CDCR/FlickrCondemned Housing East Block, San Quenton State Prison.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a secret lethal injection drug supplier.
This anonymous exporter is a British company (price quotes are in “pounds sterling”), apparently based in London. It has experience moving pharmaceuticals through U.S. Customs and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Such vague details come courtesy a trove of heavily redacted e-mails the state agency released last week under court order.
In October, California bought a large volume of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic the state uses as part of a three-drug cocktail in lethal injection executions.
State officials initially refused to say how they obtained the drug.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, in turn, filed a public records request for all documents related to the state’s handling of sodium thiopental and followed up with a lawsuit.
That prompted Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard to direct CDCR to produce the e-mails, more than a thousand pages in all.
Corrections officials now say Archimedes Pharma, a British drug firm, manufactured the anesthetic. The firm denies directly exporting its wares to the United States for use in executions.
Instead, the state used a middleman, the secret drug supplier whose name is blacked out in the emails.
Asked how the agency justified withholding the seller’s name, Terry Thornton, CDCR spokeswoman, said she would have to check with the state’s attorneys for an answer. California Watch will provide that answer when she gets back to us.
The e-mails show that California walked a path that Arizona had already blazed.
On Sept. 28, Charles Flanagan, Arizona Department of Corrections deputy director, e-mailed John McAuliffe, a top CDCR official, with guidance:
As we discussed on the phone today, we have followed the lead of [name redacted] and purchased the drugs we need from a company in London. Frankly there was no possibility of getting the Thiopental Sodium/Sodium Pentothal from any source in the U.S., to include from any of the departments of corrections in other states that use the same 3-drug protocol as us.
The anonymous company in London agreed. In a note to McAuliffe two days later, someone with the supplier wrote, “I think what Arizona had done was almost bullet proof.”
California’s procurement regulations, however, added a few complications.
On Sept. 30, Scott Kerman, CDCR’s undersecretary for operations, wrote to Steve Alston, a corrections department business services administrator, to find out if the agency could purchase the sodium thiopental without a bidding process.
Alston’s response wasn’t encouraging. Any purchase of more than $5,000 must go out for bid; if the expense rises above $25,000, the purchase must be approved by California’s Department of General Services.
CDCR officials last week said the sodium thiopental cost $36,000. The records released to date do not indicate whether the agency heeded Alston’s instructions.
That same day, Kernan wrote to McAuliffe with precise billing instructions on how to dodge another paperwork problem.
Think I got it figured out how to pay England. Will need specific information on quantity, order numbers, company license number, total costs and location/address to send bill.
One important fact I learned is that if shipping or customs fees is itemized on their bill it gets into some state bureaucracy we want to avoid. Ask them if they can just include the costs of shipping directly in the bill without itemizing it.
Excerpts like these raise questions about whether state corrections officials broke rules in purchasing the anesthetic.
“We’re concerned about both state and federal law,” said Natasha Minsker, the ACLU of Northern California’s death penalty policy director. “The e-mails at least suggest that they are looking at ways to avoid the state controls on procurement.”
The public might learn more about this lethal injection transaction after the holidays.
On Jan. 6, CDCR must either disclose the now-redacted information, or provide the judge a more complete explanation for why it should continue to withhold it. Judge Woolard is scheduled to rule on the redactions Jan. 10.
ACLU, Northern California; CDCRLabel from packet of sodium thiopental.