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News Brief: Impeachment Inquiry, Opioid Crisis, Amazon Workers


The order came from the president of the United States - do not distribute the nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. But he didn't give a reason, at least not to staff at the Office of Management and Budget.


That's all according to a new transcript of closed-door testimony. Mark Sandy gave it. He's a career official at the OMB. That office works as a branch of the White House, helping the president run the government. Mr. Sandy was involved when the president held up military aid to Ukraine. He knew the payment had been approved by Congress and signed into law by the president himself.

MARTIN: So NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is with us to kind of walk through what we've learned from this testimony and another. Claudia, thanks for being with us.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Thank you. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. So let's talk this through. Mark Sandy was concerned about the holdup of the Ukraine aid. Tell us more.

GRISALES: Yeah. So Sandy said he immediately raised concerns about holding up this aid, concerns that it could violate the law. He said he learned about the hold on July 18 and was unclear how long it would stay in place and why. He reported that worry to a top OMB official, Mike Duffey, the very next day.

We should note that according to a new summary we obtained from the House Budget Committee, OMB issued its first official hold to the aid in writing the evening of July 25, hours after that now-famous call between President Trump and the Ukrainian leader.

And Sandy said he knew they were on this clock to release the aid to Ukraine. He said they had to release it by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. If not, they could violate something called the Impoundment Control Act, which requires this sort of assistance to be obligated before it expires or the money goes back to the Treasury Department. And this was a central argument, that if this money was held up past the deadline, they could be breaking the law.

MARTIN: And worth just underscoring that timeline, that July 25, this was the first effort to hold the aid up. And this happened just hours after President Trump made...

GRISALES: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...That infamous phone call with Ukraine's leader. So was Mark Sandy alone? Did others share his concerns?

GRISALES: Actually, yes. Sandy testified that he wasn't alone. He said two other OMB officials resigned at least in part because of the hold and the confusion and concern surrounding it. One person who left in September expressed frustrations with requests to hold up this kind of assistance. He said the other individual worked in OMB's legal section. And they left in part because of this hold on the aid. He said at least one of these individuals expressed concern for not understanding the reason for the hold.

MARTIN: So after Sandy testified, Republicans gave the message that they've been giving - this whole thing is a charade. I want to play some tape from Congressman Lee Zeldin.


LEE ZELDIN: This was one of the worst, most unsuccessful fishing expeditions that I have witnessed. And today was a sobering reminder of just how ridiculous this impeachment charade is.

MARTIN: But Mark Sandy's account lines up with what we've heard from other officials, right?

GRISALES: Yes. It syncs up with what other officials who have testified have said about being in the dark for some time as to why the security aid was being held up. The dates also align with what we've heard from others. That said, not many White House officials have testified because they've been directed not to participate in this impeachment probe.

He and others reported their concerns to top - to the top OMB official we mentioned earlier, Mike Duffey. He was called before the House Intelligence Committee but was directed by the president...


GRISALES: ...Not to appear.

MARTIN: So real quick, we need to address another bit of testimony from Philip Reeker. What's the top line out of that?

GRISALES: Well, he mentioned a lot of these key characters we've heard - former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and the campaign against her, as well as the ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, and Mick Mulvaney, the chief of staff - says he was the person who helped direct this order to hold up the aid. So he tied a lot of these key figures together in this saga.

MARTIN: OK. OK. That was from Philip Reeker - testimony from Philip Reeker, a senior State Department official. Claudia Grisales, thank you. We appreciate it.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: Federal prosecutors in New York have launched an investigation of at least six pharmaceutical companies.

INSKEEP: Here's their question - did these drugmakers create a massive oversupply of opioids in some communities? If they did, prosecutors may charge them under a criminal statute that is commonly used to target drug dealers. Since 1999, the opioid epidemic has killed more than 400,000 people in the United States.

MARTIN: Reporter Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio joins us now. He covers opioid litigation for NPR. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So which pharmaceutical companies are we talking about? And what are federal prosecutors alleging here?

MANN: Yeah. So some of the biggest players in the drug industry are drawing new scrutiny here - manufacturers, like Teva and Johnson & Johnson, distributors, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen. What we know is that they've been getting subpoenas for documents relating to prescription opioids. The subpoena is coming from the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn.

We know this because the companies have been disclosing these demands in public filings to investors. So far, federal prosecutors themselves keeping a very tight lid on what charges, if any, they might bring. They declined to confirm or deny to NPR that a full-blown criminal probe is even underway.

MARTIN: So the law that's possibly being applied here, the federal Controlled Substances Act, this was designed to nail drug dealers. Explain how this might be used to go after allegations of corporate crime.

MANN: So the Controlled Substances Act required these companies to create elaborate programs designed to track orders that came in for prescription opioids, to track suspicious orders. And in theory, Rachel, that should have stopped most of the diversion of these highly addictive medications, drugs that went to the black market. Companies say they complied. They played by the rules.

But government data released over the last year shows a flood of pills kept going to pharmacies and doctors behaving really suspiciously. A lot of those pills wound up on the street. So the big question is why that happened. Companies clearly made a lot of profits boosting these opioid sales. Whether prosecutors think they can prove companies violated the law deliberately and knowingly in criminal ways, we just haven't seen them sort of show their math there yet.

MARTIN: Right. Is there any precedent for this?

MANN: Yeah, there are. We've seen convictions back in May - five executives with a drug company called INSYS Therapeutics found guilty on a bunch of federal criminal charges relating to the sale of fentanyl. Prosecutors hailed that as a first-of-its-kind conviction, compared these guys to street drug dealers.

But just yesterday, a judge tossed out the portion of that conviction tied to the Controlled Substances Act. The judge ruled it wasn't completely clear these executives meant for their drugs to be used for nonmedical purposes. So that shows how hard it can be to make these corporate prosecutions stick.

MARTIN: Right. Are the drug companies themselves saying anything about this investigation?

MANN: They have been reacting. Earlier this year, one major drug distributor, Rochester Drug Cooperative, paid to settle criminal charges, admitted what they called mistakes. Most companies, though, deny wrongdoing. They said they are complying with these new subpoenas. But they also say opioids were highly regulated. The federal government knew all along how many pills were being made and where they were being shipped.

MARTIN: All right. Brian Mann, with North Country Public Radio, he talked with us on Skype. Brian, thanks for your reporting, as always. We appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel.


MARTIN: You know the drill - you swipe, you click, you buy. For millions of Americans this Black Friday, one-click shopping via Amazon will be a convenience too hard to pass up.

INSKEEP: But what price do Amazon warehouse workers pay to insure you same-day delivery?


WILL EVANS: What kinds of injuries have you seen?

CHRISTINA VOORS: I've seen knee injuries. I've seen shoulder injuries. I've seen people pull things out and cut themselves.

EVANS: Why do you think so many people are getting hurt?

VOORS: Because they have to meet their quota.

INSKEEP: That's a little bit from the program Reveal, which comes from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Their investigation, which was also published in The Atlantic, found alarming injury rates at Amazon warehouses.

MARTIN: Will Evans is a reporter with Reveal and he joins us now on Skype. Will, thanks for being here.

EVANS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So alarming rates, alarming injury rates - can you be more specific? What did you find?

EVANS: Yeah. So we got the official injury records for 23 Amazon fulfillment centers around the country. And overall, we found that the rate of serious injuries was more than double the industry average for warehousing. And some of the warehouses we found had much higher rates - as high as 26 injuries per hundred workers. So that's basically a quarter of the workers. These are off-the-charts injury rates. And they're from Amazon's own records.

MARTIN: Wow. So, I mean, why? Can you give us a sense of what the work is like? These people, these Amazon employees who are working in these warehouses, what kind of physical labor is involved?

EVANS: Yeah. So you're basically standing at your station and either grabbing customers' orders from these tall racks or putting items away, filling the racks. And you're squatting down for the heavy items and popping back up for the next thing. And you have to do hundreds of these an hour for up to 12-hour shifts. And you'll get written up or fired if you don't keep up.

So one worker I talked to, she had to scan a new item every 11 seconds. And, you know, within two months, it basically destroyed her back. She's now out of work and in pretty constant pain.

MARTIN: Wow. So what about the robots, Will? I mean, I thought Amazon...

EVANS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Was all about automation and this was part of, you know, their grand vision, that they were going to automate so much of this work and that was going to put less pressure on employees.

EVANS: Right. Workers, you know, no longer have to walk miles at their job, you know, the robots bring the packages to them. That was supposed to be easier. But the problem is the robots are faster, so the humans have to be faster...


EVANS: ...They're held to much higher, aggressive production quotas. And so their bodies are basically breaking down. We found that many of the warehouses with the highest injury rates actually have the robots.

MARTIN: Wow. So what's Amazon saying about this?

EVANS: So they wouldn't do an interview with us. But the company said its injury rates are high because it's really diligent about recording the injuries and it's careful not to send workers back to their jobs before they're ready.

The problem is, you know, Amazon safety managers - former safety managers I talked to said Amazon knows it has a problem, it just won't address the underlying issue, which is how hard and fast they're pushing these workers.

MARTIN: All right. Will Evans with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting talking about his reporting about Amazon and the injury rates there among warehouse employees. Will, it's great reporting. Thank you so much for bringing it our way. We appreciate it.

EVANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE'S "RAW LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.