Rudy Giuliani helped Purdue Pharma keep selling OxyContin. Here's the real story behind what's depicted in 'Painkiller.'

A close up shot of Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani outside state Supreme Court in Manhattan.Molly Crane-Newman/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
  • The new Netflix series "Painkiller" tells the story of OxyContin's rise.

  • Former New York City Mayor and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani plays a key role in the real-life story.

  • Giuliani helped Purdue Pharma strike a deal with the government to keep selling the drug.

The new Netflix series "Painkiller" offers a fictionalized retelling of the rise of the powerful opioid OxyContin, depicting the real-life characters involved in manufacturer Purdue Pharma's rapid ascent and subsequent downfall, including America's most infamous mayor himself — Rudy Giuliani.

While certain aspects of the drama series have been embellished or altered amid the Hollywood treatment, Giuliani's legal involvement in the Sackler family saga is rooted in reality.

The former New York City mayor and larger-than-life Trump ally helped Purdue Pharma continue to sell OxyContin even after federal prosecutors sought to make a case that the drug maker misled the public in claiming OxyContin was less addictive than other narcotics on the market.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died from opioid overdoses since the opioid crisis began in the 1990s, fueled at least in part, by OxyContin.

Purdue Pharma hired Giuliani back in 2002, representing the first client his consulting firm ever landed, The New York Times reported in 2007. Then-beloved as the mayor who saw New York City through the September 11 attacks, Giuliani was brought on to convince public officials that Purdue was a trustworthy company, according to the newspaper.

Giuliani emerges as a key character in "Painkiller" in the mid-aughts as fictional lawyer Edie Flowers, played by actress Uzo Aduba, is working on behalf of the US attorney's office to bring a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. Despite prosecutors' best efforts, the office ultimately reaches a deal with Purdue, which sees the company plead guilty to charges of fraudulent marketing and misbranding of OxyContin.

Part of the reason the company was able to reach that agreement was thanks to Giuliani's efforts as Purdue's lawyer. Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, who wrote the New Yorker article upon which the Netflix show draws heavily, reported that Giuliani originally tried to "scuttle the case."

Later, however, Giuliani and the other Purdue lawyers went above lead prosecutor John Brownlee's head to complain to James Comey, who was the deputy attorney general at the time, The Guardian reported.

According to the outlet, Giuliani eventually helped secure an agreement with Brownlee that prevented Purdue from facing additional prosecution over OxyContin and kept the company's senior executives who'd pleaded guilty as individuals from doing prison time. Instead, those individuals paid a collective $34.5 million in fines, while Purdue was fined $640 million.

By getting Brownlee to agree to prosecute the parent company, Purdue Frederick, rather than Purdue Pharma, Giuliani and his team were also able to prevent a ban against Purdue Pharma doing future business with the federal government, which manages public health programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and the Veterans Administration health system, The Guardian reported. This allowed Purdue to keep selling OxyContin without limitations, despite the guilty plea.

A representative for Giuliani defended the former' mayor's work with Purdue Pharma.

"I don't have time to be watching Netflix all night, but I have a sneaking suspicion Hollywood is less than faborable toward the mayor in this show," said Ted Goodman, an advisor to Mayor Giuliani. "I'll just remind people that we've reached a dangerous place in America if we are going to attack lawyers for upholding a pillar of American jurisprudence—the notion that every American has the right to counsel."

In an earlier statement emailed to Insider regarding "Painkiller," a representative for Purdue Pharma said:

"We have the greatest sympathy and respect for those who have suffered as a result of the opioid crisis, and we are currently focused on concluding our bankruptcy so that urgently needed funds can flow to address the crisis. Under our settlement, Purdue Pharma would cease to exist and Knoa Pharma, a newly formed company with a public-minded mission, would emerge. The settlement would deliver over $10 billion of value for opioid crisis abatement, overdose rescue medicines, and victim compensation."

August 18, 2023: This story has been updated to include a statement from Giuliani's representative.

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