Drug firm, execs misled public

about the dangers of OxyContin

ROANOKE, Va. - The maker of the powerful painkiller OxyContin and three of its current and former executives pleaded guilty yesterday to misleading the public about the drug's risk of addiction.

Purdue Pharma L.P., its president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer will pay $634.5 million in fines for claiming the drug was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications, U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said.

The plea agreement settled a national case and came two days after the Stamford, Conn.-based company agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and the District of Columbia to settle complaints that it encouraged physicians to overprescribe OxyContin.

"With its OxyContin, Purdue unleashed a highly abusable, addictive, and potentially dangerous drug on an unsuspecting and unknowing public," Brownlee said. "For these misrepresentations and crimes, Purdue and its executives have been brought to justice."

Purdue spokesman James Heins objected to any suggestion of ties between the plea agreement and the abuse of OxyContin.

"We promoted the medicine only to health-care professionals, not to consumers," he said in a statement.

Democrats keep grilling Gonzales, but he gets some GOP support

WASHINGTON - Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales endured another round of withering grilling from Democratic lawmakers yesterday but also found some Republican cover as he continued to fight for his job.

Gonzales, appearing unmoved in the face of charges by lawmakers that he was refusing to come clean about who chose eight U.S. attorneys to be fired, repeated his determination to stay as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer.

To the accusation that the prosecutors were dismissed to blunt investigations of Republican politicians or for failing to probe Democrats, Gonzales said, "I would not retaliate for partisan political reasons. That's not something that I believe is acceptable, and would not tolerate."

Despite the insistence among many in both parties that Gonzales has lost the moral authority to run the Justice Department, because of seemingly contradictory answers about the controversy, some Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee cast the controversy as a partisan attack on the Bush administration.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said that after two months of congressional inquiry, "the list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not."

Trouble from coast to coast

with wildfires and floodwaters

* Calmer wind and a sprinkling of rain helped firefighters make gains yesterday on the massive wildfires that have forced hundreds of people to evacuate homes in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was looking for salvation from what would typically be a nemesis - a brewing Atlantic storm.

* A 400-acre wildfire erupted on the getaway spot of Santa Catalina Island yesterday, forcing evacuations just as firefighters were mopping up a blaze at another Southern California playground, Los Angeles' sprawling Griffith Park.

* Floodwaters rose still higher across northwest and central Missouri yesterday, leading nervous residents to remove valuables from their homes and fill sandbags to protect river communities. Near-record flooding that inundated the village of Big Lake earlier this week broke more levees, and water levels were expected to peak in some spots this weekend.

Lockdown at Colo. high school

after cook sees men in camo, mask

BOULDER, Colo. - Police searched a high school room by room yesterday after a cook reported seeing two suspicious men in the building around dawn, both wearing camouflage and one in a ski mask.

Authorities said no classes or groups were meeting in Boulder High School at the time. Police sealed off the building, and school officials canceled classes for the day.

A four-hour search by 23 officers in three SWAT teams found no signs of a break-in, Police Chief Mark Beckner said. The search included utility-access tunnels under the building and at one point two officers could be seen on the roof, their rifles drawn.

Beckner said there was no indication the intruders were armed.

"This could be a spring, end-of-school-year prank. It could be a burglary. It could be kids goofing around, or it could be more serious," Beckner said. "Given the times that we live in and recent events, we have to take all precautions."

No recent threats had been made against the 1,900-student school, the police chief said. Earlier this spring, graffiti had been found inside the building saying people would die on April 19, the day before the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings near Denver. Classes were held that day with extra security.

Armed intruder boards bus,

shoots 5 teens in Chicago

CHICAGO - Five teenage passengers were shot while riding a Chicago Transit Authority bus on the city's South Side yesterday. Two teenage boys and one girl were in critical condition, while another girl was in good condition, officials said. A fifth passenger's condition was unknown.

"A lone, armed offender boarded the bus and shortly after boarding the bus fired multiple shots," Assistant Deputy Superintendent Eugene Williams said at a news conference. The male suspect exited the bus and ran south after the shooting, said Williams, who asked the public to call in with tips. *

- Daily News wire services