The credo “The Butler Way” did not yet exist when Joe Rannazzisi ’84 walked Sunset Avenue and Hampton Drive.
But those values of commitment, selflessness, passion, and servanthood were ever-present on campus, he said, and they became a part of who he is. And on October 15, the former Drug Enforcement Administration agent demonstrated The Butler Way to the nation.
Rannazzisi came forward on 60 Minutes and in The Washington Post to reveal how members of Congress worked to limit the DEA’s ability to crack down on the widespread distribution of opioids.
As The Post put it: “The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.”
Rannazzisi, who saw what was going on, spoke out. He ended up being forced out of his job in August 2015.
“One day, they came in and they removed me and put another guy in my place,” he said. “That’s all because that’s what industry wanted.”
Now, Rannazzisi has come forward, leading 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker to label him, “one of the most important whistleblowers ever to be on 60 Minutes.”
“My only motive was to protect public health and safety,” Rannazzisi said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t going to get paid more to do my job. I just wanted to make sure everybody understood what their obligations were.”
Sense of community
Joe Rannazzisi already had a well-formed sense of right and wrong by the time he chose to attend Butler. He grew up in Freeport, Long Island, an area where a lot of police and firefighters lived. His father was a teacher who thought public service was important for everyone, and young Joe found himself inspired by the bravery of a DEA Special Agent named Frank Tummillo, who was killed during an undercover operation in New York City in 1972.
Rannazzisi came to Butler to study Pharmacy, and he worked his way through school—at The Children’s Museum as an Emergency Medical Technician; at Butler’s Science Library; and at the Washington Township Fire Department as a reserve, where he was on an engine once or twice a week.
“Joe was always a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve,” said his Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother Scott Bridge ’82, an Instructor in Butler’s College of Communication. “He was a very caring guy with a good sense of humor and a quick smile. He frequently talked about joining the DEA even when he was a freshman. The guys in the house were usually skeptical about those plans, but damn if he didn’t prove us all wrong. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Joe was also a guy who tended to know what he wanted and worked hard to get it.”
Rannazzisi said Butler was “a great experience,” though he remembered one terrible night during either his sophomore or junior year when a member of Lambda Chi got into a car accident outside the Sigma Nu house. Rannazzisi had just returned to campus from one of his jobs.
“One of my fraternity brothers and another guy were out there doing everything possible to help this guy,” he said. “But he didn’t make it. I remember my fraternity brother was so distraught that he couldn’t do more. Everybody was. And then the campus gathered and I remember there was a vigil. It was like Butler was a community. You could go 4-5 years on a large campus and not know everybody. But by the time you’re done with Butler, you pretty much know everybody because you’re living in such close proximity to each other. You go to the same social events and restaurants and bars and you’re working together. It’s one of those communities where we are all so close-knit.”
Butler, he said, taught him that “there’s a big, big world out there besides living on the East Coast. That’s the first thing I learned. The people were so nice. I learned a different way of living. It was much more laid back, not the hustle-bustle. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
‘Thank you for doing the right thing and stepping up’
Rannazzisi earned his Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy, but he wanted to be a cop or a DEA agent. After he graduated, he practiced pharmacy for a few years, then got calls from the Indianapolis Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration within a month of each other.
He chose the DEA and was assigned to Detroit, where he worked during the day and earned his law degree from Michigan State University’s Detroit College of Law at night.
Eventually, he transferred to Washington, DC. From January 2006 until his retirement, he served as Deputy Assistant Administrator of the DEA.
Now, he’s working with lawyers who represent states that are suing opioid manufacturers because “the states are the ones who can effect change better than anybody else can,” he says.
As for what has changed since he went public?
“Congress is debating whether they should repeal the bill or not, the nominee for Drug Czar [Tom Marino] withdrew his name, and people are still dying. That’s about it,” Rannazzisi said.
One more thing: Rannazzisi’s email has been flooded with notes from supporters saying “you did the right thing” and “thank you for stepping up.”
And in this sense, Joe Rannazzisi is just like his alma mater.
“In 2010 and 2011, I had to explain to people where Butler was,” he said. “They talked about this little school that pushed academics, but they were really good at basketball and they’re going up against all these big guys who have a lot more money and better recruiting. But Butler succeeds because they’re disciplined and they know how to achieve things that normal people wouldn’t achieve. That’s what the school instills in you. I always thought it was pretty neat that people would say, ‘How does this little school get to where it is?’ It’s because the school has values that a lot of large schools should have and don’t.”