Utah A.G. appears to bend to will of frustrated lawmakers — will sue Purdue Pharma over opioid abuse and deaths

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during his debate with Charles Stormont at KBYU Studios in Provo, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.

Top officials in the attorney general’s office said Wednesday that Utah would sue one of the world’s largest opioid manufacturers for the high rates of addiction and overdoses that in recent years have have killed about two dozen Utahns a month.

The impending complaint, which chief criminal deputy Spencer Austin said could be filed within 10 days, would follow months of frustration from lawmakers who lashed out Wednesday at Attorney General Sean Reyes, saying he has played a passive role in responding to the crisis.

A lawsuit in a Utah court would initially include Purdue Pharma, Austin said, but could grow to more companies and possibly individuals. The announcement marks a shift in the approach the A.G.’s office has taken in recent months, which led to a public spat between top legislators, who wanted a Utah-specific lawsuit filed, and Reyes, who preferred working with other states outside court in what could be a speedier settlement.

The office had said it planned to work with other states that hope to reach an agreement with the pharmaceutical companies outside the courtroom, which could avoid the time and money a lawsuit would cost. The office still believes that’s the best approach.

“We feel that without taking [the multistate approach] to its conclusion and finding out whether we can resolve short of litigation, we’re really shortchanging the state of Utah,” Austin said.

The course change follows six states — Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Nevada, North Carolina and North Dakota — that became involved in lawsuits against Purdue on Tuesday. That brings the list of states suing pharmaceutical companies to nearly two dozen.

Austin also noted he didn’t expect states filing lawsuits to have much of an impact on the business practices of international companies the way states could if they banded together and worked with any cooperative companies on a settlement.

Regardless, the state will give Purdue a required 10-day notice before suing either on the 10th day or shortly after, the office said.

The announcement was made during a hearing on HJR12, a resolution passed earlier this year by the Legislature that called on Reyes to “proceed with haste to file suit against prescription opioid manufacturers to hold them accountable for the destruction and devastation they have inflicted upon the citizens of the state.”

A resolution from the Legislature doesn’t bind the state’s top attorney. But lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee laid into Reyes on Wednesday, who was traveling and not able to attend, his deputies said.

“The frustration is HJR12 was heard in committee twice. The attorney general wasn’t present,” said Rep. Michael McKell, the Spanish Fork Republican who sponsored the resolution. “We’re talking about it again today and the attorney general isn’t present.”

“I’m one of those frustrated people that doesn’t understand why this isn’t moving faster,” said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan. “It looks like we’re watching other states and then jumping on board. Why aren’t we leading?”

There is some concern about the influence pharmaceutical companies have with attorneys general offices that are now bringing legal action against them.

When announcing last month that Salt Lake County would file its own lawsuit against a slew of companies, former Republican Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who is on the county’s outside legal team, suggested politicians didn’t want to cause trouble for pharmaceutical companies.

“It takes guts. You have to have some courage to take on the big boys,” said Woods. “Big Tobacco had a lot of politicians in their pocket. And Big Pharma has a lot of politicians in their pocket. And they don’t want to solve the problem.”

Reyes recently told The Salt Lake Tribune he avoids taking any donations from companies or other contributors involved in litigation or negotiations with his office.

Legislators still have questions.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, asked on Wednesday whether Reyes needed to stay out of any impending lawsuit, given his active role in a national group of Republican attorneys general criticized for its cozy relationship with big businesses, including pharmaceutical companies.

“If those donations are coming from target companies in this opioid litigation, does that create a conflict of interest for your office?” Weiler asked.

The Republican Attorneys General Association [RAGA] has taken more than $500,000 from Purdue Pharma in recent years. RAGA, in turn, donates to its 29 members, including $300,000 to Reyes in the past two elections, making it his single biggest donor.

“If it did create an issue.... I would say we would create a wall and wall off the attorney general,” Austin said. “It would go to one of his chief deputies.”