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As Costly Lawsuits Hit Opioid Makers, CEOs Collect Bonuses

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For most people who work, when a project goes horribly wrong, causes a scandal and costs your company a lot of money, you probably wouldn't expect a raise or a bonus. But critics say this is happening right now with CEOs at big drug companies tangled up in the opioid crisis. Companies are on the hook for billions of dollars in opioid settlements, but their CEOs keep getting richer. Correspondent Brian Mann reports on addiction for NPR and has this report.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Steve Collis is one of those executives you've probably never heard of who runs one of the biggest corporations in the world, AmerisourceBergen. If you go to the hospital or fill a prescription, it's a safe bet Collis' firm is working behind the scenes, getting a taste of the business. Here's Collis speaking to investors last month.

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STEVEN COLLIS: Our purpose-driven culture continues to empower our associates.

MANN: AmerisourceBergen set Collis' total compensation for 2020 at more than $14 million, which means Collis got a 25% raise. At the same time, he was negotiating to settle an avalanche of opioid lawsuits. That decision drives Shawn Wooden nuts.

SHAWN WOODEN: When leadership fails, a board of directors has to be willing to hold their executives accountable.

MANN: Wooden is treasurer for the state of Connecticut, which means he invests pension funds and other taxpayer money in AmerisourceBergen and other drug companies. Wooden believes Collis is getting that big payday despite leading his firm deep into the prescription opioid business and then agreeing to an opioid settlement that'll cost the company more than $6.5 billion.

WOODEN: Which nearly wipes out a decade - a decade's worth of the company's profits, total profits.

MANN: There's one more thing that ticks Wooden off. When calculating Collis' pay, AmerisourceBergen's board set the whole opioid mess aside. They just sort of wiped it from his performance review. In a statement to NPR, the company said that was consistent with a new pay policy approved in 2019. And it turns out a lot of firms neck deep in the opioid scandal are doing pretty much the same thing - negotiating costly settlements while giving their executives sweet paydays. Consider the case of Craig Landau, CEO of the firm that makes OxyContin.

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CRAIG LANDAU: On behalf of Purdue, as its current leader, I am profoundly sorry.

MANN: Landau led Purdue Pharma into bankruptcy in 2019, and then last year, his company admitted committing federal crimes tied to opioid sales. Landau, who's named in dozens of opioid lawsuits, says he did nothing personally wrong, and Purdue Pharma gave him a bonus worth nearly $3 million. During a congressional hearing in December, Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi urged Landau to give the money back. Here's Landau's response.

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LANDAU: I have already made - willingly made significant monetary concessions in order to move the bankruptcy process.

RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: So the answer is no. You want that $3 million at the expense of those opioid victims. Shame on you, Dr. Landau. Shame on you.

MANN: In a statement to NPR, Purdue Pharma praised Landau's leadership and said he was compensated appropriately. But Charles Elson, an expert on corporate governance and ethics at the University of Delaware, says this kind of thing leaves a really bad taste.

CHARLES ELSON: No matter how thick you slice it, it's still the same old baloney. I think that that's the problem here.

MANN: Elson says it's actually really common for American corporations to give executives big bonuses even after they screw up. The financial pain for things like billion-dollar opioid settlements - that gets passed along to the shareholders who invest in these companies.

ELSON: They're owned by average Americans as - through their retirement plans. So the shareholders are not simply a group of people on Wall Street. The shareholders are, in fact, all of us. We're damaged as well. And I think that that's why it's galling to see people rewarded.

MANN: This moment's been described as a reckoning for Big Pharma over its role in the opioid crisis. But experts say the CEOs and other top executives at these companies aren't feeling the sting. Their raises and bonuses just keep coming.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "BECAUSE I HEAR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.