Exclusive: Utah’s power brokers helped Draper pharmacist with customs holdup on drug import

State officials including Senate President Stuart Adams wanted to make the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine available to Utahns as an off-label treatment for COVID-19.

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A Draper pharmacist who’s pleaded guilty to illegally importing large quantities of an antimalarial drug touted by some as a treatment for COVID-19 petitioned prominent state leaders to exert their influence in pushing one of his medication shipments through customs, emails show.

And state leaders went to bat for the pharmacist, Dan Richards, tapping into their professional networks on his behalf after he turned to them with concerns about entry point inspections, the correspondence reveals.

There’s no indication in the communications, however, that officials knew the pharmacist had previously mislabeled one of his drug imports as an herbal supplement — the federal crime to which Richards has admitted. And the hydroxychloroquine delivery that Richards asked state leaders to help nudge through customs was imported legally, according to the pharmacist’s attorney, Greg Skordas.

But Skordas believes officials helped expedite the drug’s arrival in Utah as part of their plan to buy enough to treat patients across the state with the COVID-19 remedy promoted by then-President Donald Trump that was widely criticized by medical experts.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This file photo shows Dan Richards, CEO, pharmacist of Meds In Motion Pharmacy, at a March 20, 2020, Capitol news conference talking about a private-public partnership to combat the novel coronavirus, including with the controversial anti-malaria drug hydrochlorquine. Senate President Stuart Adams was in attendance along with other senators and state officials.

Utah leaders contacted by Richards insist they had no idea that the pharmacist was mislabeling medication and first learned about that only months later when he was charged. The assistance they provided Richards was minimal, they say.

“State officials acted in a very responsible way, thinking that they were saving the world,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, who added that many people at the time believed the drug could prevent COVID-19 deaths.

He also contends that Richards has a history of trying to use state officials — and is continuing that pattern by deflecting blame away from himself and toward high-profile leaders who had no knowledge of his wrongdoing.

Still, Skordas argues that his client was left holding the bag for a failed drug acquisition and distribution plan that went well beyond Richards and extended into the upper reaches of Utah government.

“Nobody told him to commit a crime or to do anything untoward,” the defense attorney said in an interview. “But on the other hand, I think people recognized that what he was doing was sort of circumventing the normal [Drug Enforcement Administration] process. And that was looked at as a means to an end.”

The state’s push to amass hydroxychloroquine emerged in the early days of the pandemic, as Trump was touting the antimalarial drug as a potential off-label miracle cure for COVID-19.

Richards reached out to state leaders in March to alert them that he’d bought more than 800 kilograms (about 1,760 pounds) of raw hydroxychloroquine, enough to treat hundreds of thousands of Utahns and protect against the national shortages and price spikes he warned would ensue. His campaign to stockpile the drug quickly drew support from leaders such as Adams, who appeared with the pharmacist at a March news conference in the State Capitol promoting the drugs.

High-ranking officials inside the Utah Department of Health — including the agency’s then-acting executive director, Jefferson Burton — also showed an interest in procuring massive quantities of the drug from Meds in Motion, Richards’ pharmacy chain. These efforts gained momentum even amid warnings from the medical community and experts in the field that the drugs were at best unproven and at worst dangerous as a treatment for COVID-19.

A little help from powerful contacts

Email records show Richards contacted the two powerful state officials when a shipment of drugs stalled in a California port after arriving from China.

“I am nervous about the meds in San Diego,” Richards wrote to Adams and Burton in early April. “I could use some help from you I am hoping we can use a little pull from your side to get things to us.”

Richards didn’t elaborate on the reason for his concerns but did include the shipment tracking information in the email. There is no direct response from Adams or Burton among the records obtained by The Tribune.

However, within days, the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority jumped into action at Adams’ request.

Jack Hedge, the port authority boss, introduced Richards to some customs brokers he said could “handle just about anything anywhere.” In the same email, Hedge explained to the customs brokers that Richards was “having trouble getting a shipment of meds released from a [Food and Drug Administration] hold at Customs in San Diego.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge jumped into to try to help get hundreds of pounds of imported hydrochlorquine released from an FDA hold at the Port of San Diego at the request of Senate President Stuart Adams. This file photo was taken Aug. 15, 2019, shortly after Hedge was named to the Utah post. Previously he was a director at the Port of Los Angeles.

The port director also wrote that he’d been in touch with Salt Lake City-based customs employees, but indicated that these federal bureaucrats couldn’t do much until the FDA gave the shipment the all-clear.

In an interview, Hedge said FDA holds are not unusual and can mean that federal inspectors have a simple question about an import. Skordas said he doesn’t think the delay was due to any suspicions by FDA inspectors and that the agency was simply moving slowly.

In any case, Hedge, former director of cargo and real estate for the Port of Los Angeles, said there were no signs of irregularities with Richards’ import.

While the pharmacist was initially charged with falsely labeling 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of chloroquine and more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of hydroxychloroquine as Boswellia serrata extract, he only pleaded guilty to illegally importing the chloroquine. The larger hydroxychloroquine order that Richards asked Adams and Burton to help him expedite was properly marked, Skordas says.

When asked about their communications with Richards, Hedge and his customs contacts say their dealings with the pharmacist were limited to a few basic exchanges. The president of Utah-based Air & Sea International/Freightlink, the company that Hedge reached out to for help, said his firm asked Richards for details on his shipment but received nothing in response and never provided customs or transportation services for Meds in Motion.

Burton, who has left the health department and is now a Republican state representative, referred a reporter to the department for information on how he answered Richards’ request for help and did not respond to subsequent questions.

And Adams, R-Layton and one of Trump’s first supporters in Utah, says he did nothing more for Richards than to connect him with an expert and often makes such introductions for constituents. The Senate president said he’s not even sure how the pharmacist got involved with the state’s hydroxychloroquine push and only saw him in-person once at the Utah Capitol news conference on the drug.

After referring Richards to Hedge, Adams “was no longer involved in the process and only received minimal updates regarding the shipment,” he said in a prepared statement.

However, Skordas credits state power brokers with getting the shipment out of customs and to its destination in Utah.

“All we know is, somebody got the job done, and it wasn’t us,” he said. “It wasn’t my client.”

Labeling drugs as supplements skirts FDA scrutiny

Mislabeling the medication as an herbal supplement might have been an attempt to sidestep federal requirements for importing drugs, which are regulated much more strictly than herbal supplements, said Benjamin England, an attorney and 17-year FDA veteran who now runs an import consulting firm.

“The purpose of the misdeclaration is likely to avoid the scrutiny during the importation process, and that’s because the government scrutinizes dietary supplements at a much lower level and at a lower frequency,” England said. “And they have lower requirements associated with them.”

Skordas, a two-time candidate for Utah attorney general, confirmed that the underlying motivation for mislabeling the drugs was to get them into the country and to Utah more swiftly. His client was under pressure to deliver, as part of a fast-evolving plan first pitched by a group of tech executives and later embraced by legislative leaders and Utah Department of Health officials, he said.

“He did this because state leaders asked him to do it, make no mistake about that,” Skordas said of Richards’ plan to import the drugs quickly. “He was going to make money. He was going to make a boatload of money. And everyone was going to look good because he would’ve saved lives.”

Initially, a Utah tech CEO who’s also on the board of directors for Meds in Motion made an offer to set up coronavirus testing sites, where they’d offer free “med packs” prepared by Richards’ pharmacy. That philanthropic approach quickly changed, as the companies involved secured big contracts for the TestUtah testing initiative, and the state mulled buying enough hydroxychloroquine to treat 200,000 coronavirus patients.

The multimillion-dollar drug deal ultimately collapsed amid mounting evidence that the drug wasn’t effective in treating COVID-19 and as infectious disease experts expressed alarm about the state’s move to invest public funds in the unproven remedy.

When it came to light that state officials had already ordered $800,000 in drugs from Meds in Motion, then-Gov. Gary Herbert intervened to cancel the purchase and get the money refunded.

Herbert and Gov. Spencer Cox, who was then serving as lieutenant governor, denied knowledge of that initial order from Meds in Motion, and state auditors later said lack of signed authorization or even evidence of verbal approval prevented them from figuring out who approved the expenditure. Emails previously obtained by The Tribune show the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, then led by Kristen Cox, was a driving force behind Utah’s coronavirus response and was involved in the purchase.

Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning government accountability group, submitted a price-gouging complaint over the roughly $6 cost of each pill purchased by the state. But Utah auditors later concluded that this rate appeared to be reasonable “given the heightened demand for the medications and shortages in the drug supplies during that period.”

Shortly after its arrival in Utah, federal investigators seized 500 kilograms of hydroxychloroquine (1,100 pounds) and 50 kilograms of chloroquine that Richards planned to use for the state’s orders, his attorney said.

In January, months after the seizure, Richards pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bulk quantities of chloroquine from an unregistered manufacturer in China, in shipments that were labeled as an herbal supplement, a misdemeanor. The pharmacist had found the drug manufacturer over the internet, Skordas said, but testing showed the material met U.S. standards for quality.

The fallout from the hydroxychloroquine saga has been “devastating” for Richards, according to Skordas. His business is in danger, his pharmacy license is on a probationary status and he’s scheduled for his criminal sentencing April 5. Federal prosecutors have said their investigation into the hydroxychloroquine order is over and that the case against Richards is the “just outcome.”