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Oklahoma lawmakers grumble openly about opioid settlement

April 3, 2019
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Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter answers questions during a news conference Monday, April 1, 2019, in Oklahoma City. A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin received high praise last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction. Hunter is now facing bipartisan backlash from Oklahoma lawmakers who say he overstepped his authority and circumvented their role. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A $270 million settlement between the state of Oklahoma and the maker of OxyContin praised last week as an innovative way to help combat opioid addiction is facing bipartisan criticism from Oklahoma lawmakers who say the state’s attorney general overstepped his authority.

Attorney General Mike Hunter spent time this week in damage control with lawmakers who say money from the first-of-its-kind settlement should have gone to the state treasury, where legislators would have determined how it was spent. They also grumbled that Hunter kept them in the dark about settlement talks.

“I have presented a number of mea culpas in the last week and today,” Hunter said after meeting behind closed doors Monday with House and Senate leaders. “On reflection, I wish there was a way I could have consulted them, but I was under court order to keep those negotiations confidential.”

The settlement with Purdue Pharma and the company’s controlling family calls for $200 million to go toward establishing a National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Local governments will get $12.5 million, and about $60 million was for legal fees.

Hunter said the agreement was unique because the privately held company was considering bankruptcy and was adamant about not going to trial in Oklahoma.

“I have to make tough calls in this job,” said Hunter, a Republican appointed to the job after his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, was tapped by President Donald Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency. “There was a situation that was unique and isolated with regard to this defendant, and I made the call to make sure we didn’t get zero, that we got something significant for one of our public universities.”

Purdue said the university’s wellness center is a perfectly appropriate use of the settlement funds and within the goals of the federal judge in Ohio who is overseeing the multi-district litigation against drug manufacturers, including Purdue.

“The money from the agreement will go toward addiction treatment, research and education, which will directly help the citizens of Oklahoma,” the company said in a statement.

Purdue spokesman Robert Josephson declined to comment on complaints from Oklahoma legislators that Hunter violated a state law that requires him to place any settlement money received by his office into the state treasury.

“There are policies and procedures and a way things are done, and this is not the way that this was supposed to be done,” said Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, one of several critics of the settlement. “It was handled wrong, and we need to make sure it never happens again.”

Hunter said state law doesn’t apply because his office never technically received the settlement money, something Purdue insisted on as part of the agreement.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt discounted much of the legislative grumbling.

“Only time will tell how good this deal really was,” Stitt said Monday. “It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback at this point.”

Some families of people who died from drug overdoses also criticized the settlement because they want Purdue and other drugmakers reveal details about their role in the opioid epidemic.

Hunter said the state continues to sue multiple drugmakers, and that he expects any additional settlement funds would be appropriated by the Legislature.

It’s certainly not the first time settlement agreements reached by state prosecutors have raised eyebrows.

As New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, Chris Christie came under fire a deal struck with Bristol-Myers Squibb in which securities fraud charges were dropped in exchange for funding a professorship at Seton Hall University’s law school, the governor’s alma mater. The Justice Department later enacted new rules limiting a prosecutor’s discretion in striking similar agreements.

In Oklahoma, Hunter’s predecessor, Pruitt, decided to opt out of a national mortgage settlement signed by 49 other states in 2012, and reached a separate deal for his own state. He argued that the national settlement was an example of “overreach” by attorneys general.

Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat who helped negotiate the state’s settlement with big tobacco in the late 1990s, said seeking input from citizens, or even state legislators, is not practical when it comes to reaching such deals.

“That authority is placed with the attorney general, and regardless of party, that’s the way it should be,” Edmondson said. “I look at this as a settlement decision, what had to be done in order to get the settlement with this defendant in this case.”

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