With the Purdue Pharma Investigation, Rick Mountcastle Hoped to 'Hold Executives Accountable'
He’s being portrayed in the Hulu miniseries Dopesick by Peter Sarsgaard, but where is the real-life Rick Mountcastle now? Dopesick tells the story of the opioid crisis in the U.S. and Purdue Pharma’s marketing of OxyContin. And as The New York Times reported in a 2019 episode of its TV show The Weekly, Mountcastle is one of the prosecutors who launched an investigation into Purdue in 2002 and served as lead author on a prosecution memo about the pharmaceutical company.
According to The New York Times, this memo showed government lawyers’ belief that Purdue executives knew early on that OxyContin was being abused. It also showed that those same prosecutors had evidence suggesting that Purdue executives had misled both Congress and the American public.
Mountcastle said Purdue executives knew claims of OxyContin being less addictive than other painkillers were “false”
Mountcastle declined to discuss confidential information regarding the memo on The Weekly, but The New York Times reported on the memo’s content: prosecutors had uncovered internal records showing that Purdue executives learned OxyContin was being abused shortly after the drug started selling on the market. Prosecutors also found that executives sent reports to members of the Sackler family (whose representatives declined to provide comments to the Weekly episode).
“Purdue went about marketing it as less addictive than other painkillers and less subject to abuse, and that was false, and they knew it was false,” Mountcastle said on The Weekly, speaking publicly about the Purdue saga for the first time. After four years of investigation, Mountcastle and his colleagues sent a memo regarding potential felony fraud charges for Purdue’s CEO, general counsel, and chief medical officer, according to The New York Times.
“I think we were hoping that this would be the first step in a way of doing prosecutions of business entities that would hold executives accountable,” he said on The Weekly. But did that accountability happen? “Apparently not,” Mountcastle said. As The New York Times reported, Mountcastle’s boss, U.S. attorney John Brownlee, announced a settlement that involved Purdue paying more than $600 million in criminal and civil penalties, but the company’s executives served no jail time.
Mountcastle retired from the Justice Department in 2018, but he reflected on the Purdue investigation in a book
In a supplement to the Weekly episode, The New York Times reported that Mountcastle later became U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia and served in that position for 15 months, until then-president Donald Trump appointed a replacement. Mountcastle retired from the Justice Department later that year.
For the bestselling book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, published in April 2021, author Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed Mountcastle. And Mountcastle speculated that Purdue got a contact at the FDA to enable OxyContin. In fact, Mountcastle suspected that one FDA examiner in particular—one who later became an executive director for Purdue—turned a blind eye to OxyContin’s risks.
“I think there was a secret deal cut,” Mountcastle said in the book, reports The Guardian. “I can never prove it, so that’s just my personal opinion. But if you look at the whole circumstances, nothing else explains it."