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PRESS CONFERENCE (copy) opioid

Attorney General Brad Schimel speaks during a press conference in Madison in May. He has said he believes a multi-state investigation is the best way to receive a settlement from opioid manufacturers.

With nearly every county in Wisconsin and Republican attorneys general in 18 states filing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers , Democrats are criticizing Brad Schimel for declining to join them as he seeks reelection.

The lawsuits are seeking settlements for the public health costs of addictive painkillers. Schimel says he is committed to getting a settlement to help combat the opioid epidemic, even if the method is less politically convenient.

Josh Kaul, Schimel’s Democratic opponent, and One Wisconsin Now, a Madison-based liberal advocacy group, contend Schimel has been lax with efforts to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable, noting that 71 out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Schimel’s home county of Waukesha, felt the issue warranted a federal lawsuit.

"We need to start responding to the opioid epidemic like the crisis it is — and that includes being serious about holding the pharmaceutical companies accountable for the role they’ve played in creating and exacerbating this epidemic.” said Kaul in a statement. “Unfortunately, our current AG has repeatedly taken the side of powerful special interests like pharmaceutical companies rather than Wisconsinites.”

Kaul and One Wisconsin Now also point to a $555,475 in donations by Purdue Pharma between 2014 and 2016 to the Republican Attorneys General Association, RAGA, whose efforts in Wisconsin this year will benefit Schimel’s campaign. RAGA is permitted by law to speak with Schimel's campaign, but is limited in doing so. The group is barred from notifying the campaign when or how it spends money supporting Schimel.  

Zack Roday, a spokesman for the group, said it fully complies with the state's rules for political activity. 

But Schimel's opponents say the connection is clear.

“He's more concerned with keeping the pipeline from big pharma to his campaign open than doing everything he can to hold accountable those responsible for the opioid epidemic," said Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director of One Wisconsin Now. "You have to question Brad Schimel's competence and dedication to his job when state Attorneys General of both parties and 71 of 72 counties in Wisconsin are fighting in court to hold opioid manufacturers accountable for the damage done by their malfeasance and he is not."

Schimel’s campaign and the Republican Attorneys General Association call that criticism shameful and misleading.

"Josh Kaul should be ashamed of himself for politicizing the opioid epidemic. His charge is intellectually dishonest and patently false," said Roday.

“Josh Kaul’s misinformation campaign is running full speed ahead. As he is well aware, this is simply not true. When you have no plans for the job, this is what you get,” said Matthew Dobler, Schimel’s campaign manager.

Schimel has long said that a lawsuit would be a longer, less effective method of getting money from companies to people in the state, instead opting for a multi-state investigation.  

He affirmed that approach Thursday in comments at a luncheon hosted by WisPolitics, saying he would only file a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers “when any possibility of settlement talk is dead … if there’s no possibility we can reach some agreement that happens in the short term, than we’d have no choice but to take the long-term route which will likely be a very long slog.”

Schimel said he is barred by law from providing many details on the status of the multi-state investigation, a common method for states to seek money from companies where attorneys general from several states meet with representatives from the companies and ask them to voluntary provide information to negotiate a deal. The opioid investigation involves five pharmaceutical companies: Endo, Janssen, Tera/Cephalon, Allergen and Purdue Pharma.

“This isn’t anybody’s political foray. This is working legitimately together,” he said.

The multi-state investigation, which has been going on for more than a year, included more than 40 states attorneys general when it began in 2017. The group has dwindled to 24 as states have left the investigation to file lawsuits. Historically states cannot file a lawsuit and be involved in the multi-state investigation at the same time, according to DOJ. 

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Schimel said he does not know how long the investigation will take, but emphasized Thursday that “talks continue and there are places where there has been some agreement.”

He said companies have an interest in “limiting their PR liability in all of this” and working with states to “be a part of the solution.”

“That’s the thing we’re dangling for them: help us. Help us with treatment efforts, help us to have stable funding for drug treatment courts longterm, help us with prevention efforts, help us in our outreach to the medical community,” Schimel said.

Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos said it is not uncommon for multi-state investigations to take several years, noting that several states who have filed lawsuits are no closer to scoring a settlement than Wisconsin and the other states choosing the investigation route.

“They have to deal with motions to dismiss and other litigation hurdles that slow down the process,” he said, noting that “multistate investigations have a proven record of success,” highlighting the $157 million Volkswagen paid after its vehicle emission violations, of which Wisconsin received about $11.5 million.

Wisconsin counties that have filed suit against the pharmaceutical companies are working with private attorneys in seeking a settlement. Schimel noted that those counties will likely have to direct part of their settlement to attorney fees, whereas if a multi-state investigation settlement materializes, Wisconsin will get its full share and not have to pay outside attorneys. 

Dane County was one of latest in Wisconsin to file a suit against the companies earlier this month for allegedly misinforming doctors and contributing to the widespread opioid epidemic. Polk County is the only county that has not yet filed a federal lawsuit.

A federal judge in Cleveland, in the Northern District of Ohio, is overseeing 735 cases from local governments across the country that are consolidated in a multi-district litigation, said Mike Modl, local counsel to Dane County. A trial in the case is scheduled for March 2019.

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.