In this episode of Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth Vargas sits down with Ryan to discuss his role in Purdue’s bankruptcy proceedings, how it felt to witness the now-infamous depositions of the Sackler family firsthand and why he believes the justice system, as it stands today, could never deliver accountability for Purdue’s victims.
Ryan Hampton, welcome to “Heart of the Matter.” It’s great to have you.
It’s so good to be here. Thanks for having me, Elizabeth.
Oh, my gosh. Your story is so inspirational to me and I know to so many others. I want to start by reading something that you actually wrote for The Huffington Post a couple of years ago, talking about your life working in the White House and then becoming addicted to opiates: “To say that I led a double life would be an understatement. My career put me in the public eye. I worked closely with President Bill Clinton and his advisors in the highest office of our government. My addiction, however, took me to the absolute depths of misery and isolation. From Pennsylvania Avenue, I ended up homeless, sleeping on a drug dealer’s couch and begging for change at the gas station.” Wow.
How did that happen?
Looking back now and really understanding where I was in my life, it’s been a journey. I think since getting into recovery over six years ago, it’s been a journey understanding how that did happen to me because if you would’ve asked me that question six years ago, I would have said, “Bad decisions, poor choices, morally bankrupt,” all of those things.
Wow. You bought into it all.
I bought into it all, but really understanding that it was trauma, right? I mean, these were things that started happening to me when I was younger, right, and then being in the middle of the pill mill epidemic in Florida, kind of like right place, right time. Oftentimes, people say, “Hey, did your opioid addiction start on that hiking trip that you had in 2003?” I injured my ankle shortly after leaving the White House. I was having this up-and-coming political career and career in policy and community organizing and working with labor unions and the National Party Committee. I thought that that’s when it started, right, but then after really looking internally, it started before that for me. But the difference for me was, did I drink in high school? Did I experiment with drugs in high school? Yes. Was it any different than my peers at the time? No, it seemed like everybody was partying. The difference between me and them, though, was that 10 years later, I did end up homeless on a street corner on Hollywood and Highland begging for help.
You, a couple of months ago, wrote an editorial for USA Today in which you said, “Substance use disorder is treated with disgust and disdain by people who do not understand it. Do we guilt-trip people with cancer into recovering or expect them to get better without extensive treatment? No. Addiction is also a complex healthcare issue, yet people who struggle are criminalized, dehumanized, and left to die.”
Yet in this country, 21 million Americans are struggling with substance use disorder. Why isn’t there more public support and public pressure and public outrage, given the tens of millions of people who are struggling with this, and by sheer just simple math, double, triple that number who are dealing with those people in their lives, who are witnessing firsthand, the struggle to get clean, stay clean, get sober, stay sober?
Yep. Great question. There are people who are outraged. I am outraged. I know you are outraged. I know many guests who have been on here are outraged. There’s community organizations and national organizations such as Partnership and the work we do at The Voices Project, which is so critical to elevating those voices, not just of outrage, but of also solution. As you noted, the math is definitely on our side.
Right. Sad math.
Right. I mean, the math is on our side. I mean, you’ve got the 21 to 22 million people who are needing help right now. You add that to people like you and I. There’s another 23 million just like us who claim a status in long-term recovery, so roughly around 44, 45 million. You divide that by households in the country, you’re looking at about one in three American households that are directly impacted by substance use disorder, right? Directly impacted. Not indirectly, but directly impacted, yet-
Why aren’t they burning up the phone lines to their congressmen?
…Exactly. Solutions are slow to come. I think a large part of that, we’ve done a lot of great work in this very broad movement of families, people in recovery, people still struggling, people who use drugs, some choice policymakers to raise the level of the conversation, but we still need to do a better job at shutting down. People like to call it “stigma.” I think “stigma” is a nice word for prejudice, systemic discrimination, bias. We have to combat that. That still exists for people like you and me and others who need help.
It’s certainly a personal decision, but a lot of people who do find recovery keep that very private. That’s their right. That’s why your Voices Project is so powerful. Having people more and more people speak about their recovery, how they found it, how they live now, it just chips away at that stigma, which prevents so many people from reaching out and getting help because poll numbers show so many people will judge them harshly for admitting that they have a problem. It’s interesting when you talk about that lived experience. President Trump’s own brother died of alcoholism, and he did, to his credit, declare the opioid crisis and national public health emergency, but then he tried to cut the funding to the Office of National Drug Control Policy by a massive amount.
Yeah, I will sidestep some of that question, but what I will say is public health emergency, let’s just think about that declaration, that term for moment, right? We have dueling public health emergencies right now in this country. We have COVID and we have the overdose crisis, right? Not to take away from COVID, right? My fiance had COVID, I know people who’ve died of COVID.
My son still had COVID.
I mean, I’ve seen the devastation in our community and to our economy, but the way the federal government and the states are responding to COVID is exactly how you deal with a public health emergency, yet with the overdose crisis, we get a piece of paper with nothing really to back it up, okay? For every overdose death, right, if you include alcohol into the mix, you’re looking at about four COVID deaths, right, so four COVID deaths, one overdose death, yet this is for last year, just for last year, not combined in 2020, yet federal spending in addressing COVID is 750 times more than addressing overdose, right?
Even though the overdose crisis costs our country billions with a “B” of dollars.
Right. Right. A lot of this, though, is because still overdose, like going back to your previous statement, overdose, addiction is seen as a choice. It’s seen as people brought this on their selves. Now, I’ll have a lot to say about what government has said in my forthcoming book “Unsettled” because I was in some rooms where some stuff was said that just really opened my eyes to how some people in the government view us and view the reasoning for us getting into this overdose crisis.
But I’ll say one of the solutions is by sharing the story, is by shedding that shame. It is telling my story for the first time was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done in my life. I did it first and I did it big in a Huffington Post article in 2016. I almost didn’t do it because I was terrified of what the outcome was. I was terrified if I would be able to get a job in the future, I was terrified about other family members who didn’t know at the time and they were going to read it in this article, this whole history of my journey through heroin addiction. But once I did it, it led me on this journey of what I like to call the journey of what’s next, right? I felt empowered after being my authentic self and I wanted to know what was behind door two, three, four, five, which led me on this journey of advocacy and activism and policy reform, and really, community organizing.
I have seen that same arc of a journey for many people who share their stories. They don’t just share their story and stop. They want to share their story and then make this their purpose and their passion within their community, but understanding that still today in 2021, there can be consequences for sharing your story. It is a very personal, deep… You’ve got to really know if it’s right for you and if the timing is right and if the circumstances are right. I encourage anybody who can do it to do it, particularly not just for yourself, but for people who still can’t, because people can still get fired, people can be denied health insurance, they can be denied life insurance, they can have issues with tenants and rent and et cetera. I mean, they can have their kids taken away through a court hearing. I mean, there’s just so many things that can still happen that keep people in the shadows.
Right. You mentioned your forthcoming book “Unsettled,” which the passion in that book just burns through the pages. You had been very active on Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family even prior to writing this book, but what I was so struck by was you were appointed to the Unsecured Creditors Committee. It’s a kind of a formal name, but basically, the deal was Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy after the Sacklers removed billions of dollars from the Purdue Pharma bank account into their own personal bank accounts, and then Purdue declared bankruptcy as a way to inoculate themselves and the Sacklers from any future lawsuits of any kind. But so during these bankruptcy proceedings, basically, to make this simple, you were part of this committee that got to see and hear and read everything, literally everything. How did you get on this committee?
Well, coming out of the fog on the bankruptcy, I’ll first say this is something I will never want to do again. It was one of the most enraging, infuriating processes I’ve ever been involved in in my life and I’ve been involved in a lot. I was a novice, less than a novice. I knew nothing about bankruptcy law when I walked into this. Walking out of it, I feel like I could probably teach a course on it if I wanted to do at Columbia or somewhere. I mean, I didn’t know what the Unsecured Creditors Committee was. I didn’t know that there was a place for “victims” on the UCC when Purdue had filed for bankruptcy or was talking about filing for bankruptcy.
I had been in discussions with several plaintiff’s lawyers for some time prior to Purdue making it public that they were going to file for Chapter 11. We had been looking at possibly some sort of massive civil litigation against the company and against the Sacklers, almost like a class action, on behalf of individuals and families who had been harmed by Purdue’s products and their tactics. These same attorneys that I had been having these discussions with for some time when Purdue changed the venue, when they went into bankruptcy court, they went from playing ball on a basketball court in regular courts, right, the type of litigation that you and I and the justice system, people who know the justice system, are more familiar with, over to a hockey rink where really, it’s a very specialized process.
These lawyers said, “Hey, there is a committee, there is a way for victims to have voice. There is a way for them to fight for dollars for their communities and advocate on behalf of some sort of victim settlement in the bankruptcy, but you have to get appointed to this thing called the UCC, which the United States trustee, the Department of Justice for Southern District of New York has full authority over. Why don’t you write him a letter and ask him to see if there could be victim appointments to this committee?”
Now, they had done this in the Weinstein bankruptcy, right, so when The Weinstein Company filed for bankruptcy, there were victims of Weinstein’s rape and sexual abuse that were appointed to this committee to represent the victims’ interests, so I wrote the letter to the United States trustee, and much to my surprise, got a message back from them and invited me to New York City like two weeks after the letter in September and asked me to come interview with the trustee. I went with several, I mean, there was a handful of victim advocates who were there, people from the NAS community, families, people in recovery, people who were still struggling. I interviewed with the trustee and I was completely shocked. I didn’t go into it with any expectations, but I was appointed to this nine-member committee. There were four victims that were appointed and then that same night I was actually elected by the committee as its co-chair where I had to serve with Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is a whole other story.
I found myself in this room catapulted overnight of power players that I had been fighting for years, right? Pharmaceutical companies, big insurance companies, hospitals, right, folks that I had been on the other end of the spectrum with for some time and that launched it. I didn’t know, still that day, what the power of that committee was. But if you think of plaintiffs and defendants in a regular court case, there would be a defendant which would be similar to what the debtor is, which is Purdue, and then there would be the plaintiff.
In this case, the mega plaintiff is the Unsecured Creditors Committee. By statute, bankruptcy statute, it’s the only fiduciary for all creditors in the case, so while this was a unique bankruptcy. There were a lot of state attorneys general and municipalities and cities, the official fiduciary of the case and the one that the judge looked to more oftentimes than not was the Unsecured Creditors Committee. We had subpoena power, we had discovery power, we could call witnesses, we reviewed millions of documents, took depositions of all. I sat through hours, I mean, hours and hours and hours and hundreds of hours of testimony of the Sackler family, right? I sat on a Zoom with Richard Sackler, with Theresa, with David Sackler.
What was your impression? I mean, after all those years of studying this issue, I’m just curious, because the Sacklers have been so hidden. They have run from… Precious few pictures of them, especially in the last few years, as the utter enormity of the lying about the addictive properties of their drugs, the voracious push to the salesforce to sell these drugs, the hiding of everything, and then the raiding and looting of their own of the fortune from Purdue Pharma. I’m just curious what your personal impressions were of the Sackler family because I’ve always wondered, and a lot of people wonder, what do they tell themselves? What story do they tell themselves about-
I think that they have convinced themselves over, I mean, I think there’s… I have to be careful what I say here for a lot of reasons. Someone should study their heads at some point. I think in Patrick Radden Keefe’s book, we’ve learned there was some mental health challenges in the family. I think that some of the members of the Sackler family, particularly the B side of the family-
…”B side?” What do you mean?
…Yeah, so the Richard Sackler side of the family, because the family is divided into two divisions, the A side, the Mortimer side and the Richard side and there’s a lot of fights in between the two of them, but I do-
Do you ever hear the family say “This is terrible. This is terrible. We have blood on our hands”?
…Well, you would hear… Yeah. First, I would say there is a huge lack of empathy within the family. I think some members of the family have convinced themselves at this point that they have done nothing wrong, which is just crazy. No apology, of course. I would always hear this, “The opioid crisis is terrible. The overdoses are terrible, but we didn’t have anything to do with it.” They were pretty dead-set on that. They are, in my opinion, more evil being face-to-face with them, sitting face-to-face with David Sackler and Richard, more evil than they sound.
That’s hard to fathom, I’ve got to be honest, Ryan, because they sound pretty bad in the transcripts that I’ve read, the utter disregard, the “No, it’s not our fault,” the emails that have been released. It’s amazing. They blame the victim, they blame the addicts: “Not our fault.”
…Yeah. They blame us. Richard’s deposition, his specific deposition was really interesting to me. He felt like throughout the course of his deposition, I mean, he was just so casual.
It was like, “Oh, yeah. Well…” I mean, his tone was casual and what was frustrating, it felt like a guy who was giving a testimony who already knew he was going to walk. He knew what the outcome was going to be. He wasn’t that very stringent, kind of uptight Richard Sackler that we saw in the deposition from several years ago, right? I mean, he was just very laissez-faire, almost like it was a joke, and that’s-
John Oliver did a now-infamous thing where he took the transcripts of Richard Sackler and David Sackler, their deposition. He didn’t have the video, so he had actors act out the lines, and he infamously had Michael Keaton playing Richard Sackler giving his deposition while eating a sandwich, which is what he actually did, cavalierly and casually while talking about something that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Yeah. You could tell, the kids in particular, David and Marianna, I mean, they’re just dead-set that they’ve done nothing wrong. The privilege of the family just seeped through my Zoom screen, right? I’m sitting on mute, I could have unmuted myself, but I’m sitting on mute with like 50 other people, all lawyers. I mean, what was so awkward for me is it was all lawyers, I mean, attorneys general for several states, heads of large creditor groups that are sitting on this call in the questioning of the depositions. It was our committee, the Unsecured Creditors Committee that was deposing along with, at the time, what was the non-consenting states, and so I’m kind of like fish out of water on this Zoom listening. I’m hearing things and I’m picking up on things and texting the lawyers. I’m like, “Did you catch that? Are you going to like follow-up on this?”
I’m really into it, but I felt this deep sense of powerlessness, right, because it felt very performative for me because the case’s outcome was also kind of predetermined at that point. It was like, yes, we were getting these depositions and there was all these questions, but we weren’t really getting anywhere. It felt like, well, what’s the whole point of doing this? Because at the end of the day, the Sacklers are going to walk no matter what, and they knew that. They knew that, so it wasn’t the same type of deposition that you would envision in some sort of criminal trial, right? There wasn’t the same type of urgency. There might’ve been an urgency on our end to get these answers, but there wasn’t that type of urgency on the Sacklers’ end. To them, I think they felt like some of this was like a joke and they acted that way. They acted like fools.
There’s been a lot written about, “Oh, they’re persona non grata in New York society, they’re fleeing New York City for Florida, institutions are taking the Sackler name off of buildings because nobody wants to be associated.” I can’t believe I’m going to even ask this question, but it’s been written that they are paying some small price through their complete ostracism, which feels like nothing when you talk about the victims, the dead victims of the opioid crisis that all got hooked on opioids through Oxycontin. I guess what I’m asking is, is there any price there? I mean, they’re walking away all billionaires, they’re walking away-
Wealth intact. Wealth intact.
There’s actually some modeling out there. Our committee found a lot, which Congress took credit for, which is fine, because I’m glad Congress is getting it out there, but our committee was the one that did the investigation, found that their actual wealth was around $11 billion. They’re paying a settlement of about roughly around $4.3 billion spread out over nine years. If you were to take the money… The way that they’re paying the settlement though is a couple hundred million here, a few hundred million here, and spread out over this time, if you take the $11 billion that they currently have in the bank, and you assume a pretty healthy standard interest rate, maybe around 7%, there’s an argument out there that says by the time they finished paying the settlement over time-
It’ll be worth more.
… It’ll be worth about $16 billion, and so they will recoup anything that they’re putting in by interest alone. This final settlement that the former non-consenting states, the 15 of them agreed to, that essentially caved to, was pretty much identical in the larger framework to the deal that was on the table two years ago, and certainly, the deal that has been on the table was on the table for the past six to eight months, so it’s like, what did they really cave to and agree to to get on board with the settlement? Well, I mean, they were very small, I think kind of meaningless wins in a sense. It’s you talk about the Sackler name. Well, many people don’t know, okay, once the Sacklers pay the settlement, they can put their name wherever they want and they could still sue institutions that take their name off right now. That was supposed to be a sticking point, but it ended up falling apart and the final states group agreed with this small provision.
The money that they increased in the settlement, most of it’s coming from a trust that was owned by the deceased Beverly Sackler, which was supposed to go to charity anyway, and the family has no use for it, so it’s not really money out of their pockets, some of it is. Majority of it’s coming from a trust they had no use for anyway, and the documents, we keep talking about privileged documents. There’s this prevailing thought and people think, “Oh, my gosh, we’re all going to get to see the Sackler secrets and Purdue documents.” Yes, the public will get to see some privileged documents, but some of the Sacklers’ most guarded secrets will remain shielded forever because the privilege only applies to Purdue’s privileged documents that they had in communication with the Sacklers. It does not include to privileged documents that the Sacklers have fought tooth and nail to keep from the view of this bankruptcy court since day one, which is in the tens of thousands.
But having sat through all these depositions with the Sacklers themselves and having seen and read everything you have seen and read, I mean, is there any doubt in your mind that they absolutely knew that their drug was highly addictive and kept that knowledge secret while they pushed their sales force to sell it?
In other words, they-
…They exactly what they were doing from day one. I’ll leave it there. They knew, they saw, they coordinated. The angering part of it is they didn’t just know. Systems that were set up to protect us knew, right? Other people knew that we’re supposed to serve as watchdogs, right? I talk a lot about this in “Unsettled,” and I give some very specific examples, but as late as 2016, right, there were systems that were supposed to be in place that were failing in terms of auditing what was going on with Purdue and where these spikes in the medications, in Oxycontin were showing up, right, and there was no action.
In my view, the Sacklers, we all know they’re the villains coming out of this story. We know that Purdue is bad, the Sacklers are bad, but I think what people really need to put their arms around and what I’m trying to convey through this book, which by the way, I want to make publicly, royalties from this book, I’m not making money on this book. I’ve already said dollars from this book are going to charity, right, they are going to charity.
I believe this story needs to be told. I believe that it needs to be put into the public’s hand because if it’s not told, it will repeat itself. Folks need to understand that this was, I believe, a coordinated assault from many sides, and the end of Purdue as we know it is ironic, right, because they’re going to walk away from essentially all accountability because the system is built that way, right? What they are doing and a lot of what they did in the pre-bankruptcy days was really toe the line in the gray area, right? They skirted regulators, they involved regulators, there was probably and definitely levels of corruption involved, and there were-
…My God, the guy who led the FDA approval went and worked for them.
…The FDA and Curtis Wright, I mean… Right. But all of this was allowed to happen and was legal, so it’s like, now they have exited, I’ll say, or are exiting, the effective date is soon, confirmation will be soon, but they’ve exited in a system that allowed them to exit this way, right, so it’s like the system was built to protect people like the Sacklers, right? We have to look beyond the Sacklers and beyond Purdue to reform this on a much larger level or else it will keep happening.
You said on cable news recently, “We will not stop until Richard Sackler is behind bars.”
Yeah. Not recently, that was a couple of months before I got appointed to the committee, and that, pardon the expression, was a pipe dream for me.
I mean, that’s not going to happen, but yet I have friends who are sitting in prison for small marijuana charges and in jail and county jails and in prison for small amounts of drug distribution, who are now in recovery, working a recovery program while in jail. They can’t get out. I have one that’s going to be sitting in there for three years, right? But Richard, “Dr. Richard,” as he likes to call himself, he’s never going to see a jumpsuit. He’s never going to see his day inside of a jail. I mean, really, what folks are saying is because this has always been not about that type of accountability for the Sacklers, it’s been about money. This has been a big cash grab. It’s been a big cash grab for states, it’s been a big cash grab for different lawyer groups. A lot of people made a lot of money in this bankruptcy, a lot of people made a lot of money. We won’t have that type of justice because the justice system is not equal in this country, period.
Period. Ryan Hampton, thank you so much. The book is “Unsettled.” Mobilize Recovery is an amazing program that Ryan’s been running. He also has The Voices Project where he encourages people in recovery to speak out and tell their stories. Ryan, thank you for your passion and your expertise and your activism on an issue of great import in this country. Really, your work is hopefully going to change things for the better, and at the very least, enlighten a lot of people as to what’s really going on.
Thank you, Elizabeth.
Thank you so much for listening today to “Heart of the Matter.” You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, on our website at drugfree.org/podcast. As a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753 or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.
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