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AP Exclusive: Colleges got millions from opioid maker owners

COLLIN BINKLEY and JENNIFER McDERMOTT
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Opioids Sacklers Universities

In this Sept. 26, 2019, photo, cars pass Rockefeller University in New York. Prestigious universities around the world, including Rockefeller, have accepted at least $60 million over the past five years from the family that owns the maker of OxyContin, even as the company became embroiled in lawsuits related to the opioid epidemic, financial records show. Rockefeller accepted more money from the Sacklers than any other school in recent history. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

BOSTON (AP) — Prestigious universities around the world have accepted at least $60 million over the past five years from the family that owns the maker of OxyContin, even as the company became embroiled in lawsuits related to the opioid epidemic, financial records show.

Some of the donations arrived before recent lawsuits blaming Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis. But at least nine schools accepted gifts in 2018 or later, when states and counties across the country began efforts to hold members of the family accountable for Purdue’s actions. The largest gifts in that span went to Imperial College London, the University of Sussex and Yale University.

Major beneficiaries of Sackler family foundations also include the University of Oxford in England and Rockefeller, Cornell and Columbia universities in New York, according to tax and charity records reviewed by The Associated Press.

In total, at least two dozen universities have received gifts from the Sackler family since 2013, ranging from $25,000 to more than $10 million, the records show.

Some skeptics see the donations as an attempt to salvage the family’s reputation.

“Money from the Sacklers should be understood as blood money,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a leading critic of the family and Purdue who has testified against the company in court and heads a program on opioid policy at Brandeis University, which was not among the schools identified in tax records as receiving donations from the Sacklers. “Universities shouldn’t take it, and universities that have taken it should give it back.”

Representatives of Sackler family members declined to comment.

The AP reviewed charitable giving from more than a dozen Sackler family foundations as reported to the Internal Revenue Service, the Canada Revenue Agency and the Charity Commission for England and Wales. The recipients included schools in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Israel.

For decades, the family has been a major philanthropic figure in the worlds of art, medicine and education. They were listed by Forbes magazine in 2016 as one of the nation’s 20 wealthiest families, with holdings of $13 billion.

Much of their giving has fueled research in genetics and brain development. Other gifts supported medical schools, student scholarships and faculty jobs. It amounts to a small fraction of universities’ overall fundraising, but schools say the money has been a boon to important programs.

When evaluating the ethics of Sackler gifts, some experts argue, it’s important to consider what schools knew about the family and when they knew it.

“We’re looking at this through the lens of what people know now,” said Ross Cheit, chairman of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission and a professor at Brown University, which has accepted donations from the Sacklers. “My sense is, during the time period we’re talking about, people’s views about that source of money changed _ a lot.”

As opioid deaths mounted, some schools joined with businesses and museums cutting ties with the family, but none plans to return the money. One school is redirecting unspent donations. Most schools refused to say whether they would accept donations in the future.

The financial records may not capture all giving by the family. Colleges are not required to disclose donation information, and many refused to provide details to the AP.

Purdue Pharma, which recently filed for bankruptcy, separately provided research money to some schools. Unlike nonprofit groups, it was not required to disclose its giving in publicly available tax forms.

Rockefeller University accepted more Sackler money than any other school in recent history, receiving more than $11 million from the Sackler Foundation in Canada. Most came from a single $10 million gift in 2014. Smaller donations continued through at least 2017. Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue Pharma, previously taught at the school.

Rockefeller, which enrolls about 200 students in graduate science programs, did not respond to requests for comment.

Behind Rockefeller was the University of Sussex in England, which received $9.8 million, according to tax records. A university spokesman said the school actually received about $4 million over the past decade, while another pledge “was not progressed.” The funding supports Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, which performs research of “paramount importance” that will continue for years, the school said.

Sussex did not say how it would handle future gift proposal from the Sacklers.

Oxford and the University of Glasgow in Scotland each received $5 million to $6 million, tax records show. Columbia University followed with nearly $5 million, while Imperial College London and McGill University in Montreal each received more than $3 million.

The AP contacted all universities that were identified in tax records as receiving more than $1 million, along with some that were not listed in tax records but previously publicized major gifts from the Sacklers.

Of those 20 schools, three _ Cornell, Yale and the California Institute of Technology _ said they had made formal decisions to reject future funding from the family.

Some schools said they had no plans to accept Sackler funding for the foreseeable future, including Brown and the University of Washington. Most others refused to disclose their plans.

At many schools, the money has already been spent. And even if officials wanted to return what’s left, it isn’t as simple as writing a check. There are tax hurdles and legal obstacles that can make it difficult to return gifts from charities.

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McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.

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Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley . Follow Jennifer McDermott on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JenMcDermottAP .