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“Little Home Market”: The Connecticut Company Accused of Fueling an Execution Spree

The Intercept has uncovered new details about the small family business in Connecticut identified as having sold a lethal drug to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for use in the Trump administration’s unprecedented execution spree. Beginning in July 2020, the administration killed 13 people in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, over the course of six months.

Absolute Standards Inc., located on the outskirts of New Haven, produces and sells materials used to calibrate laboratory and research instruments. The company is registered with Connecticut as a “manufacturer of drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices” and employed just 21 people in the lead-up to the executions, records show.

John Criscio, the company’s owner, has denied that Absolute Standards played a role in supplying pentobarbital, a barbiturate used for lethal injection.

But according to a source The Intercept interviewed last year, Criscio and the company’s director, Stephen Arpie, acknowledged in a meeting that Absolute Standards produced the active ingredient for pentobarbital for use in the federal executions. The person, who met with Criscio and Arpie about the possibility of obtaining lethal injection drugs, asked that their name be withheld because they were not authorized to speak about the interaction. A separate unnamed pharmacy then used the active ingredient, or API, to make an injectable drug that would stop prisoners’ hearts.

“They went about explaining to us how they produce the chemical,” the person said of Criscio and Arpie. “They’d been reading about it in the papers. And they saw that people couldn’t get it. They were like, ‘Well, we make the standard, so we know how to make it. So we can just make it.’ They basically bragged about how they built this little home market.”

A second person interviewed by The Intercept said they were also told by Arpie and Criscio that Absolute Standards made drugs for executions.

Like many of the 27 states capable of carrying out death sentences, the federal government has fought to keep the identity of its supplier hidden from the public. Earlier this month, the comedy news program “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” named Absolute Standards as the Bureau of Prisons’ drug supplier, citing an anonymous source. The segment echoed reporting by Reuters, which noted in 2020 that the House Oversight Committee had sent a letter to Absolute Standards suspecting the business was the source of the drugs. At the time, Arpie told Reuters that he did not always keep track of the final use of his products and couldn’t rule out involvement.

Interviews conducted by The Intercept and documents obtained under public records laws bolster evidence that Absolute Standards, located in a state that abolished the death penalty in 2012, helped the Trump administration resume federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. A Connecticut congressional staffer raised concerns about the company’s role in the executions as early as April 2021, suggesting that states might be looking to follow the federal government’s lead. “As Absolute Standards has been identified as the only possible supplier of pentobarbital ingredients for executions,” the staffer warned, “the risk that Connecticut medicines will imminently fuel the death penalty in executing states across the country is high.”

When asked about pentobarbital, Criscio told The Intercept, “We don’t make that material.” Arpie did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and the BOP declined to comment.

The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. The scheduled federal execution at the facility of Keith Nelson, who was convicted in the killing of a 10-year-old Kansas girl,  was back on track Friday after an appellate panel tossed a lower court's ruling that would have required the government to get a drug prescription before it could use pentobarbital to kill the inmate.  (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., on Aug. 28, 2020.
Photo: Michael Conroy/AP

In August 2018, Absolute Standards applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration to become a bulk manufacturer of pentobarbital, according to a notice in the Federal Register. The designation allows for the production of chemicals “by means of chemical synthesis or by extraction from other substances.” A few months later, in October, the BOP received its first batch of the API for pentobarbital, according to a declaration by Raul Campos, then-associate warden of the BOP’s Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. The declaration was submitted as part of litigation over the Trump administration’s lethal injection protocol.

(The Intercept requested Absolute Standards’ applications to become a bulk manufacturer of pentobarbital in August 2023. On Monday, the DEA declined to hand over those records, stating that they were exempt from disclosure, in part because they included “information that is classified to protect national security.”)

For years, pharmaceutical companies refused to sell pentobarbital for use in capital punishment, creating shortages that halted executions in some states that relied on the drug. Acquiring the API marked the end of a yearslong search for the BOP.

“We were looking for the drugs domestically and internationally,” a former BOP official with knowledge of the situation told The Intercept last year. The official asked that their name be withheld because they were not authorized to speak about the procurement of execution drugs. “There were a number of leads that looked promising and then ended up being dry.”

Eager to restart executions, the Trump administration had prioritized locating lethal drugs. But U.S. manufacturers did not want their products to be associated with killing people because they feared it would hurt their bottom line. “There’s such a lobby against the death penalty that any company who becomes identified as providing the drugs gets boycotted,” the BOP official said. “Those companies make more money from legitimate uses of the drug than they do from executions.” It was equally difficult to find drugs internationally, the official added, because of “shady characters” and issues confirming the legitimacy of suppliers.

A team within the BOP general counsel’s office, led by then-general counsel Kenneth Hyle, was in charge of vetting potential suppliers. “More often than not, the companies they identified turned out to be nonviable,” the official said. Hyle did not respond to requests for comment.

The former official did not remember how the BOP identified Absolute Standards but said there was a team of people calling suppliers off a list. “I know that we had people that were just calling every company that they could to find out if they were able and willing to produce it.”

Only a small group of people knew the name of the API supplier, according to the official, who was only aware that it was a small company based in Connecticut. “I had no reason to ask for the name,” the official said.

The API failed its first quality assurance test in October 2018, according to the declaration submitted by Campos. Another batch of the pentobarbital ingredient passed testing in February 2019 and was sent to a compounding pharmacy to be made into an injectable solution. The BOP has not revealed the identity of the compounding pharmacy. The former BOP official told The Intercept that they did not remember the name of the pharmacy, only that it was located somewhere in the South.

“The fear was that publicity would result in this company no longer wanting … to do business.”

Typically, the government logs payments to vendors in an online database, but there is no public record of any BOP payments to Absolute Standards. “I don’t recall how it was done. It was probably not done through their normal payments process,” the former BOP official said. “Everything was done discreetly, because again, the fear was that publicity would result in this company no longer wanting to be willing to do business.”

After learning that the BOP had secured execution drugs, officials from other states started inquiring about whether they could buy from the same company. An official from Nebraska, which was prevented in 2015 from importing drugs from India, asked the BOP about its source. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services did not respond to questions about the communication.

In April 2019, an attorney adviser from the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs emailed colleagues to notify them that a staffer from South Carolina Rep. William Timmons’s office had asked about the federal government’s execution drugs. “Specifically, they ask 1. Does the Federal Government have the ‘cocktail’? 2. Could they transfer it to states under existing law?” the email read.

Timmons’s deputy chief of staff, Heather Smith, told The Intercept that the employee who inquired with the BOP no longer worked for the representative. Smith did not know whether the employee ever talked to Absolute Standards.

South Carolina has not conducted an execution since May 2011 due to drug shortages. But last September, officials announced that the state had secured pentobarbital. After The Intercept requested records detailing communications between the South Carolina Department of Corrections and Absolute Standards, the corrections team replied that such information was exempt from disclosure, citing in part a state secrecy law that shields records disclosing the identity of people and companies involved in executions. The corrections department did not comment when asked whether its response meant that Absolute Standards was providing the state with execution drugs.

In the summer of 2020, as the federal executions got underway, Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., started to raise questions about Absolute Standards’ involvement. They sent a letter to the company on July 14, the same day the government killed Daniel Lewis Lee, the first person to die in the execution spree, stating that they’d seen redacted testing reports “indicating that your company has assisted DOJ in securing and/or testing pentobarbital for death penalty executions.” The lawmakers posed a list of 11 questions to Absolute Standards about its work in the executions. The company did not reply, emails obtained by The Intercept show.

There is no public record of further investigation by the lawmakers into Absolute Standards.

Pressley’s office did not return multiple requests for comment, and Raskin’s press secretary told The Intercept to contact the House Oversight Committee. Nelly Decker, the communications director for Oversight Committee Democrats, wrote in an email that she had “nothing more to add” on the inquiry.

“The risk that Connecticut medicines will imminently fuel the death penalty in executing states across the country is high.”

In April 2021, Jennifer Lamb, the district director for Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., brought Absolute Standards to the attention of state Attorney General William Tong. “It appears the company may have supplied the US Department of Justice with ingredients used to make pentobarbital for use in federal executions,” Lamb wrote.

“There are several states that are now actively looking to follow the federal government’s lead in acquiring this drug and resuming executions,” she continued. Describing Absolute Standards as the only possible supplier of pentobarbital ingredients for capital punishment, Lamb warned that Connecticut could be complicit in clearing the way for executions across the country.

The following month, Tong sent a letter to Absolute Standards informing its owners that “Connecticut has a strong public policy against executions.” Providing drugs to carry them out, he wrote, “is contrary to the values and policies of this state.” Tong requested details about the company’s activities, expressing concern that the business might “also be providing pentobarbital, or contemplating providing the drug, for use by individual states in their attempts to execute human beings.” Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Joshua Perry, named in the letter as the point of contact for future correspondence, declined to comment.

After John Oliver named Absolute Standards as the BOP’s source, a spokesperson for Tong told CT Insider that the attorney general was reviewing the company but had not launched an investigation. The outlet also reported that state lawmakers are now exploring legislation to ban Connecticut companies from selling lethal injection drugs.

TERRE HAUTE, INDIANA, UNITED STATES - 2020/07/15: Abe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action, an execution abolitionist group, protests near the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex where death row inmate Wesley Ira Purkey was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection.
Purkey's execution scheduled for 7 p.m., was delayed by a judge. Purkey suffers from Dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. Wesley Ira Purkey was convicted of a gruesome 1998 kidnapping and killing. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Abe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action protests near the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., on July 15, 2020.
Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Absolute Standards is known for its flexibility in the scientific industry. “They can pivot pretty easily as far as what the needs are of whatever industries,” said Meredith Millay, director of product management at Emerald Scientific, a company focused on cannabis science that has worked with Absolute Standards for a decade and sells products made by the Connecticut business. “If you need something and you can’t find what you need … they are small enough to where you can put in a special request and get custom standards made.”

Absolute Standards has boasted about the “world class manufacturing” and “internationally recognized quality” of its analytical reference materials and performance evaluation samples, compounds used to calibrate lab equipment and increase the precision of scientific analysis conducted by a wide range of entities. Criscio started the business in 1990, later employing his son and daughter. The company is registered with the DEA to manufacture Schedule II through V drugs, according to documents filed with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. When asked about Absolute Standards and the API for pentobarbital, the DEA said it “does not comment on specific registrants.”

In recent years, the company netted contracts with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, contracts and invoices obtained through records requests show. In 2017, for example, the company sold the Interior Department $88,500 worth of analytes in substances such as ethanol and soil. State agencies such as the California State Water Resources Control Board and the New York Office of Cannabis Management list Absolute Standards as one of a handful of vendors approved to conduct testing to ensure the quality of lab results.

Criscio has vehemently denied his company’s role in executions. Last October, The Intercept visited the Absolute Standards office, a small one-story building covered in weathered aluminum siding. When The Intercept inquired about Criscio at the reception desk, a woman said that he was out for the rest of the week. But later in the afternoon, Criscio arrived at the office, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the NASA logo.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Nothing to talk about,” Criscio told The Intercept in the parking lot after being asked whether his company supplied execution drugs. “You’re on private property. If I have to, I’ll call the police. Is that what you want me to do?” He then went inside.

After The Intercept approached another man outside to ask about pentobarbital, Criscio reemerged and called the police, telling the operator, “I have two people on my property refusing to leave, harassing my employees.”

“I’m ready to have a fucking heart attack right now. Get off my fucking property,” he said, growing increasingly agitated. “I do not know what you’re talking about. That’s all I have to say. I’m not gonna say no more.”

The Intercept left a note at an address listed for Arpie, the company’s director. He did not reply and has not answered subsequent phone calls, text messages, or emails.

In early April, after the John Oliver segment, Criscio maintained that his company did not supply drugs for the federal executions.

“Yeah, no, we don’t make that material,” he told The Intercept. “I’m the owner of the company. I’m telling you there’s no comment. Thank you, goodbye.”

This story was supported by a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights, in conjunction with Arnold Ventures.

The post “Little Home Market”: The Connecticut Company Accused of Fueling an Execution Spree appeared first on The Intercept.

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