EXCLUSIVE: The Sacklers’ group chat of pain
The Ink reviewed the WhatsApp text thread of a family behind the opioid crisis, as they faced — and refused to face — the walls closing in
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For years, as an opioid crisis ravaged America, the Sackler family, which founded Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin, remained largely out of the public eye, free to accumulate billions of dollars of wealth in tranquility. But in recent years, the walls began to close in, as the press and regulators and lawyers and state attorneys general began to investigate Purdue’s role in the epidemic. And as pressure rose, to whom did the Sacklers turn to vouch for them?
The museums that had taken their philanthropy.
The Ink has seen a tranche of the Sacklers’ WhatsApp group chats as members of the family sought to cope with and strategize about their fall from grace and growing legal risk. They were quietly released as part of an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding, thanks to demands by multiple news organizations. A source provided them to The Ink, which is the first publication to report on them. (To assist better-resourced follow-up reporting, The Ink will now offer to collaborate with larger news organizations.)
The messages show how, in the plutocratic echelons, it is assumed that philanthropic gifts made in sunny times can buy you public support from prestigious institutions on a rainy day. They show how a family that could no longer deny the scale of pain and death in the country tended to view the problem primarily through the prism of public relations, their anger concentrated on the difficulty of crafting statements, not curbing the hurt. And the messages show how a profound sense of victimhood descended on some members of the family, perhaps blinding them to the need to address the problem in the way one relative suggested: at a cost to their bottom line.
“We are the most vulnerable of the opponents (as we are a private family owned business) and in their view the easiest prey to get lots of money from!,” Mortimer Sackler, son of a deceased family patriarch by the same name, texted the group in 2018, fretting about legal cases.
Two years later, the walls have closed in further. The Sacklers and Purdue are enmeshed in complex settlement negotiations in cases from across the country, although they continue, as The New York Times reported this week, to refuse “to be held personally or criminally responsible and to turn over substantial portions of their fortune.” On Thursday, they faced scathing criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In one way, the WhatsApps revealed the Sackler family to be like you and me. They had the usual group-chat issues. When Mortimer apparently wanted relatives to keep their discussions “off email” and on WhatsApp, it was tricky to get everyone on board.
“I can’t, because Marissa is the admin of the group,” Michael Sackler, a film producer and founder of Rooks Nest Ventures, texted. (The messages at times only list senders’ first names, so The Ink has tried to match messages to names of family members.)
Someone else complained that their mother didn’t have WhatsApp. Marissa Sackler replied, “If she can Instagram I’m pretty sure she can master what’s app.” Marissa is described on Crunchbase as “continuing the family tradition of philanthropy,” having started an incubator that assists “emerging nonprofits.”
At times, their family struggles were mundane and logistical: “Hi I would love to make a dinner happen Saturday. Want to do a casual dinner with my kiddos? Or were you thinking fancy adult thing?” wrote Jeffrey Lefcourt, a family member and proprietor of the popular New York City restaurant brand The Smith.
But as pressure against the Sacklers ratcheted up, the texts turned serious. And the reflex for managing it came naturally: let’s hit up those to whom we’ve given back.
For example, in November 2016, the Dia Art Foundation in New York had announced, according to a report in ARTnews, that “following a gift from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, it has created the Sackler Institute, which a release describes as ‘a center without walls.’” In years past, the Sacklers had given similar gifts to the Tate group of British galleries, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Well, to quote the title of a book by Linsey McGoey, there is “no such thing as a free gift.”
In late October 2017, Marissa Sackler texted the family: “I just spoke to head of communications at dia. They and many other art institutions plus bio medical schools have been reached out to by the New York Times. / Dia shares pr representation with the tate and a number of other art institutes who’ve been contacted. They are all planning to give short positive statements about us being supporters of theirs. / They expect the article to come out in the next week.”
She was wrong only about timing. On December 1, 2017, a report in The New York Times showed how there is no silencer as effective as money. “The New York Times surveyed 21 cultural organizations listed on tax forms as having received significant sums from foundations run by two Sackler brothers who led Purdue,” Colin Moynihan wrote, adding: “None indicated that they would return donations or refuse them in the future.”
Another message — sent to the group chat by Samantha Sackler Hunt — suggested that emails sent by reporters to cultural institutions, asking about Sackler gifts, were being relayed back to the family, apparently via the public-relations firm Edelman:
I just wanted to keep you in the loop that a reporter from The Times (London) has also been emailing various cultural institutions that have benefitted from Sackler Family philanthropy. It seems as though she is doing a very similar exercise to the reporter from the New York Times that you have already been made aware of. Below is the request that got sent through to the V&A. She appears to be sending versions of this to a number of others. From what I’ve seen so far most are responding with the same types of generic statements they gave the New York Times and all appear supportive. Georgie Keate, the reporter in question, is a general home news reporter and joined The Times in 2014 as a graduate trainee so is still relatively junior. This could indicate that it may not be a large story for them or she may be doing the spade work for someone else. We will make Josie aware.
[The reporter Georgie Keate’s email supposedly begins here]
I am doing a story on the Sackler family and their family fortune - which derives from the extremely controversial drug Oxycontin which their company Purdue Pharma is accused of marketing falsely by claiming it was safe and non-addictive. They have faced thousands of lawsuits and paid out tens of millions over the last decade over their aggressive marketing campaigns and refusal to take responsibility for the fact the drug is dangerous. Having been held to account in America, the family continue to push it in developing countries.
Obviously, the family has donated to scores of theatres, museums and colleges across the UK while keeping their connection to Purdue and Oxycontin completely secret.
Many people who are becoming aware of this are astonished and question whether the art world should be so heavily funded by a family who have been involved in such serious wrongdoing. Some have compared it to the 100s of notables who petitioned to have BP removed from the Tate. The V&A is obviously one of these beneficiaries - would you be able to comment for an article?
Some months later, in March 2018, the family could continue to feel that museums were on their team. Mortimer WhatsApped the family: “Jackie spoke with the Met this morning and they are going to stand by us.”
Referring to the protests led by the artist Nan Goldin that were moving public opinion against the Sacklers, Mortimer wrote: “Better that the company use her protests as an opportunity to speak to the industry leading work they have been doing to combat prescription drug abuse. What we SHOULD do is make sure that the Guggenheim, AMNH, DIA, etc are not going to say something unhelpful. We should compile a list of organizations and decide who should speak with which.”
Marissa Sackler volunteered: “I speak regularly with dia on all of this and they fully support us and think Nan Goldin is crazy.”
Ilene Sackler Lefcourt chimed in: “I am reaching out to the AMNH through the chairman of the board’s best friend.”
Nevertheless, the following year, a growing number of institutions began to change their minds, declaring that they would no longer take Sackler money and, in some cases, removing the Sackler name from their facilities. The institutions included the Met, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, the American Museum of Natural History, New York University, and Tufts.
When one of the announcements came, the first words about it in the group chat, from Sophie Sackler, were: “Did anyone know this was happening?”
And alarm grew as even that most mercenary of sectors — banking — seemed to turn its back on Purdue. “Does anyone know why JPM is not doing Purdue banking?” Jeffrey Lefcourt texted the family on May 24, 2019, just days after a wave of museum disavowals, apparently referring to the banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase. “What’s their reason? Any concern they will stop doing banking for family? Have any of you spoken to them?”
Mortimer responded: “They told Purdue it was for ‘reputation’ reasons but that they were (so far) limiting it only to Purdue and not to the family.”
The timing suggests, though hardly proves, that the museums’ abrupt reversal on support for the family coincided with problems closer to the core of their business operations. Which raises the question of whether the arts institutions’ years of silence helped a machinery of death to grind on.
The text messages also portray a family that could not help but regard the opioid crisis as being, above all, a public-relations crisis for them.
In October 2017, Samantha Sackler Hunt sent a proposed agenda for a family phone call that pointed toward the group’s priorities:
In advance of our call - I have put together a Short agenda for ease of reference
— Should families have separate PR advice to Company?
— Should RRS and MDS families have separate PR advice?
— Who should co-ordinate between PR teams?
— How can we best maintain privilege in these discussions?
— Who should be client / liaison for each PR team?
— Who should vote on ‘Family’ PR decisions?
— PR Statement Hierarchy-Company statement-Sackler Philanthropies (recruit a Spokesperson / Director)-Sackler family groups (RRS / MDS)-Sackler individuals
As the family did begin to draft statements and responses to media inquiries, there were those in the family who thought them troubling.
“Not sure if it was said but I find the board statement to very defensive, out of touch and not going far enough,” Jeffrey Lefcourt, the restaurateur, texted the family on October 24, 2017.
On that occasion, Karen agreed: “I think it should open in a very different way. It sounds totally defensive and somewhat dismissive of systemic problems.”
And in that same back-and-forth over the PR statement, Lefcourt came forward with an idea: “The company should commit to starting a foundation and pledge $1 Billion over the next 10 years to play a leading role in addressing the epidemic.”
Perhaps not wanting to come off as suggesting that philanthropy was a form of public relations, Lefcourt added: “No $ is enough for the PR. But I think we can find ways to make a big difference and help solve the problem.” And he clarified further: “Not the PR problem. the people addiction and people dying problem.”
As time wore on, the group chat filled with frustrations that the family name was suffering, that people not directly connected to the sale of OxyContin were being dragged through the mud, and that the media and lawyers were hovering.
“I have had a long conversation with Elizabeth Sackler,” Ilene Sackler Lefcourt wrote on October 27, 2017. “She is very angry that her father and family are being targeted in the press. And angry that we are not doing anything about it.” (Elizabeth Sackler, according to The Guardian, is the “benefactor of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Elizabeth has distanced her branch of the family from her uncles and cousins and called their OxyContin wealth ‘morally abhorrent.’”)
But few in the group chat seemed to echo Elizabeth Sackler’s view.
Theresa Sackler suggested in a January 2018 message to the group that “trial lawyers have a media campaign against family.”
Mortimer backed her up: “Yes we know that for a fact. The trial lawyers themselves have admitted repeatedly that this is how they operate. They wage a PR campaign to pressure the other parties to settle and in this case are doing so against our family as we are the most vulnerable of the opponents (as we are a private family owned business) and in their view the easiest prey to get lots of money from!”
Even as the toll of the opioid crisis rose, many family members felt like victims. When someone posted an article about a segment that Samantha Bee did on the family, Mortimer wrote, “Saw that. Very nasty.” Karen replied, “So upsetting.”
At times, there was frustration from certain family members that not enough was being done to avoid their reputational damage.
“This has gone far beyond an attack on the company, the company and the ENTIRE family is now linked as one in the eyes of the press and the public,” Marissa Sackler wrote on November 8, 2017.
Her sister Sophie chimed in: “If it is the case that it appears that still nothing is being done and no meaningful information is forthcoming then the company will have to be prepared for family members to start taking whatever action they see fit.”
A little more than a week later, Sophie’s brother Michael returned to the idea of a philanthropic solution. Speaking in the management patois of “best practice,” “roll-out,” and “pilot area,” he suggested that the family “bring together the greatest minds on the issues that play a part in this crisis and support them to work with the most affected and most challenged communities to develop an integrated approach that delivers concrete results and can then be scaled up to work across the country.”
In other words, become the solution to a problem the company was still causing.
Indeed, seemingly only once in the messages viewed by The Ink did the thought occur to a member of the family that they could solve the problem by sacrificing their own profits. It came from Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, in October 2017: “I just spoke to Josie. She told me under active consideration, proposed by Craig, is stopping all sales rep. activity of oxy. The financial result is being calculated. I am in favor of moving this ahead asap. And think the bigger the estimated cost to the company, the better.”
The bigger the estimated cost to the company, the better. It was a somewhat radical thought.
One minute and 56 seconds later, Mortimer fired back a reply: “This is not the forum to discuss that.”
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