Michael Bloomberg, then New York City mayor, speaking with reporters outside the White House after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden on Feb. 27, 2013. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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.