ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Missouri, people have been trying to solve a mystery for years. Who provides the lethal drugs that the state uses to execute death row inmates? The state worked hard to hide the answer using code names and envelopes stuffed with cash. Reporter Chris McDaniel solved this mystery in an investigation for BuzzFeed. Welcome.
CHRIS MCDANIEL: Thanks for having me on.
SHAPIRO: So who was the secret drug supplier?
MCDANIEL: So this was a compounding pharmacy outside of St. Louis, Mo., called Foundation Care, and they are a compounding pharmacy that caters mostly to cystic fibrosis patients. But on the side for the past four years, they've also been selling pentobarbital, the state's execution drug, for 17 executions.
SHAPIRO: Explain what a compounding pharmacy is. That's a term I think a lot of people are not familiar with.
MCDANIEL: So compounding pharmacies mix drugs up for specific needs of specific patients, and they're not supposed to make copies of FDA-approved drugs. They are mostly regulated by the states and not the FDA, and as a result, they have significantly higher failure rates than that of manufactured drugs. And so death row inmates in particular have been concerned about drugs coming from these pharmacies, worrying that the drugs that they make could put them through a painful death.
SHAPIRO: And this particular compounding pharmacy has a long history of problems ranging from accusations of racial discrimination to contaminated drugs.
MCDANIEL: Yeah, so they've been sued by several former employees alleging sexual and racial discrimination, retaliation when they would refuse to go along with some illegal acts. The pharmacy's also been investigated by the FDA, and the FDA has found some pretty alarming things there that the FDA says could put patients at risk. I think it's worth pointing out that when the FDA presented these findings to the head pharmacist, the head pharmacist's response was to threaten the FDA, that if they published their findings, he would come at them with a vengeance - everyone involved.
SHAPIRO: Why would the state of Missouri go to such a shady operation rather than a mainstream, aboveboard pharmacy?
MCDANIEL: Well, the mainstream, aboveboard pharmacies don't really want to be involved. This is bad for business. Manufacturers of the drugs put in pretty strict controls to keep it out of the hands of death penalty states. And this pharmacy was obviously willing, and that's how they landed on it.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about some of the steps the state took to keep this secret?
MCDANIEL: There were many. So I had a couple of open records lawsuits against the state which were ultimately unsuccessful. What they were doing was - they essentially left no paper trail where this pharmacy's name was actually identified. They would refer to it only by its code name, which was M7. And shortly before each execution, the second-in-command for the Department of Corrections would go and meet up with a representative for this pharmacy, and he would hand over an envelope that had about $7,000 in cash. And in exchange, he would get four vials of pentobarbital.
It's difficult to overstate how secret this information was. The attorney in the attorney general's office who was representing the Department of Corrections and all of their lethal injection lawsuits - he wasn't even aware of the name of the pharmacy.
SHAPIRO: Does that violate government transparency rules? This is taxpayer money that's being handed over in an envelope.
MCDANIEL: Yes, it most likely does, and it most likely violates IRS tax laws because when they're handing over, you know, to this pharmacy $135,000 in cash over the past four years, they haven't been reporting that to the IRS, which you're supposed to do for cash transactions of that size. And I think it is also worth pointing out that former employees have alleged significant tax evasion problems at this pharmacy.
SHAPIRO: The man responsible for choosing Foundation Care was Missouri's former attorney general, Chris Koster. He also worked to keep this secret for years. He left office a year ago because of term limits. Where is he now?
MCDANIEL: He left office, and he took a job as a VP at Centene Corporation, which...
SHAPIRO: The corporation that purchased Foundation Care.
MCDANIEL: Right, right - the company that purchased Foundation Care back in October, which is very interesting. And I have asked Centene - paid them a visit as well - to ask them if Attorney General Koster played any role in the acquisition of this pharmacy, and they declined to answer that question. After we published, I think it's worth pointing out that Centene says that this pharmacy will no longer sell execution drugs without admitting that this pharmacy has in the past.
SHAPIRO: Chris McDaniel - his investigation at BuzzFeed is "The Secretive Company Behind Missouri's Lethal Injections." Thanks for joining us.
MCDANIEL: Thanks for having me on.
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