DEA's No.2 Quits Amid Reports of Previous Consulting Work for Big Pharma

Louis Milione's four years of consulting for Big Pharma preceded his 2021 return to the DEA.

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C-SPAN via AP, File

WASHINGTON (AP) β€” The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's second-in-command has quietly stepped down amid reporting by The Associated Press that he once consulted for a pharmaceutical distributor sanctioned for a deluge of suspicious painkiller shipments and did similar work for the drugmaker that became the face of the opioid epidemic: Purdue Pharma.

Louis Milione's four years of consulting for Big Pharma preceded his 2021 return to the DEA to serve as Administrator Anne Milgram's top deputy, renewing concerns in the agency and beyond about the revolving door between government and industry and its potential impact on the DEA's mission to police drug companies blamed for tens of thousands of American overdose deaths.

"Working for Purdue Pharma should not help you get a higher job in government," said Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog for corporate influence in the federal government. "Too much collegiality is a problem. It's hard to view your past and potentially future colleagues as scofflaws. Any independent person would find this abhorrent."

Milione initially left the DEA in 2017 after a 21-year career that included a two-year stint leading the division that controls the sale of highly addictive narcotics. Like dozens of colleagues in the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, he went to work as a consultant for some of the same companies he had been tasked with regulating.

AP reported in May that Milione's consulting included testifying on behalf of the nation's fourth-largest wholesale drug distributor, Morris & Dickson, as it fought to save its license to supply painkillers to hospitals and pharmacies. A federal administrative judge determined four years ago that the Louisiana-based company failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis but the DEA didn't move to strip the license until days after the AP inquired about the case.

New reporting has found that during his time in the private sector, Milione also served as a $600-per-hour expert for Purdue Pharma as it fought legal challenges from Ohio to Oklahoma over its aggressive marketing of OxyContin and other highly addictive painkillers. Milione left the DEA again in late June just four days after AP sought comment from the Justice Department about his prior work for Purdue.

Milione said in a statement this week that he stepped down for personal reasons unrelated to AP's reporting. Both he and the Justice Department said he recused himself at the DEA from all matters involving his private-sector work where there was even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Milione added that his consulting stint helped drug companies comply with DEA rules, just as his return to government gave the DEA insight into how business decisions are made in the real world.

"I care deeply about the DEA, its mission and the brave men and women that sacrifice so much to protect the American public," he said.

But Milione never faced scrutiny from lawmakers over his consulting before taking the DEA's No. 2 position because the DEA has for more than a decade not filled the job of deputy administrator that requires a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. Instead, the DEA directly hired Milione to fill a career position with essentially the same duties but a slightly different title – "principal deputy administrator" – that requires no such oversight.

"DEA has demonstrated a willingness to take painstaking measures to avoid the Senate's watchful eye – including by potentially using a technicality to shirk Senate confirmation of a key agency decision maker," said U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Avoiding congressional oversight is a tired game the DEA can't stop playing. It begs the question: What else is the DEA trying to hide?"

John Coleman, who was head of operations for the DEA in the 1990s, said the Biden administration likely never nominated Milione to serve as deputy administrator, despite his many qualifications, because his conflicts would have surely raised questions.

"Someone at the agency had to be aware of the implications of bringing someone back who was employed in the industry regulated by the agency," Coleman said. "It was an obvious and classic conflict."

The DEA didn't respond to requests for comment. The Justice Department told the AP that Milione disclosed his potential conflicts when he returned to the DEA and that the principal deputy administrator's position was created before Milgram's tenure. It said the process for filling the confirmed deputy administrator position is ongoing and referred further questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The DEA made no announcement of Milione's most recent retirement but removed his bio from the agency's website over the July 4 holiday and replaced it with that of his successor, career DEA official George Papadopoulos. But in an internal email to staff, Milgram hailed the 60-year-old Milione as a "DEA legend" best known for leading the overseas sting that in 2008 nabbed Russia's notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

"I was thrilled that he agreed to come back home to DEA," she wrote in a June 26 email obtained by AP. "Lou has used his skills as a master case maker to help us bring cases against entire criminal networks and to investigate the entire globally fentanyl supply chain."

Milione's exit adds to the turmoil at the top of the DEA following a number of other high-level departures, misconduct scandals and the launch of federal watchdog investigation into millions in no-bid contracts awarded to past associates of Milgram.

Mostly Republican members of Congress grilled Milgram during a routine budget request in April, and the administrator also is expected to testify later this month in a House oversight hearing looking into the DEA's operations and effectiveness combating the flood of fentanyl into the U.S. from Mexico.

Since Milgram took the reins of the DEA two years ago, she has cycled through almost three dozen senior aides, many of them veteran agents who were pushed out or quit due to differences with Milgram. That includes the heads of all of the DEA's principal divisions as well as the DEA's chief counsel, its congressional affairs liaison and the top agent in Mexico.

Milgram's defenders say that house cleaning is part of an agency-wide reset to combat the fentanyl crisis. She's also exhibited a zero tolerance for racism and sexism that has festered inside the old-boy network that has long shaped personnel decisions inside the DEA.

"Change is hard and some people don't like it," Chuck Rosenberg, a former DEA administrator, told AP this spring. "Time will tell whether she was right or wrong, but my money is on Anne."

Most of Milione's consulting work was done as a senior managing director of Guidepost Solutions, a private investigative firm based in New York. Under his watch, Guidepost expanded its DEA compliance practice, which now includes nine former DEA employees.

Guidepost declined to comment. Purdue said in a statement that its retention of Milione as an expert on DEA compliance issues ended when the Connecticut-based company filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2019. "To the best of our knowledge, no one at Purdue had any business communications with Mr. Milione after he returned to government," it said.

For Purdue, which has twice pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for its role in fueling the opioid crisis and last year reached a $6 billion nationwide settlement aimed at staunching a flood of lawsuits from states, Milione produced a 16-page expert report in 2019 that was never introduced into evidence. That report, obtained by the AP, praises Purdue's efforts going back to 2000 to track the illegal sale of opioids by rogue pharmacies and "pill mill" doctors.

"These are the kinds of programs DEA encourages and supports manufacturers in undertaking," Milione wrote, "as it considers them a valuable part of diversion control efforts."

Former DEA official Coleman questioned why Milgram chose Milione as her No. 2 despite his corporate entanglements and whether it was ever realistic for him to be walled off from many of the position's leadership functions.

"There's no way to isolate that person from the day-to-day business of the agency, which includes regulating companies that make and distribute controlled substances," said Coleman, who is now president of Drug Watch International, a not-for-profit that seeks to reduce drug abuse. "I don't see how that's possible."

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