By 2017, the Sackler family knew they had a problem. Thanks to the aggressive marketing practices the Sacklers devised, their company, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, had become linked to the opioid crisis, which according to one estimate killed 130 Americans per day that year. Purdue’s problems were Sackler problems; as the death toll rose and the lawsuits mounted, the family’s once-pristine public name had become a liability. So they turned to a friend for help. ProPublica reported on Friday that the Sacklers reached out to Michael Bloomberg, an acquaintance from the philanthropy circuit, for public-relations assistance.
Emails obtained by ProPublica show Sackler heirs and Purdue staff strategizing how best to leverage their connections to Bloomberg. “I am meeting with Michael Bloomberg tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to seek his help and guidance on the current issues we are facing,” former Purdue board member Mortimer Sackler wrote in a note to company executives. “I plan to discuss the following with him: 1. Current narrative vs the truth. 2. What advice does he have on how best to deal with it? 3. Does he have a journalist that he would recommend who could get the FULL story out there?”
In response, the company’s head of communications, Josephine Martin, urged the Sackler heir to “thank” Bloomberg. “Any positive news or ability to get our side out is through Bloomberg. We have given them exclusives and they have treated us very well,” Martin said, appearing to refer to the media company Bloomberg owns and named after himself.
(Bloomberg spokesperson Kevin Sheekey “said the Sacklers tried to use their relationship with Bloomberg for the family’s benefit, but were mostly unsuccessful,” in response to the report. In a statement to Intelligencer, a spokesperson for Mortimer Sackler insisted that no member of the family “ever asked Michael Bloomberg to interfere with, or influence coverage of the Sackler family or Purdue Pharma,” and that the meetings with Bloomberg and his staff were focused on finding solutions to the opioid crisis.)
The communications published by ProPublica unveil the inner workings of a world most people will never enter. In the rarefied circles through which Bloomberg and the Sacklers move, money is a wall. Stack it high enough, and it blocks a person’s sins from public view. Because of their money, and the way they used it, the Sacklers used philanthropy to shield themselves not just from criticism, but from scrutiny. When their defenses began to crumble, Bloomberg was there to shore them up.
According to ProPublica, Bloomberg urged Mortimer Sackler to develop a list of talking points and helped the family find a crisis-communications manager: his own longtime spokesman, Stu Loeser. Loeser, by his own account, told the Sacklers to develop a program designed to fight the crisis they’d helped start. “I went into this thinking this was a family that had such a massive need to change things that they were willing to take on a massive project to help people. Obviously, that didn’t happen,” Loeser told ProPublica. Later, Loeser, Sackler, and Purdue’s CEO, Craig Landau, met with Kelly Henning, the head of health initiatives at Bloomberg Philanthropies, to pitch the charitable organization on a joint media campaign. (A spokesperson for Purdue told New York that there are “conflicting accounts of this meeting,” and that “according to Purdue and Mr. Sackler, the goal of the meeting was to explore potential partnerships for the purpose of combating the abuse and diversion of prescription opioids.”) The plan failed, Henning said, because Sackler himself blamed patients themselves for becoming dependent on Oxycontin. (Mortimer Sackler’s representative insists they have no record any such proposal from Loeser, and that “Mr. Sackler does not now and never did believe or state that people suffering from addiction are to blame for their addiction, and any suggestion otherwise is false and reprehensible.” A representative for Purdue echoed that sentiment in an email. Landau was present at the meeting, they said, to “explore potential partnerships” for fighting the opioid crisis. “The suggestion that, during this meeting, there was a discussion of blaming the epidemic on drug abusers is not only completely false, but actually the complete opposite of what actually happened,” they added.)
Bloomberg’s decision to assist the Sacklers may stem from a broader sense of class loyalty. ProPublica’s reporting doesn’t only focus on the help he offered the beleaguered Purdue heirs; it also documents what some sources characterize as his defensive posture toward the rich. Though some former journalists and editors for Bloomberg’s media company denied that they had been told to soften or pull coverage critical of the superrich, others reported that Bloomberg made it difficult for them to do their jobs. “People would say, ‘That’s a friend of Mike’s,’ or mostly they’d just say ‘FOM,’” Mary Childs, a former Bloomberg reporter, told ProPublica. At one point, Bloomberg reportedly threatened to discontinue Bloomberg View after a columnist ridiculed a donation that a wealthy Bloomberg friend made to Harvard University.
Some sources also claim that Bloomberg’s distaste for skeptical coverage of the rich may have directly protected the Sacklers. Brendan Coffey, a journalist who formerly worked on the media company’s billionaires team, told ProPublica that he had begun building a model to quantify the extent of the Sackler fortune, but dropped it due to ambivalent treatment from his editors. “After Mike came back [from serving as mayor], the wind shifted,” Coffey said. “It was a culture of not wanting to upset billionaires.”
Mortimer Sackler has since fled the U.S. for Europe, if “Page Six” can be believed. (A spokesperson for Mortimer Sackler took umbrage with this characterization. “The Sacklers are spending the winter in Switzerland at a home their family has owned for generations. They will be returning to the U.S. in the near future,” they said. The New York state attorney general had previously uncovered about “$1 billion in wire transfers by the Sackler family, including through Swiss bank accounts, suggesting that the family tried to shield wealth as it faced a raft of litigation over its role in the opioid crisis,” the New York Times reported last September; the Sacklers denied wrongdoing. The family reportedly owns property in Gstaad, an upscale ski resort town favored by the super-wealthy.) His old friend Bloomberg, meanwhile, is a Democratic candidate for president, and he’s devoted millions to the cause of buying himself more power. “I have been training for this job since I stepped on the pile that was still smoldering on 9/11. I know what to do,” he insisted during the last Democratic debate. But his past relationship with the Sacklers is a symptom of underlying disease, not an isolated error in judgement. Bloomberg’s sense of class solidarity — his sympathy for the rich, and his disdain for everyone else — isn’t news, and it isn’t unusual. He shares it with Sackler, and with Sackler’s relatives, who also blamed sufferers for their own troubles. Mortimer’s cousin, Richard, once insisted that “abusers aren’t victims; they are the victimizers.” Bloomberg tried to grant the Sacklers the absolution they wanted.
Now that the mayor is on a national stage, in the glare of voters who feel no loyalty to him or to billionaires like him, he may soon wish for absolution, too. Bloomberg reserved his severest judgement for the people the opioid crisis killed, and not for the people who helped make it worse. At a meeting of the Bermuda Executive Forum last year, Bloomberg ridiculed a Brooklyn father and son who died from heroin overdoses during the same night. A video uncovered by the New York Daily News shows a relaxed Bloomberg, who remarks, to laughter, that the two men were “not a good family.” Bloomberg is selective about the families he likes, it seems — but not too selective. A fortune is all it takes to earn his favor.
This post has been updated to include responses from a spokesperson for Mortimer Sackler.