To this day, Brian Merlen of Stamford wonders how many more lives could have been saved if he had just taken the deal.
It was 2020 and the whole world was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was another deadly pandemic lurking below the surface, one which Merlen had dedicated his life to fighting: opioid addiction.
Merlen had turned to a life of anti-opioid activism after an incident that occurred when he worked as a freelance cameraman filming a Colace commercial for Purdue. An activist started yelling at a Perdue representative while Merlen was filming. The exchange prompted Merlen to begin researching opioids, Perdue Pharma and the Sackler family. It was a life-changing moment that catapulted him into the realm of activism, nonprofit organizations and politics.
By 2020, Merlen was volunteering and working with Dita Bhargava and Shatterproof, a non-profit working to prevent and treat addiction. Bhargava, who lost a family member to an opioid-related death, serves as an ambassador for Shatterproof in addition to her finance career, political work and campaigning in Connecticut.
Merlen was also working with Fernando Alvarez, the art gallerist and activist responsible for placing artist Dominic Esposito’s “Heroin Spoon” sculpture outside Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford to protest the company’s manufacturing of OxyContin in 2018. The sculpture drew international attention to both the opioid crisis, Perdue Pharma and the Sackler family.
As public and political pressure mounted to do something about the opioid crisis and the manufacture and distribution of OxyContin, state attorneys general across the country began filing suit against Purdue and the Sacklers, eventually culminating in federal charges against the company and a massive bankruptcy settlement agreement in 2022.
But Merlen wanted more than a settlement; he wanted the Sacklers prosecuted and in 2020, he began to use his activism and deep knowledge of the opioid crisis to pressure political candidates, particularly sitting U.S. Congressmen from Connecticut, to do something more.
He had confronted Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes over campaign donations from the Sacklers, who had spread donations far and wide over the years. Both Murphy and Himes returned the donations, which was fine, in his opinion, but not enough. Merlen was very active on social media, calling out anybody and everybody connected to Purdue or the Sacklers.
Merlen decided one way he could bring more attention to the issue and push sitting politicians to advocate for prosecution would be to mount a primary race against Himes in Connecticut’s 4th district.
Merlen had attempted forays into politics in the past, running as a third-party candidate in local elections without success. He didn’t really think he could win a primary against a long-time sitting congressman with a massive war chest of money, but he thought the political pressure might be enough to get something – anything – done.
“I filed to run against Himes because he was up for re-election and it seemed like a way to push the issue forward,” Merlen said, but he noticed that he began to get the cold shoulder from his anti-opioid allies, particularly Bhargava. “I suspected it was because she didn’t want me criticizing the Democratic leadership so much.”
As it turns out, Merlen entering the primary race may have generated more attention than he bargained for, leaving him in a difficult position with a choice to make that still haunts him to this day.
Unbeknownst to Bhargava or Alvarez, Merlen had taken the call on speaker phone and his roommate, who also happened to serve on Stamford Board of Representatives at the time, Tom Pendell, was in the room and overheard the conversation.
“The tone of the conversation was just strange to me,” Pendell said in an interview. “It just seemed like promises were trying to be made to keep Brian from running, or at least for him to step down from his campaign. They were implying they would provide funding for Narcan. That was big for Brian. For him, that was like saving lives.”
Pendell says he encouraged Merlen to hang up the phone and immediately end the conversation when talk turned to securing money for opioid treatment through funding sources not allocated for opioid treatment.
“I just found it odd they were willing to go in such weird direction to make him happy and not run. Even considering offering funding that isn’t technically funding for opioids is a red flag for me,” Pendell said. “I didn’t have a good sense of it, and I was just like this doesn’t seem like something, even if they’re promising it to you, they could really fulfill. My sense of it was this is ridiculous, just get off the phone. They’re just blowing smoke to get you to step down.”
But Merlen didn’t hang up the phone. Instead, he decided to take another phone meeting with Alvarez, Bhargava and Rep. Himes. An April 7, 2020 email from Alvarez to Merlen outlined the “strategy for the call.”
According to Merlen, in April of 2020, he received a phone call from Alvarez and Bhargava, encouraging him to drop out of the primary race in exchange for securing “favors” from Rep. Himes.
“They start talking about me dropping out [of the primary race] for favors and [Bhargava] explicitly says, ‘You drop, or you get nothing,’” Merlen said.
Merlen says Bhargava and Alvarez wanted him to come up with policy ideas or asks of Rep. Jim Himes during a future meeting, but the whole conversation struck him as unethical at best and possibly illegal at worst.
“There’s a million things that I or any public health activist or advocate would want, or a public health official would want but it seemed very underhanded going about it this way,” Merlen said. “I thought people were supposed to run and have merits and voice why they want certain things. It seemed very weird they would approach me. It seemed like things were going in an uncomfortable or illegal direction.”
The implication was that Rep. Himes could pull strings to secure funding for Narcan or other addiction treatments in exchange for Merlen stepping away from the race. “When I ran previously on the municipal and state level no one approached me to drop out, no one approached me about asks or anything,” Merlen said. “None of it made any sense to me.”
Sitting at an outdoor café with a box of Narcan nasal spray, the price of which has now skyrocketed due to supply chain issues, Merlen now wonders if more lives could have been saved if he had agreed to drop out and if Himes could have secured the funding he desperately wanted for opioid and overdose treatment.
“Maybe I should go play the game and beg for scraps and not make waves,” Merlen said. “I don’t want thousands of more people to die.”
In the two years since this meeting, Merlen has tried to bring attention to his story and the meetings he had with Alvarez, Bhargava and Himes, but to no avail. No one really believes him, an outspoken, almost single-minded activist who is trying to hold powerful people to account.
But, recognizing that he was wading into a precarious situation in taking these meetings, Merlen took an extra precaution: He recorded them and had them professionally transcribed.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t go the authorities then,” Merlen said. “I took the meeting, which in retrospect may have been a bad idea. I recorded it because no one would ever believe me.”
The Second Call
On the day of the meeting with Rep. Himes, Alvarez called Merlen and then patched in Bhargava. What ensued was a pressure campaign urging Merlen to use the leverage they thought he had in running against Rep. Himes to secure something in return for dropping out of the race.
Merlen did not want to drop out of the race. He thought his presence in the race, his advocacy on how to address the opioid crisis and the prosecution of the Sacklers would push local politicians to speak up about the issue. He lamented to Alvarez and Bhargava about the inaction of politicians in handling the opioid crisis and standing up to those responsible for it.
“When we need them to speak out and they won’t fight for us and they bullshit us on every level,” Merlen said. “And [the Sacklers] are about to walk while my friends go to jail for empty bags and petty paraphernalia charges and like, you know, very little amount of some drugs.”
Alvarez and Bhargava urged Merlen to voice his concerns to Rep. Himes.
“Brian, I think you need to express this to Jim, your frustration and that your politician’s not speaking up for the right thing because it’s politically, not appropriate for whatever,” Bhargava said. “What Fernando and I are saying is that that opportunity is going to, is on a time clock, which is about to expire very soon and I think it’s the law of diminishing return. At that point, you staying in the race is gonna get you less and less return because he’s gonna be agitated.”
However, Merlen remained dubious that dropping out of the race was the right thing to do. He knew he couldn’t win the Democratic nomination over Himes, but he reasoned that he could run as a Green party candidate and hurt Himes in the general election by siphoning off votes that would have otherwise gone to Himes.
Bhargava advised that helping a yet unknown Republican candidate win the election might not be helpful to his ultimate goal of helping those affected by the opioid crisis and holding the Sacklers criminally accountable. She said that Himes had come a long way in his activism around the opioid crisis and had secured a lot of funding for non-profits in the area.
“I feel, we have a partner in Jim and the full finances trying to push him and direct where he will continue to get advocacy for this cause,” Bhargava said. “I’d hate to jeopardize that.”
Despite Bhargava and Alvarez telling Merlen that he stood no chance of getting on the primary ballot to challenge Himes, and that he should get what he can from Himes in exchange for dropping out of race, Merlen continued to advocate for staying in.
“I’m willing to do this if you guys really think it’s the best decision,” Merlen said. “I just question if it’s giving up the leverage for no reason, particularly when I could easily run Green, and then it’s even more leverage it seems.”
“Although you haven’t given [leverage] away yet. You got to negotiate with him for that,” Alvarez responded. “We’re gonna be here to back you.”
“You have the leverage right now. He knows. When he hears you speak today, he knows that you’re not gonna go away. You’re not gonna go away, so he’s gonna have to deliver something,” Alvarez said. “You have to ask him that today.”
Alvarez then coached Merlen through how to open the conversation with Himes, how he should talk about his concerns with the opioid crisis and then “you know, you drop what you-what your ask will be, you know?”
Still unconvinced, Merlen expressed fear that even if they did get Himes to commit to more funding for opioid addiction-related causes, Himes wouldn’t stick to his word and Merlen would have given away his leverage for nothing.
Alvarez then promised Merlen that if Himes didn’t come through on his commitments, he would take matters into his own hands. However, the phone call breaks up during this sentence and it’s unclear from the recording exactly what Alvarez is promising to do.
Bhargava then chimes in again to reassure Merlen that Himes is an ally and that, though he hasn’t been all they wanted him to be in terms of advocating for the Sacklers being criminally prosecuted and initially accepting campaign donations from them, that diminishing his chances against a Republican challenger doesn’t do anything to help the victims of the opioid crisis.
“I do want to emphasize that [Himes] is absolutely a friend,” Bhargava said. “He brought all the [inaudible 00:21:22] all the different organizations that received funding because of his advocacy so I don’t think we wanna jeopardize that.”
The Meeting with Rep. Himes
Later that same morning, it was time for the official call with Rep. Jim Himes which was held via Zoom. Rep. Himes, Fernando Alvarez, and Bhargava were already logged in when Merlen joined the call. The call lasted a little over 30 minutes.
Alvarez kicked things off by stating that his vision for the call was one of “accountability” and that it would offer a chance for Merlen to hold Rep. Himes to account on the issues he considers most important. Everyone seemed to understand – and Merlen reiterated multiple times throughout the conversation – that meant more tangible action to counter the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Both Alvarez and Bhargava made it clear from the start that they were backing Himes with Alvarez stating that the sitting representative “is the type of individual we have to, we should work with if that is our objective.” Bhargava, meanwhile, stressed the need to find common ground between them.
“So I think the goal here, Merlen, is for you to maybe express kind of what you’re working on,” she explained, continuing, “how Jim as our Congressperson can help us and help you accomplish that goal and what you’d like to see, and how the two of you can partner on this and find a constructive way to move forward both within the election and within, more importantly, with this goal.”
That’s when Merlen got to the crux of his argument.
“It’s like the Sacklers are busy getting bankruptcy immunity, and no one’s going to even prosecute them on a state or federal level,” he argued. “And their victims get screwed every single direction by every single person and every single government entity, and that’s why I’m running.”
Over the course of the call, Merlen ultimately maintained one primary goal: prosecution of the Sackler family for their role in creating and furthering the opioid crisis. Barring that, he wanted to know what someone in Rep. Himes’ position could promise given the political climate which was both deeply divided and in the throes of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For his part, Himes didn’t have much to offer to assuage Merlen’s concerns about government inaction. His initial response included not much more than wishful thinking for a United States government that would be changed by the experiences of the pandemic and emerge more focused on strengthening the public health sector.
“One of the lessons we’re going to take from this pandemic experience,” said Rep. Himes. “…is that a society where you don’t have good public health available to everybody, everybody in Bridgeport, everybody in rural Nebraska, in which you don’t have a good public health infrastructure is a disaster and a chaos waiting to happen.”
As for the prosecution of the Sacklers, Rep. Himes stressed that he “can’t influence prosecutorial decisions” which is what, he noted, he believed Merlen to be asking of him.
He did say, however, that since he knew the Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo at the time, he did have the ability to call Colangelo’s office and ask him to take a meeting with Merlen and other constituents. He also stated that the purpose of the meeting would be to offer Colangelo a chance to explain why he had so far declined to prosecute the Sackler family, and perhaps offer Merlen a chance to make his case.
A few minutes later, Himes argued that in his opinion, not prosecuting the Sacklers wasn’t a matter of cowardice, since a successful prosecution would only carry immense political rewards.
“An ambitious prosecutor who would put the Sacklers behind bars would be on a turbocharged windmill to be President of the United States,” he said. “The political incentives to prosecute Wall Street CEOs or the Sacklers — my God — if I were an attorney general who wanted to be governor or senator or president, if I could put those people behind bars, I would go down in history.”
The real problem, said Himes, was one of evidence. “It’s very hard to prosecute business decisions until you have clear evidence of fraud,” he continued. “In other words, the Sacklers knew that this was going to kill a whole bunch of people and you’ve got documents that indicate that.”
When Merlen said he wanted that meeting if it were possible but questioned why it would require Himes’ influence to get something on the books, Alvarez posited that perhaps Merlen comes off as too extreme online.
“Unfortunately, they’re human beings as well,” Alvarez stated. “And they probably look at your posts sometimes and I think — at one point, I gave you advice on it, to take it easy on the tone of your posts. Social media speaks volumes and they’re human beings. And they’re probably looking at you and they’re like who’s this guy?”
Toward the end of the conversation, Alvarez brought it back to his goal for the call: finding a way for Merlen to work with Rep. Himes instead of against him, stating that “he’s a United States Congressman, you can never take that away from him.”
Merlen responded to this argument by stating that he could run as a Green Party candidate and though he likely wouldn’t win, he could “cost maybe that 13% margin from last time.” But a meeting with Colangelo could be enough to convince him he doesn’t have to run third party to force the issue.
Himes’ response to this was two-fold. First, he shrugged off Merlen’s threat to run as a third-party candidate in the general election stating that “never in the history of the country has a Green Party candidate gotten anywhere close to 13%.”
Second, he made sure to stress that, regardless of what Merlen had been led to believe, he was not there to trade favors. Instead, he quickly wrapped up the conversation by reiterating his desire to come to a less adversarial position with Merlen and reconfirmed his willingness to help set up a meeting with Colangelo’s office. Then he left for another meeting.
Merlen says that a meeting between himself and Colangelo never occurred and that was the last he heard of the matter from Himes.
“All These Deaths are a Policy Failure”
Merlen never dropped out of the primary race, although a search of Ballotpedia lists Merlen as a “disqualified or withdrawn candidate.” Merlen says that the night of nominating convention, which was held via Zoom because of COVID, he was sent a link that brought him to nothing but “elevator music.”
His attempts to get a working link were not successful. Merlen continued to run for Himes’ seat as a third-party candidate on the Independent ticket. Rep. Himes won his party’s endorsement and went on to handily win re-election against Republican Jonathan Riddle by nearly 100,000 votes.
Merlen attempted to take his claims and recordings to the authorities, contacting the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission, but says both enforcement organizations were disinterested in following up.
He also began to publicly post his recordings. “I put out these recordings widely, internally within the party. I then ran in a special senate election (against Patricia Miller in 2021) just to try to get this out again,” Merlen said, adding that he posted it on Stamfordelections.com as well. “These recordings have been seen by a lot of people.”
In 2020, the Department of Justice announced that Purdue Pharma had plead guilty to fraud and violation of the Anti-Kickback statute. The settlement amounted to the “largest penalties ever levied against a pharmaceutical manufacturer.” That settlement included a criminal fine of $3.5 billion, criminal forfeiture of $2 billion, $2.8 billion to resolve its liabilities under the False Claims Act and the Sackler family agreed to pay $225 million.
Connecticut and a number of other states, however, rejected the court’s initial 2021 bankruptcy plan for Purdue Pharma, which would have awarded $4.3 billion over nine years to the plaintiffs, and appealed.
In 2022, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong and other attorneys general secured a larger payout of $6 billion over 18 years, with $95 million coming to Connecticut to “fund opioid treatment and prevention,” according to a 2022 press release.
Tong’s release noted, however, that “Today’s announcement is a civil settlement,” and that, “Neither this agreement nor the prior bankruptcy plan releases the Sacklers from any potential future criminal liability.”
Thus far there have been no criminal prosecutions of any individuals, however, and Merlen has doubts whether or not that will ever happen.
“They’re using the bankruptcy court to stop the prosecutions because the money is in abatement and it doesn’t come if they get prosecuted,” Merlen said. “So, they’re totally abusing it to stop sovereign state policing power,” although he concedes it could be still be possible in some states.
Merlen has since continued his campaign to have the Sacklers prosecuted, encouraging prominent activists to write letters to state officials, and he continues his work to distribute Narcan and push for overdose prevention centers where those struggling with opioid addiction can use safely, while also having access to recovery services.
More than anything, he wants to save lives.
“None of these people asked for this, none of these patients signed up for this,” Merlen said. “My first friend who died, he was taking it as prescribed and he died in his sleep. Fundamentally, all these deaths are a policy failure.”
Questions and requests for comment emailed to Bhargava, Alvarez and Himes went unanswered.