Long celebrated as civic-minded philanthropists, the Sacklers were becoming pariahs. The billionaire family whose company created and pushed the addictive painkiller OxyContin had managed to escape connection with the opioid crisis for years, but now two magazine pieces were portraying them as pain profiteers. Museums that had sought their donations were being asked about giving the money back. Mortimer D.A. Sackler — son of a co-founder of the company, Purdue Pharma, and a member of its board — was openly furious.
And so he turned to a person he knew and admired in the media industry. A person known as a devoted public health crusader, widely recognized for banning smoking in public places and pushing soda taxes around the country: Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire ex-mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg L.P.
"I am meeting with Michael Bloomberg tomorrow morning at 10 am to seek his help and guidance on the current issues we are facing," Sackler wrote to Purdue's top executives in December 2017. "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"?
"The first thing you should [do] is to thank Bloomberg," Purdue's head of communications, Josephine Martin, responded. "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."
Previously undisclosed emails, including some filed in lawsuits against Purdue and others provided by sources, reveal a little-known relationship, forged in part by mutual philanthropic interests, between the Sacklers and Michael Bloomberg. They show that when the Sacklers were facing critical media coverage, they looked to Bloomberg and his news and philanthropic organizations for help. Bloomberg advised Mortimer Sackler on how to handle negative coverage in 2017, and steered the family to a crisis communications specialist who had been his mayoral press secretary. In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies staff met with Sackler to discuss launching a joint initiative to combat the opioid crisis.
Now that Michael Bloomberg has joined the Democratic presidential campaign, his history in public life, his role as a news executive and his business history are being re-examined. As his rivals criticize his wealth and accuse him of trying to buy the nomination, his relationship with the Sacklers could prove problematic. Unlike some other candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Bloomberg has not publicly denounced the Sacklers for their role in fostering the opioid epidemic. While "it is not Mike's usual practice to call out individual companies or company owners," a spokesperson for Bloomberg Philanthropies said, he has "certainly called out" opioid manufacturers as a group.
Bloomberg spokesman Kevin Sheekey said the Sacklers tried to use their relationship with Bloomberg for the family's benefit, but were mostly unsuccessful. Mortimer Sackler "clearly had an agenda. Clearly, he's a bit of a Keystone Cop," Sheekey said. "Their philanthropy was set up because they had an interest in art institutions and putting their names on them. And they are now trying to leverage that around a business crisis. What has their leverage bought them other than party invites? In relationship to us, we haven't been able to find it."
A spokesperson for Sackler family members said the family valued Bloomberg's guidance on protecting its public image. "Mortimer saw Bloomberg as a very smart person in media," the spokesperson said. He "sought his advice on how Purdue should communicate its position with respect to the opioid crisis. It is therefore disappointing, in the context of current public controversies, to see those who embraced these meetings now attempting to distance themselves from efforts that were undertaken with the best of intentions."
It's hardly unusual for rich people to become acquainted through charitable causes, or to attempt to exploit those relationships for some other purpose. The Sacklers relied on philanthropic networking to insulate themselves from scrutiny, said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, who has written extensively on the opioid crisis. "I'm not surprised Bloomberg and the Sacklers would know each other, but it is disappointing, given Bloomberg's huge public health commitments, that he would do this," Humphreys said.
Bloomberg and the Sacklers began crossing paths at charity events around New York in the 2000s. Bloomberg and the Sacklers supported several of the same arts institutions. Bloomberg and Mortimer Sackler were formally introduced by an event coordinator working for Bloomberg's corporate arm. Jonathan Sackler, another Purdue board member, donated to some of the same school causes as Bloomberg and attended a charter school fundraiser at Bloomberg's New York home.
The most visible sign of the relationship came in 2013, when Bloomberg co-hosted a gala at the opening of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London. Mortimer Sackler and other family members attended and were feted as major donors. Other guests included Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, royal relative Pippa Middleton, and then-London Mayor Boris Johnson. Bloomberg was named the next chair of the Serpentine Galleries — his organization had given about $2 million to the new wing — and posed for photos with Theresa Sackler, Mortimer's stepmother and a fellow member of the Purdue board.
"It was one of those parties where you can see anyone, as long as they're really famous and really rich," recalled Vanity Fair London editor Henry Porter. "Bloomberg fit in well — he's not the gawky out-of-towner." Bloomberg gave a speech and praised the family, Porter said. Bloomberg News devoted three articles to the new gallery.
Then nearing the end of his third and last term as mayor of New York, Bloomberg was known for a "health in all policies" approach. His philanthropic organization made public health one of its chief priorities and funded anti-obesity and anti-smoking campaigns around the world. In 2013, a year when the opioid epidemic killed some 44,000 Americans, he set limits on painkiller prescriptions in public hospital emergency rooms.
One of the most widely prescribed and most potent opioids was Purdue's blockbuster painkiller, OxyContin. The company had pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal charge of misbranding for understating how addictive the pills were, and agreed to pay more than $600 million in fines and penalties. (The Sacklers were not charged with any wrongdoing.) But much of the media coverage of the Sackler family continued to focus on their elegant lifestyle. Around the same time as the London gala, Mortimer Sackler's wife completed a photo shoot for an eight-page spread in Vogue about the down-to-earth aesthetic at their home in the Hamptons. The story made no mention of the opioid crisis, or the source of the family's wealth.
Within his news organization, Bloomberg was known to dislike what he saw as intrusions into the personal lives of the very rich. In 2011, when he was serving as mayor and staying away from day-to-day news coverage, Bloomberg News started a billionaires team, which ranked the fortunes of the wealthy. When he returned to his company in 2014, Bloomberg made a tour of Bloomberg offices around the world and told staff members he did not see a need for the team. He said he disliked the way it invaded the privacy of rich people, according to current and former reporters. Then-Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel recalled that Bloomberg would grumble about what he considered harsh coverage of the wealthy. "It was a handful of harmless asides. He might say, 'Why is that news? Why do we have to probe into that stuff?'" Tyrangiel said.
The magazine's editors paid close attention to the tone of stories about the rich, said Brad Wieners, then Bloomberg Businessweek's executive editor. "We felt like the blow better count. It would be easy for me to want to be snarky about anybody who had a high net worth. But I had to counsel myself, we're not just here to make fun of rich people," he said.
When it came to coverage of their family and its business, the Sacklers felt comfortable reaching out. In fall 2014, Theresa Sackler called then-Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones to express concern about a forthcoming Bloomberg Businessweek story.
"Theresa Sackler rang me about a reporter from Bloomberg who is tracking everyone in the Sackler family and is writing what she believes will be an unflattering article referring to Sackler 'dirty drug money,'" Peyton-Jones emailed Jemma Read, the London-based head of Bloomberg Corporate Philanthropy. "Theresa thinks that MB's name could be mentioned in the article. She has no wish to interfere editorially in any way, however, she does want to alert Mike to the situation, and I would be grateful if you could make him aware of it."
Read then emailed Theresa Sackler, asking for the reporter's name. Sackler responded by identifying David Armstrong, then a reporter on Bloomberg's investigations team. "We REALLY don't want to interfere in any journalist's work," she wrote. "Just would not wish MB to be embarrassed by his association with the Serpentine Sackler gallery." Read followed up by emailing Armstrong (now a senior reporter at ProPublica), asking when the story was scheduled to appear.
The piece was dropped from the magazine's lineup a day before the issue closed and later ran in a shortened version on Bloomberg's website and terminal. Editors who worked on the story say that it was handled on its journalistic merits, and that such last-minute changes were common.
"At no point during my tenure was Bloomberg Businessweek subjected to editorial interference of any kind, from anywhere, including Bloomberg LP or its philanthropy arm," Tyrangiel said. Any suggestion otherwise, he said, is "100% false. I'd remember if anyone had tried to interfere with or suppress this story, and I'd have enjoyed telling them to fuck off."
A spokesman for the news organization said that the Sacklers had no influence on the story and that Bloomberg himself was not involved, and was not contacted about it.
Aware that Bloomberg Businessweek was working on the Sackler story, Brendan Coffey, then a member of the billionaires team, started to build a model to evaluate their wealth. But he realized it wasn't a priority for his editors, and didn't finish the project. "After Mike came back, the wind shifted," said Coffey, who has since left Bloomberg. "It was a culture of not wanting to upset billionaires."
Bloomberg News senior executive editor Matt Miller said Michael Bloomberg "never discussed the ranking or our coverage directly with me, and never interfered with our work." In 2015, Forbes listed the Sacklers as one of the 20 richest families in America, ahead of the Rockefellers, with $14 billion in wealth. But the Sacklers still were not included on the Bloomberg billionaires list. Two Bloomberg executives said it was difficult to credit the family's widely dispersed wealth to any particular member.
When stories angered Bloomberg's friends, reporters heard about it. "People would say, 'That's a friend of Mike's,' or mostly they'd just say 'FOM,'" former Bloomberg reporter Mary Childs said. In 2015, Bloomberg complained at an editors' meeting that reporters were going too far in their coverage of the rich. He cited as an example a recent story about Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Bloomberg told the group of editors that a reference to Blankfein's residences in the New York area was an invasion of privacy. After this, editors told the billionaires team to go back and erase addresses and pictures of billionaires' homes from their biographies on the Bloomberg terminal and website.
A Bloomberg spokesperson said reporters have not been told to go easy on billionaires or Bloomberg's friends, "and if you look at our published work, that is completely untrue."
That same year, Bloomberg threatened to shutter Bloomberg View, part of the news organization's opinion section, after getting a call from a friend, the billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson. Paulson was upset about a snarky column that suggested his record-breaking donation to Harvard should have gone to "literally any other charity." Bloomberg cooled down over the weekend and decided that Bloomberg View could stay open, but the columnist was given a talking to, according to people familiar with the incident.
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In October 2017, Esquire and The New Yorker both published stories that detailed how the Sacklers had profited from OxyContin abuse. Response was immediate and shattering for the family. Reporters and activists started asking the museums and foundations that had taken Sackler money if they would give it back. Outraged, Mortimer Sackler arranged to meet with Michael Bloomberg. In an email, he told Bloomberg he wanted to discuss "very important family and philanthropy matters."
Over the years, Purdue had given Bloomberg News reporters exclusives about the company's fight against a growing number of lawsuits by cities and towns accusing it of understating the risks of OxyContin and spurring the opioid epidemic. Communications head Josephine Martin now sent around a list of what the drug maker saw as favorable stories, and recommended asking for Bloomberg's help shifting public attention toward the trade in illegal opioids. "They were the only outlet we've gone on-the-record to discuss litigation," she wrote, prepping Sackler for the meeting. "I do think asking for his insights into the false narrative and our struggle to get a broader story about illegal heroin/fentanyl would be helpful."
Sackler offered that Bloomberg might be willing to use his connections with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Would the Bloomberg School of Public Health/someone senior there be interested in being involved, working on this in some way, maybe as part of an independent advisory Board to the company and Government/country on this?" he wrote.
Mortimer Sackler and Michael Bloomberg met at the Bloomberg LP offices in New York, joined by Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patricia Harris. A spokesperson for Bloomberg said he took the meeting out of courtesy. Bloomberg told Sackler that the company should develop a list of 10 talking points, according to people familiar with the conversation. He also encouraged Sackler to have a conversation with Bloomberg Philanthropies, a spokesperson for Sackler said.
After the meeting, Sackler asked Purdue's communications team to create a list of media messages and send it to him for review. One former Purdue executive said Sackler continued to repeat Bloomberg's advice on conference calls and at meetings into 2019. "He'll say, 'When I met with Mike Bloomberg, he said we need to have messages, so what are they?'" the executive recalled.
Bloomberg also helped the Sacklers find a crisis communications manager. He recommended his longtime mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser, who was running a private firm that touted his "political instincts and deep connections."
A Bloomberg Philanthropies spokesperson said it was a purely professional recommendation. "If someone were to ask Mike for a recommendation for a doctor, he'd send you to his physician," the spokesperson said.
Purdue then hired Loeser, who unsuccessfully recommended that Purdue announce a program to combat the opioid epidemic. "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 said. A spokesperson for Sackler family members denied Loeser's account, and said he didn't propose such an initiative while working for the company.
Mortimer Sackler followed up with Harris about speaking with the head of public health initiatives at Bloomberg Philanthropies, Kelly Henning. Harris responded that Henning was "very eager to meet." In February 2018, Sackler, Loeser and Purdue CEO Craig Landau discussed the opioid epidemic with Henning at the philanthropies' offices.
There are conflicting accounts of the proposals Sackler made at that meeting. Henning said Sackler proposed that the two organizations collaborate on a media campaign. She said he implied that drug abusers were to blame for the opioid crisis. "He presented that it's the people's fault, not the industry's fault," she said.
A spokesperson for Sackler said that he offered to team up with Bloomberg Philanthropies to help fight the opioid crisis, and that no media campaign was discussed. "The sole purpose of the meeting was to find ways to help find solutions to a serious health care problem," the spokesperson said, adding that Sackler "does not now and never did believe or state that people suffering from addiction are to blame for their addiction."
A Purdue Pharma spokesperson said Landau attended the meeting "to explore potential partnerships for the purpose of combating the abuse and diversion of prescription opioids." It is "completely false" to suggest that there was any discussion of blaming the epidemic on drug abusers, the spokesperson said.
As public opinion turned against the family, Mortimer, the last remaining Sackler on the Purdue board, stepped down in January 2019. Two months later, the billionaires team finally measured the Sacklers' wealth. It found that the family, despite its recent woes, was worth $13 billion. In April, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery said it has "no future plans to accept funding from the Sacklers." Purdue filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September.
Loeser no longer works for Purdue; he's back with Bloomberg, serving as a spokesman for his presidential campaign. To focus on the campaign, Bloomberg has taken a temporary leave from chairing the Serpentine and Serpentine Sackler Galleries.
Editors' Note: ProPublica senior editor Daniel Golden, who edited this story, previously worked at Bloomberg News. He was not involved in editing David Armstrong's 2014 article about the Sacklers, but he exchanged emails with Armstrong about the decision to pull it from Bloomberg Businessweek. After a Bloomberg spokesman expressed concern about Golden's role in this story, ProPublica's editor in chief, Stephen Engelberg, co-edited the final drafts.
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