On October 24, 2006, the night before John Brownlee the US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia completed a plea bargain with Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, he received a phone call from Michael Elston Chief of Staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty who urged him to go slow. Elston was acting on behalf of a Purdue Pharma executive and was contacted by Mary Jo White a former US Attorney representing Purdue Pharma. It is unlikely that Elston acted without McNulty’s knowledge.
The Oxycontin case had been brought because Purdue Pharma had downplayed the dangers and addictive nature of the painkiller. Between 2000 and 2001, it was blamed for 146 deaths and may have been responsible for as many as 318 others. Despite Elston’s call, Brownlee went through with the plea deal which included the company pleading guilty to one felony and being fined $635 million. Three former executives also pled guilty to misdemeanors. This was actually a fairly light punishment seeing as the company had made billions off Oxycontin and none of the executives pled to felonies. 8 days after the settlement, Brownlee’s name appeared on a list kept by Elston of US Attorneys to be fired. In the event, Brownlee kept his job.