Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Republican Senators Urge Investigation of Avantor

Vanita Gupta speaks during the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Policing Practices and Law Enforcement Accountability in Washington, DC, June 10, 2020. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters)

Five Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Senators Cornyn, Grassley, Tillis, Cruz, and Hawley — sent a letter today to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee urging the investigation of Avantor, the company in which DOJ associate attorney general nominee Vanita Gupta has reported she owns tens of millions of dollars of stock.

The senators note Avantor’s “apparent longstanding contribution to the opioid epidemic that killed 50,000 of our fellow citizens in 2019” and that “families and communities have been ripped apart by the opioid epidemic.”

The letter explains that the senators had “recently learned of the troubling connection” between Avantor and the opioid crisis as Avantor, a publicly traded U.S. company, “has produced, manufactured, and sold a dangerous precursor chemical — (acetic anhydride) — for years in Mexico.” They observed that “while acetic anhydride can be used for legitimate purposes, it is also the key ingredient to convert opium to heroin.”

The senators’ letter highlights the August 2020 Bloomberg investigation revealing that Avantor’s acetic anhydride product “was being diverted to Mexican drug cartels, who would then use it to produce heroin and methamphetamine,” noting that “one $324 jug of acetic anhydride is capable of producing 90,000 hits of heroin.”

The senators assert that “it is simply not credible to believe or argue that Avantor was not aware of the use of its product in Mexico for the production of heroin,” pointing out that Avantor’s “product of acetic anhydride to drug traffickers has shown up in numerous drug busts since 2010.”

In urging Garland and Lee to investigate Avantor, the senators note that “enforcement of our civil and criminal laws is an important piece in stemming the tide of the opioid epidemic.”  They suggest that Avantor’s behavior should be investigated under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) because, as an issuer of stock, the company is required to “devise and maintain reasonable accounting controls,” and those controls must be “tailored to the risks specific to its operations” — in this case, manufacturing a chemical used for the production of heroin.

In addition, the senators express alarm that, in its most recent annual SEC filing, “Avantor did not feel the need to warn the American public . . . that a dangerous precursor chemical it produced in Mexico had helped fuel the opioid epidemic in the United States.”

The senators’ letter has significant implications for Vanita Gupta’s nomination to be associate attorney general. At her Senate confirmation hearing last month, Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee grilled Gupta on her massive stake in Avantor, as well as her prior advocacy in support of the decriminalization of “possession of all drugs.” Gupta was unable to muster a majority vote at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup of her nomination.


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