue and other companies in the opioid industry, along with the advocacy groups largely funded by the industry, spent more than $880 million from 2006 through 2015 to influence state and local governments. Those efforts helped fight off restrictions on drug prescriptions, although many states later adopted limits.
Purdue contributed $260,000 to party election committees in 2018, according to an Associated Press analysis of data gathered by Political MoneyLine.
At least 430,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000 have been connected to overdoses from opioids, a category of drug that includes prescription pills such as Oxycontin and Vicodin along with illicit drugs such as heroin and illegally made fentanyl.
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