by Phillip M. Bailey, Louisville Courier Journal
Reports of Purdue Pharma — manufacturer of the popular painkiller OxyContin — reaching a major settlement with multiple states and cities on Wednesday is being injected into Kentucky’s race for governor.
The company’s tentative $12 billion agreement with 23 states and attorneys representing roughly 2,000 local governments would require the firm’s ownership, the Sackler family, to give up control of the company, according to the Associated Press.
Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is running for governor this year, has been grilled by critics for years about his role in a $24 million Purdue Pharma settlement by his predecessor, Attorney General Jack Conway, just before he came into office four years ago.
Gov. Matt Bevin, who is facing a tough challenge from Beshear this November, didn’t wait long to use the news as a battering ram against his rival. In a news release issued from the office of the governor, he said the attorney general could have done more to squeeze money out of the company his firm used to represent.
“It’s a tragic day for the thousands of Kentucky families who have suffered heart-wrenching pain from the scourge of the opioid epidemic,” Bevin said in the statement Wednesday.
Beshear campaign spokesman Sam Newton countered, saying: “Andy Beshear has been the most aggressive attorney general in the country when it comes to taking on the big drug companies that poisoned our communities and killed our neighbors.”
He said it was “shameful this governor is using taxpayer resources to mislead Kentuckians with a patently false political smear about something that happened before Andy ever took office.”
The AG’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. As attorney general, Beshear has filed nine similar lawsuits against drugmakers, including one against Johnson & Johnson, over their role in the epidemic.
But when the Purdue Pharma settlement with Kentucky was finalized, Beshear was working for Louisville-based law firm Stites and Harbison, which represented the drugmaker in the case.
The 2007 suit, filed by former Attorney General Greg Stumbo, alleged the OxyContin maker’s practices were responsible for the rise in addiction across the state. He said it could lead to a settlement as much as $1 billion.
Beshear famously walked out of a committee hearing in October 2017 after being grilled by legislators about whether he had anything to do with the $24 million settlement. He has said repeatedly he had no direct involvement in the case as a lawyer for Stites and Harbison.
“I wasn’t a named counsel on that, and I don’t recall doing any work on it,” Beshear told reporters during a June 2017 press conference. “I was there a long time, I don’t want to suggest that no one asked me a question about what General Conway was like or not like, but I was not an active participant in that case.”
But Republican lawmakers were particularly troubled by how Beshear’s office awarded a retroactive $4 million contract to another Louisville law firm, which would later make Conway a partner, for its work on the case.
“This crooked deal is one of the biggest frauds ever committed on Kentuckians,” Bevin said Wednesday, “and it is shameful that Conway and the Beshears chose to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of Kentucky families.”
The opioid crisis, which has contributed to the deaths of about 400,000 Americans over the past two decades, has struck the Bluegrass State particularly hard.
Kentucky’s rate of opioid-involved deaths was 27.9 per 100,000 people, which was almost twice the national average, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Reach Phillip M. Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4475. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.