News Brief: Mueller Report, Opioid Bankruptcies, Venezuela Refugees

Jun 11, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 7:00 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Justice Department will turn over documents to Congress after all.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. So for weeks now, House leaders have been demanding information from the Trump administration. And again and again, the administration has said, no, you're not getting it. The information includes underlying evidence gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller as he looked at Russia's support for President Trump's election. Now both sides say they reached a deal for lawmakers to actually see this evidence.

INSKEEP: Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR News. He's in our studios. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are lawmakers getting to see, so far as you know?

LUCAS: Well, this is a deal between the House Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department. The committee's chairman is a Democrat, Jerry Nadler. He's been waging, basically, a pretty public battle against the Department and the attorney general to get his hands on more materials from Mueller's investigation. The committee even subpoenaed these documents. Under this agreement, they will now get their hands on some of them. We don't know the full scope, at this point, of what they'll be able to see. Neither the Department nor Nadler or other lawmakers are actually saying right now.

What Nadler has said, though, is that the Department will hand over what he calls key evidence that Mueller used to assess whether the president or others in the administration obstructed justice or engaged in some other misconduct. He says that lawmakers need these materials in order to carry out what he says are their constitutional duties to figure out what they want to do about those allegations against the president in the Mueller report.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, there were a couple big parts of the Mueller report. One was, what did Russia do in the election? And was there some kind of conspiracy with the Trump campaign? The other thing was, did President Trump obstruct justice? And it sounds like these documents relate to that latter thing, we think.

LUCAS: That is correct.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's what the deal entails. How does that compare, so far as we know, with what the Democrats want?

LUCAS: Well, remember, Democrats initially wanted the full, unredacted Mueller report and all of the underlying evidence. Remember, there were four categories of materials that were blacked out in the version that was made public. Those include grand jury materials, things that could reveal sensitive intelligence matters. The Justice Department made a less redacted version available to a select group of congressional leaders. That was not enough for Democrats. There's been a lot of back-and-forth between the committee and the Department.

Democrats also want the underlying materials that investigators collected. Now, that includes FBI interviews with witnesses, notes or memos from White House aides. They say that those materials are critical to understand how and why investigators made the decisions that they did and to get the full scope of the allegation against the president.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear, the House Democrats are not at this point saying we want this stuff for an impeachment inquiry, right? They're looking into the Mueller report, but not actually going for impeachment at the moment.

LUCAS: They are not talking about impeachment right now. This is about drawing conclusions from the information that they can get.

INSKEEP: Help me understand here. Even though there is this deal, the House is going ahead with a resolution today targeting attorney general William Barr.

LUCAS: That is correct. So the House is going to vote on a resolution that would authorize the Judiciary Committee to go to court to enforce its subpoenas against the attorney general, William Barr, and against former White House counsel Don McGahn. Remember, the White House has refused to allow McGahn to testify before the committee or to turn over documents to the committee. This is something that has really, really angered Democrats. They've doubled down, pointed to that to enforce their accusations that the White House is essentially trying to obstruct a congressional investigation.

Now, today's vote fast-tracks the authority for other committees to go to courts to enforce their subpoenas as well. But the important point here is that the House is not voting to hold Bill Barr in contempt of Congress. That would've been a much bigger deal. The last-minute agreement that they struck seems to - averted that, at least for now.

INSKEEP: So one set of documents is being turned over, plenty of other debates and disputes about other kinds of evidence and other investigations.

LUCAS: Right.

INSKEEP: Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All right. A drug company blamed for a role in the opioids crisis has now filed for bankruptcy. It's a company once notorious for its sales practices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BY CHOICE")

Z REAL: (Rapping) Insys Therapeutics, that is our name. We're raising the bar, and we're changing the game. To be great, it takes a decision to be better than the competition...

INSKEEP: OK.

MARTIN: Wow. Yeah. So that's a clip from a video about the company, which is called Insys Therapeutics. They use this video to train sales reps. The video also featured a person dressed up as a giant bottle of the company's fentanyl spray. Prosecutors played this video as evidence in a trial against Insys executives, who were convicted last month.

INSKEEP: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann covers opioid legislation or opioid litigation for NPR. He's been following this story closely. He joins us via Skype. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what went wrong, ultimately, for this company?

MANN: Yeah. You know, Insys sold a quarter billion dollars of products just a couple of years ago. This Subsys product with fentanyl in it, it was their biggest product. But it turns out this was really addictive and a really dangerous drug, like so many that the pharmaceutical industry marketed in recent years.

So the company pleaded guilty to a series of felony charges, including claims that they bribed doctors to prescribe their medication, pushing it to patients who shouldn't have been using it. They're going to pay the government $225 million in penalties. And then company founder John Kapoor and four other Insys executives, as you mentioned, they were convicted last month on racketeering charges.

INSKEEP: That is pretty direct, when the company is admitting to bribing doctors to prescribe an addictive medication. If you want to find somebody involved in the opioids crisis, it's harder to get more - hard to get more direct than that. But why did the company need to take the step of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection?

MANN: Right. So they settled with the federal government - Insys did - but there's still a lot of other opioid-related lawsuits out there pending against the company. So in a statement yesterday, CEO Andrew Long described those legacy legal challenges as one of the problems the company faces. And to cap all that, Steve, you know, sales of their products have plummeted. So they've announced they'll go through bankruptcy proceedings. They'll try to resolve all these liabilities and then just see what's left of the company.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. People are prescribing - doctors are prescribing fewer opioids these days. And they're being pushed...

MANN: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...By the government to prescribe fewer opioids these days, which I guess mean fewer profits for the company. So could other companies be following this one into bankruptcy?

MANN: You know, the big companies - Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, Walmart, CBS - they have really deep pockets, a lot of assets. They're not likely to go this route. But executives at companies like Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin - that really controversial opioid - they've already floated the possibility of bankruptcy. And this is being talked about in courtrooms across the country.

Remember, more than 1,800 state and local governments now have filed these opioid-related suits. So penalties and settlements could run into the tens of billions of dollars, rivaling those Big Tobacco settlements of the 1990s. And so the question really is, how much can these companies pay without going out of business?

INSKEEP: Will bankruptcy filings mean that state and local governments, who say they need this money to treat people and help people, that they'll be out of luck?

MANN: Well, the company - the attorneys representing those local governments say they're going to now dig through what's left at Insys, see if there are some assets there. They say their goal is not to bankrupt these companies. They're looking to get money, though, to communities that do need help right now, helping with this epidemic that's still raging in much of the country.

INSKEEP: Brian Mann, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All right. The United Nations is now reporting the number of people fleeing Venezuela has topped 4 million.

MARTIN: Yeah. That number reflects those who have left the country since 2015. One million refugees have fled in the last seven months alone. This is all because of the economic and political crisis there in Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, are still in this standoff over who is actually the country's legitimate leader. Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration have released this joint statement saying Venezuelans are now one of the largest population groups displaced from their country.

INSKEEP: Reporter John Otis has been talking with Venezuelans both inside and outside the country in recent weeks. And he's on the line. Hi there, John.

JOHN OTIS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start in Venezuela, where I know you recently were. What conditions did you see?

OTIS: Well, it was really quite bad. One of the first things you'll notice there these days are the epic gas lines. People are sleeping in their cars for up to a week in order to fill up their gas tanks. That's partly because the oil industry has collapsed and also due to U.S. sanctions, and Venezuela needs to import chemicals to produce gasoline. And then sometimes drivers would get up to the gas pump, and the electricity would go out. So then they wouldn't be able to fill up their tanks anyway after waiting in line for so long.

I was in a port town where people would board flimsy boats to try to immigrate, try to get to the nearby islands of Aruba and Curacao. And then, also, hyperinflation is very evident. There's even a shortage of currency because you need so much to buy things.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

OTIS: The bolivar, which is the Venezuelan currency, is almost worthless, and the largest bill is only about 10 cents. So it's a pretty grim picture.

INSKEEP: So I know a lot of people decide they can't take it anymore. They leave the country. Our colleague Ari Shapiro has reported on some of the dramatic stories of people who flee Venezuela going westward into Colombia, where you now are. Has that refugee flow grown even larger in the last few weeks?

OTIS: Yeah. It's really big. Colombia now has 1.3 million refugees. It shares a long border with Colombia, so this is sort of the main destination point. And something like 1 million have fled from Venezuela in just the last six or seven months, according to the U.N. Venezuelans are also going to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. They seem to want to stay in Latin America to a large degree because, if there ever is a change of government at home, they're a little bit closer in order to get back.

And then one upside that sometimes doesn't get mentioned in this refugee crisis is that a lot of these migrants are - find work in these countries, and they're able to send U.S. dollars back to their loved ones in Venezuela. And so many Venezuelans these days depend on U.S. dollars to survive.

INSKEEP: And it was a kind of middle-class country. I'm sure a lot of the people have skills and education and things they can contribute. But are the Latin American countries, the neighbors, able to absorb so many people?

OTIS: You know, there is some growing xenophobia. Peru is now putting new restrictions on the influx of Venezuelans into their country, requiring a visa. But other countries have had an open-door policy so far, but we'll have to see if that continues as the Venezuela crisis gets worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF KLEERUP'S "GLAS")

INSKEEP: John, thanks for the update, really appreciate your reporting.

OTIS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That is reporter John Otis, who was recently in Venezuela, is now in Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.