WASHINGTON — Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture or distribute highly addictive pain pills have hired dozens of officials from the top levels of the Drug Enforcement Administration during the past decade, according to a Washington Post investigation.
The hires came after the DEA launched an aggressive campaign to curb a rising opioid epidemic that has resulted in thousands of overdose deaths each year. In 2005, the DEA began to crack down on companies distributing inordinate numbers of pills such as oxycodone to pain-management clinics and pharmacies.
Since then, the pharmaceutical companies and their law firms have hired at least 42 officials from the DEA — 31 from the division responsible for regulating the industry, according to work histories compiled by The Washington Post and interviews with current and former agency officials.
‘‘The number of employees recruited from that division points to a deliberate strategy by the pharmaceutical industry to hire people who are the biggest headaches for them,’’ said John Carnevale, a former director of planning for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy who now runs a consulting firm. ‘‘These people understand how DEA operates, the culture around diversion and DEA’s goals, and they can advise their clients how to stay within the guidelines.’’
The DEA’s Diversion Control Division, tasked with preventing prescription drugs from reaching the black market, wields enormous power. It can suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors, pharmacies, and pharmaceutical companies that fail to comply with federal law.
From 2000 to 2015, nearly 180,000 people have died of overdoses from prescription painkillers in what public health authorities have called an epidemic.
It is not unusual for corporations to hire federal employees away from the government. Their expertise and inside knowledge can be invaluable, but there are laws and regulations to slow the ‘‘revolving door’’ in Washington and prevent conflicts of interest.
The restrictions include a lifetime ban on participating ‘‘personally and substantially’’ on a ‘‘particular matter’’ the official handled while at the federal government. There also is a two-year ban on switching sides on a wider array of matters that were in the employee’s official purview. State bar associations impose additional post-employment restrictions for government lawyers.
An industry spokesman said former DEA diversion officials are hired for their expertise.
‘‘Our industry is highly specialized, and the function of drug-diversion experts even more so,’’ said John M. Gray, chief executive of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents drug distributors. ‘‘As such, for these individuals who want to continue to grow in their areas of expertise, it is logical for them to pursue government and industry roles that are closely aligned with their professional experience.’’
While the Post did not find evidence that the officials violated conflict-of-interest regulations, the number of hires from one key division shows how an industry can potentially blunt a government agency’s aggressive attempts at enforcement.
The DEA diversion officials who have gone to the industry since 2005 include two executive assistants who managed day-to-day operations; the deputy director of the division; the deputy chief of operations; two chiefs of policy; a deputy chief of policy; the chief of investigations; and two associate chief counsels.
‘‘It’s obvious that they targeted the office,’’ said Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the diversion division for a decade before he was removed from his position and retired in 2015. ‘‘If you want to understand how we were doing our investigations, the best way to do it is to take our people who are doing the investigations and put them in place in your company. It’s not difficult to understand why you would take these guys. They know the law.’’
Most of the officials went to work for the pharmaceutical industry and law firms within weeks of leaving the DEA. The Post found that several high-ranking DEA supervisors from outside the diversion division also took top jobs with industry: four special agents in charge and three assistant special agents in charge of field operations in some of the nation’s largest cities.
The DEA said in a statement that former employees must follow the law and ethics regulations in taking jobs in the private sector.
‘‘Many who serve in government possess expert knowledge in a wide variety of fields. It is not uncommon for former government officials to use or rely on such expertise when they transfer to the private sector following their public sector service,’’ DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said in the statement. ‘‘Employees who leave DEA and other government agencies for private sector work are expected to abide by the applicable laws and ethics rules that govern their private sector activities.’’
At least five of the 31 DEA employees were hired by McKesson, the nation’s largest drug distributor.
McKesson has been the subject of two publicly disclosed DEA enforcement actions, which resulted in $163 million in fines after allegations that the firm failed to report hundreds of suspicious orders for millions of pain pills from Internet pharmacies and others.
‘‘McKesson has put significant resources towards building a best-in-class controlled substance monitoring program to help identify suspicious orders and prevent prescription drug diversion in the supply chain,’’ the company said in a statement. ‘‘It is only natural that this team is comprised of a broad range of experts, including individuals who have spent time at DEA, as they bring deep knowledge of effective strategies to prevent diversion. Our team is deeply passionate about curbing the opioid epidemic in our country.’’
Only a few former DEA officials agreed to be interviewed. Those who did said they followed federal ethics guidelines.
‘‘I don’t feel like I took off the white hat and put the black hat on,’’ said Larry P. Cote, who left as the associate chief counsel of the diversion division in May 2012 to become a partner at the law firm Quarles & Brady, which advises some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies. ‘‘That’s really not what’s going on. It’s trying to get the best people in place to make sure that companies are staying compliant. And frankly, that benefits the DEA as much as it benefits the companies.’’
Cote said he obtained an ethics opinion from the DEA that advised him on which cases he could and could not handle in the private sector.
Ethics experts said revolving-door issues have been a long-standing concern across the government. President-elect Donald Trump recently criticized the revolving door at the Pentagon, for example, saying high-ranking officials ‘‘should never be allowed to go work’’ for defense contractors.
Scott H. Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington, said the trend at the DEA is “disturbing.”
‘‘It’s also another reminder of how well the revolving door is greased and how the revolving door can negatively impact government operations. It’s not a surprise that DEA isn’t as vigilant as it once was when so many ex-feds are working for the companies that they once investigated.’’
Once senior employees leave for jobs in the industry, they are in positions to help pharmaceutical companies comply with the complex laws and regulations that govern controlled substances. But ethics experts said they also can exploit weaknesses are aware of within the DEA.
Josephine Peterson contributed to this report.