HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Oxycontin Agreement Challenged By Judge
Pubdate: Wed, 20 Jun 2007
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2007 Roanoke Times
Author: Laurence Hammack
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)
Note: First priority is to those letter-writers who live in circulation area.


Why shouldn't company executives who pleaded guilty be sent
to jail as part of their punishment?

A federal judge is raising questions about a plea agreement that calls
for $634.5 million in fines -- but no jail time -- for the illegal
marketing of OxyContin, a powerful painkiller that doubles as a street

Before sentencing three Purdue Pharma executives next month, U.S.
District Judge James Jones will consider responses to 16 questions he
recently submitted to federal prosecutors and company officials.

One of the questions: Why should the executives not be sent to

"While it certainly is appropriate for the corporate officials to be
held accountable for the actions of the company, a sentence of
incarceration ... would be unusual," prosecutors responded in court

Last month, Purdue's top three officers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor
charges of overpromoting OxyContin, a painkiller that became Purdue's
best-selling product as quickly as it became the drug of choice for
those enticed by its heroinlike high.

Far Southwest Virginia was one the areas hardest hit by addiction,
crime and death attributed to OxyContin.

Following a six-year federal investigation, company president Michael
Friedman, chief legal officer Howard Udell and former head of medical
affairs Paul Goldenheim agreed to pay a combined $34.5 million in
fines. The company will pay another $600 million as part of an
agreement that calls for Jones to place its top officials on probation.

It's unusual for a judge to have so many questions about a plea

Although Jones asked prosecutors to justify what the plea agreement
calls "non-incarcerative sentences," it was unclear whether his
question indicates any concerns about the lack of jail time.

Both the government and Purdue officials declined to comment. "It is
not our place to speculate on what the judge is thinking with regard
to the settlement agreement," company spokesman Jim Heins said.

In his court order seeking additional information, Jones noted that if
he decides to reject the plea agreements, Friedman, Udell and
Goldenheim would be allowed to withdraw their guilty pleas.

Sentencings for the three men are scheduled for July 20 in federal
court in Abingdon.

Court filings by the trio's lawyers go on for pages about why
probation is appropriate. The stigma of a criminal conviction is
punishment enough, the papers state, considering "the strong message
sent to the pharmaceutical industry" and the executives' sincere
efforts to prevent future prescription drug abuse.

Also contained in the papers is a carefully worded response to another
question from Jones: Why does the plea agreement not require Purdue to
pay the costs of medical care and drug rehabilitation for the victims of

Technically, there are no "victims" in the case, according to
attorneys for the company.

"Without minimizing the enormous harm suffered by many individuals as
a result of the use, abuse or misuse of OxyContin, the defendants
respectfully submit that none of these individuals qualify as a
'victim' of the misbranding crime at issue, as that term is defined by
Congress," the company said in court filings.

Under the federal Crime Victims Rights Act, someone is considered a
victim if they were directly harmed by a specific crime committed by
the defendant.

The crime to which the company and its officers pleaded guilty is
misbranding, or making false representations about OxyContin's
propensity for abuse and addiction. Misbranding can occur in
advertising, labeling or, as with the case against Purdue,
presentations made to doctors by the company's sales

Both Purdue and prosecutors agree that to prove its case, the
government was not required to show that the misbranding in question
led to any abuse of OxyContin.

"The relevant question is not whether there are victims of OxyContin,
but whether there are victims of the misbranding charged as the crime
in this case," Purdue's lawyers stated.

Prosecutors agreed that it would be "legally difficult and burdensome"
to identify possible victims of OxyContin abuse in the context of a
criminal proceeding against the company.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that the guilty pleas by
Friedman, Udell and Goldenheim included no admissions that they did
anything wrong -- or even knew of wrongdoing by other company
officials. Rather, the charges hold them responsible simply because of
their positions as top company executives.

In the flurry of court filings generated by Jones' list of questions,
prosecutors also defended their decision not to seek incarceration.
The misdemeanor charges to which the executives pleaded guilty carry
up to one year in jail; the company pleaded guilty to a felony charge.

Such charges are rarely used in the misbranding of pharmaceuticals,
the government stated, and the negotiated plea agreements will "serve
as a strong warning" to other drug companies.

In addition to raising questions about jail time, Jones also requested
detailed information on Purdue's financial holdings. Some critics have
said the monetary penalty to be paid by the company represents just a
small fraction of its OxyContin profits.

But according to federal prosecutors, the $634.5 million in fines
accounts for about 90 percent of the company's profits from the time
the drug went on the market in 1996 until 2001.

The fine is the country's third largest to be assessed against a
pharmaceutical company, according to the U.S. Justice Department's
Office of Consumer Litigation.

Still, critics have said prosecutors should have pushed for more
money, if not jail time.

But that might not be a realistic expectation, said Timothy Jost, a
Washington and Lee University law professor who specializes in health
care law.

"It is quite unusual for cases involving drug marketing to be
criminally prosecuted," Jost said, "and it would be even more unusual
for the defendants to actually do time."
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