The U.S. is targeting America's two biggest shipping companies, FedEx Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc., as part of an expanding crackdown against illegal sales of prescription painkillers.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has been probing whether the companies aided and abetted illegal drug sales from online pharmacies for several years, according to company filings, although the investigation has gone largely unnoticed. Both companies were served with subpoenas starting more than four years ago, according to their disclosures.
The probe now appears to be reaching a head. In an interview, FedEx's in-house counsel and a spokesman said the company has been informed by the Justice Department that it could soon face criminal charges. The company said it was innocent and planned to vigorously fight any charges.
The government's investigation "has now become absurd and deeply disturbing," said Patrick Fitzgerald, FedEx's vice president for corporate communications. He said the government wanted to "deputize" FedEx delivery people to help "catch criminals."
"We cannot do their jobs for them," he said.
UPS, by contrast, has disclosed that it is in talks with the Justice Department about settling the case. In filings this month with the Securities and Exchange Commission, UPS said it was cooperating with a DEA investigation involving the "transportation of packages on behalf of online pharmacies that may have operated illegally."
In its filing, UPS said it was exploring a settlement that would involve upgrading its compliance program and possibly paying a fine. A company spokesman said, "We won't have any further comment until the matter is closed."
The U.S. attorney's office in Northern California, which is handling both cases, declined to comment, as did the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department in Washington.
The investigation is the latest in a string of cases brought by the DEA against companies that distribute or sell powerful prescription painkillers called opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which have ballooned into America's deadliest drug epidemic. More than 15,000 people die each year in the U.S. after overdosing on the drugs, more than from heroin, cocaine and all other illegal drugs combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.