For years Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter has been dogged by accusations that as a longtime pharmacist in Pooler, he and his company amassed a fortune from the sale of prescription opioids. Less than two weeks before Election Day, the issue threatens to disrupt his hard-fought re-election campaign.

Mark Tate, a Savannah lawyer, filed a motion in Chatham County Superior Court on Oct. 19 to add Carter, a licensed pharmacist and businessman, as a defendant in a five-year lawsuit on behalf of the relatives of Kevin Bolton, who died of an opioid overdose in 2016. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from opioid manufacturers and distributors for the former Jenkins High School graduate’s sister and two children. Last week, Tate withdrew the motion.

Carter, who has represented Coastal Georgia in the U.S. Congress since 2016, criticized as “baseless” and “meritless” any attempt to tie him to alleged opioid abuse. In a statement to WTOC, he denounced Tate’s actions  as a “politically-motivated media stunt.”

Tate told WTOC last week that a “procedural matter” prompted him to drop Carter’s name from the lawsuit, which lists Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, McKesson Corp., and 24 other companies and individuals as defendants. He said he also stood by the allegations in the lawsuit.

In an interview Monday with The Current, Tate wouldn’t elaborate on his decision to include and then drop Carter from the lawsuit, saying only that “it was just something I had to do to make sure everything’s squared away going forward.” 

The legal drama, while opaque, focuses attention on Carter’s previous business dealings as a Pooler pharmacist whose company received the fourth-highest number of opioids in Chatham County from 2006 to 2014, according to federal government records. It also spotlights his campaign finance ties to McKesson, his former opioid distributor.

A spokesperson for McKesson didn’t return a phone call requesting comment.  

Carter, a Republican, is facing Savannah attorney Wade Herring, a Democrat, on Nov. 8 in the race for Georgia’s First Congressional District. 

Tate has not contributed money to either man’s election efforts. In the past, he has financially supported former President Barack Obama.

Carter Pharmacy Inc. ranked 4th in sale of prescription opioids

Carter, the former mayor of Pooler, opened his first pharmacy in 1988 and within a decade, his business consisted of three retail outlets. It also supplied medications to 14 nursing homes in the Chatham County area.

The growth of Carter’s business coincided with the exploding opioid epidemic, resulting in the deaths from overdoses of nearly a half-million Americans between 1999 and 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020 an average of 44 people were dying each day from overdoses involving prescription opioids, totaling more than 16,000 deaths. In 2020, more than 56,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids (other than methadone) occurred in the United States, which is more deaths than from any other type of opioid. 

From 2006 to 2014, the Carter-owned Carter Pharmacy, Inc. in Pooler did a large business in prescription pain pills, according to a database maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and obtained by the Washington Post and HD Media after a year-long legal battle for public records disclosures with the government and the drug industry.

During that nine-year period, Carter’s business received the 4th highest number of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills in Chatham County — 2,876,010 pills, according to the database.  

Walgreen Company in Savannah received the highest number of prescription pain pills — 3,954,610 — according to the database. 

The DEA tracked the path of more than 100 billion doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone from manufacturers to retail pharmacies across America. But the agency did not track the pills after they were shipped to pharmacies.

In all, 80,276,636 pain pills were supplied to Chatham County during the period covered by the data, enough for 34 pain pills per year per person in the county, the DEA data shows.

In an interview published earlier this year, Carter said that he sold the institutional business in the late 1990s but kept his three pharmacies, the last of which he sold “recently.”

The family business was lucrative. Financial disclosure forms analyzed by OpenSecrets, a research organization in Washington that tracks money in politics, show him with a median net worth last year of $32,346,527.

Carter becomes anti-opioid advocate, receives opioid supplier contributions

In 2017, Carter emerged as a leading advocate of efforts to curtail the opioid epidemic, helping introduce legislation that would require federal agencies to produce materials to better educate pharmacists on when they are allowed by law to decline to fill a prescription for a controlled substance.

Yet the congressman has also received political contributions from pharmaceutical companies, including the McKesson Corp., which from 2006 to 2012, was the largest distributor of prescription opioids in the country.  It also was the main supplier of prescription pain pills to Carter Pharmacy, Inc. from 2006 to 2014, according to the DEA data.

From the 2014 election cycle to the 2022 cycle, the McKesson Corp. and its affiliates gave political contributions to Carter totaling $53,000, according to data collected by OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington that tracks money in politics.

Over the same period, the company contributed $17,500 to Carter’s leadership PAC, called Buddy PAC, and the McKesson Corp.’ Employees’ Political Fund gave him $37,500. Leadership PACs are vehicles for politicians to give money to other politicians and to lay the groundwork for their own campaigns for higher office.

In all, the McKesson Corp. and its affiliates and its employees’ political action committee have contributed $108,000 to Carter and his leadership PAC.

Following the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, McKesson said it was suspending all contributions to members of Congress, “including those who, even after a violent and unlawful attack, voted to object to the certification of the presidential election.”

Despite Carter’s votes to decertify the election results in Pennsylvania and with 120 other House members to decertify the results in Arizona and his statement declaring his plans to object to the certification of Georgia’s electoral votes, McKesson remained generous.

Carter and his leadership PAC received contributions totaling $42,500 from McKesson and its affiliates, as well as its employees’ political action committee, for the 2020 and 2022 election cycles.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...