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News Brief: Attorney General Barr, Opioid Bribery Case, Syrian War


Attorney General William Barr skipped the House hearing yesterday, the very same day Democrats accused him of breaking the law. That's a serious accusation that requires some context.


Right. So here it is. Back in April, Barr went before a House Appropriations Committee. He was asked by a Democratic member of Congress whether he was aware of reports that members of the special counsel's team had been frustrated with Barr's four-page summary of the Mueller report. Barr replied that he didn't know what these reports were referencing. Well, it has now come to light this week that Mueller had, in fact, sent the attorney general a letter prior to that hearing expressing his frustration with the lack of context in the summary.

So yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this of Barr.


NANCY PELOSI: The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That's a crime.

MARTIN: For its part, the Justice Department said that Speaker Pelosi's attack is, quote, "reckless, irresponsible and false," end quote.

GREENE: All right. One person following all of this - NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, who joins us. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey there. Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So the speaker of the House accusing the attorney general of lying and committing a crime. This whole back-and-forth is coming to a whole new place now.

SNELL: Yeah, the tension is absolutely ramping up. The comments from Pelosi kind of set the tone for how Democrats are approaching Barr now. And it really does signal a new phase of this confrontation with the Department of Justice. Democrats say a moment of accountability is coming. And they are really, really walking a tight line - between wanting to demonstrate that they can be tough and trying to take a slow and deliberate approach to asking for information from the Department of Justice and from the administration because they really want to maintain credibility with the investigations that they are hoping to continue for many years to come.

I mean, they are making this a very public show. They're making demands, including the one from the Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, for that unredacted version of the Mueller report. And they're really just kind of setting terms right now. This is all very procedural. But it's moving from the rhetorical space into one where there's the possibility of charges of contempt. And Pelosi's comments about Barr committing a crime are really, really big steps towards that kind of serious confrontation with the White House.

GREENE: Well, and this all - I mean, these accusations against the attorney general come as Barr refused to appear in the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. I mean, there was that empty chair we all saw on television. What exactly played out there?

SNELL: Yeah. Democrats set some terms, including a request for a possible closed session to question Barr. And the implosion yesterday was kind of all about sending a message from Democrats - that the administration can't dictate the terms of how a House process of investigating this administration is going to go. Now, Democrats say they wanted the option of asking - having committee lawyers ask questions of Barr. Nadler says they made a good effort to negotiate, and the Trump administration can't set the terms. So as much as there was a little bit of a stunt there and Republicans said that it was a spectacle that kind of undermined the appearance of Democrats being apolitical, there is really no avoiding politics in this. Democrats have a base of their own that says they want impeachment. And they're trying to figure out exactly how to strike the right balance of being tough.

GREENE: So as they try to strike that balance, what are we looking for to happen next?

SNELL: Yeah, the subpoenas - we are waiting. The president says he'll fight any congressional investigation. And, you know, that kind of sets up a showdown over who will comply and who will fight. Nadler gave DOJ a couple days to send over the unredacted report we've been talking about. So this is very likely to continue playing out next week.

GREENE: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: You're welcome.


GREENE: OK. So John Kapoor is the founder of the firm Insys Pharmaceutical. His company developed a prescription fentanyl spray. That's a product that helped turn the company into a billion-dollar enterprise.

MARTIN: Yeah, and now Kapoor is facing up to 20 years in prison. He was found guilty yesterday in a Boston courtroom, along with four of his colleagues, of conspiring to bribe doctors to prescribe fentanyl, which is a highly addictive drug. Significantly, it marked the first time any CEO from a pharmaceutical company has been convicted in a case linked to the country's opioid crisis.

GREENE: And we're joined now by Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH in Boston. She's been following this for us. Hi, Gabrielle.


GREENE: So explain a little bit more about what exactly this CEO and these individuals were convicted of doing here.

EMANUEL: Yeah. The prosecutors argued that these executives oversaw a nationwide scheme to boost sales of this very addictive opioid painkiller. (Inaudible) different steps. First, they targeted doctors who were known to overprescribe opioids. The former head of sales, who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution, said they ran toward pill mills, not away from them. So to Insys Therapeutics, he said pill mills meant dollar signs. The second step was bribing these doctors to write prescriptions. Often, that meant prescribing really strong opioids to patients who did not necessarily need it. They had a speakers program that was a sham, where doctors were paid not to give lectures but to write prescriptions. And then the final piece is they set up a whole call center, where Insys employees deceived insurance companies, saying whatever was necessary to get their expensive medication paid for. They even fabricated cancer diagnoses.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, I don't want to extrapolate too much from one company and one drug, but it feels like this trial might be giving us a real window into the opioid crisis.

EMANUEL: Yeah. So that's exactly right. This company kind of did outrageous things and have been found guilty. But many of their tactics actually were not unique. So, for example, Insys sales reps were given higher bonuses when they convinced doctors to write prescriptions in higher doses. The idea was get patients hooked and keep them coming back for more. We saw the same thing out of Purdue Pharma, another pharmaceutical company that's caught up in allegations that they fueled the opioid epidemic. Some of the sales reps even made a music video about this, where they boasted about (inaudible), which is a process called titration. Here's a clip of the video.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Rapping) We can come into your office. We can go and bring some lunch in. While your staff is getting fed, we can start discussing Subsys. Yes, lord...


EMANUEL: I was going to say it gets even crazier than that. There was a former exotic dancer who was hired as part of the sales team. She was one of the defendants who was found guilty yesterday in the trial. And she gave a lap dance to try and convince doctors to prescribe their opioid medication.

GREENE: Well, I just want to ask you - I mean, you had the chance to speak with some of the patients who were actually impacted by this scheme after the conviction. I mean, what did they tell you, and what are the implications of this trial moving forward now? What are they hoping for?

EMANUEL: They said this was huge. Basically, it was the first big criminal case to come out of the opioid crisis - pharmaceutical company executives being charged criminally. And it's not a civil case. That means they could go to prison for up to 20 years.

GREENE: All right. That's Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH. Thanks so much.

EMANUEL: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. Government forces have been bombarding one of the last rebel-held areas in Syria.

MARTIN: Yeah, witnesses say that Syrian and Russian airstrikes have hit hospitals, schools, civilians' homes. This is happening in what had been set aside as a buffer zone between Turkish- and Russian-controlled areas in Syria. And it comes as there are supposed to be these peace talks in Geneva that would include representatives from the United States.

GREENE: Let's turn to NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who is in Beirut. And, Ruth, it doesn't sound like this is a buffer zone anymore. This is serious - Idlib province. What's happening?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Right. Well, this is importantly the last main part of Syria that's controlled by rebel opponents of Bashar al-Assad. So, you know, the regime has won back a lot of the country in the last few years. And now they seem to be focusing on this area. And there's a huge amount at stake here. You know, it's a place that's swollen with civilians and - excuse me. Sorry. So for a long time, it's been essentially a last refuge for people who fled to other parts of the country. And aid workers are saying this could be a catastrophe if a full war takes hold.

GREENE: Well, what are we hearing about these strikes and how bad they've been in terms of civilians and how they're being impacted?

SHERLOCK: Well, we're hearing reports of an intense onslaught. You know, there's bombardment, airstrikes and barrel bombs. That's these crude TNT barrels that are full of explosives - the barrels that are full of TNT. And they're being - although there is fighting happening on the front lines, it seems that a lot of these are being also dropped in civilian neighborhoods.

We spoke to one rescue worker who said that a kindergarten had been destroyed. There are reports of hospitals hit. And we also spoke to a doctor - we're calling him just by his first name, Ahmed (ph), for his safety. And he is from the charity Hand in Hand.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So here he's saying, "The skies are never empty these days with those planes and helicopters firing missiles and barrels." And he says yesterday in one village, a family died, leaving behind this one little girl. You know, he's seen so much death over the last few years. And he's saying the international community only cares about numbers and not names. So he sent me a photograph of the family that died and told me to look at the little girl, who's now an orphan. She looked about no older than 3.

GREENE: Wow. Well, I mean, and this was supposed to be a buffer zone, right? I mean, this was supposed to be a relatively safe place - all sides had agreed upon. What does it tell us that that has just ended?

SHERLOCK: Well, that's right. So Turkey was concerned that the millions of people living in this area would try to flood across this border if a full war took place. So it struck this deal in September with the Syrian regime's ally Russia. And they were meant to try to keep the peace there. They're actually meant to be starting joint patrols in May. But both Turkey and Russia seem to be having difficulty convincing their respective sides - that's the rebels and the regime - to let this happen.

GREENE: Are there more talks coming that could bring some peace to this place?

SHERLOCK: Well, there are talks in Geneva on Friday with seven countries, including the U.S. But, you know, historically, these talks in Geneva have not come to a lot. And it's clear that each side is trying to gain as much ground as they can on - in this area ahead of the talks.


GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock for us in Beirut, covering that situation in that region in Syria. Ruth, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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