- The Washington Times
Thursday, October 31, 2019

Candidates running for governor want voters thinking about painkillers when they cast their ballots this month, particularly in Kentucky, the state with the nation’s highest addiction rate in 2015 and 2016.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has hit the opioid issue hard in the final campaign week, accusing Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear of striking a sweetheart deal for a corporate client of his white shoe law firm that defended it.

While Kentucky may be especially ravaged by the opioid epidemic, Mississippi and Louisiana also have seen high addiction rates, and those states are closely following legal settlements struck by Oklahoma and Kentucky, along with a $260 million deal reached between four drug companies and two Ohio counties.

Officials have attributed some 400,000 deaths nationwide to opioid overdoses.

Kentucky settled a case in 2015 with Purdue Pharma, one of the major opioid producers that has since entered bankruptcy court, for $24 million, and Mr. Bevin contends the Bluegrass State got so little partly because of the hardball corporate defense tactics of Stites and Harbison, where Mr. Beshear was a lawyer.

Mr. Bevin draws a contrast between the Kentucky settlement with the OxyContin maker and Oklahoma’s $270 million deal, and says Mr. Beshear’s firm shortchanged Kentucky, which has been ravaged by opioid addiction.

The deal was reached with Kentucky’s previous attorney general, Jack Conway, and when Mr. Beshear’s father, Steve, was governor. Steve Beshear became a partner at Stites and Harbison after leaving office. As attorney general, Mr. Beshear gave $4 million of the settlement to Mr. Conway’s law firm.

“Why did Kentucky receive a settlement that is a pittance (less than 10%) compared to other states that were less adversely affected, and how much did Andy Beshear personally profit from the shady settlement of this case?” Mr. Bevin said in a statement issued Thursday.

Mr. Beshear has struggled to contain the charge, although his campaign notes that as attorney general he has pursued additional litigation concerning opioids. At first, he insisted that he played no part in the firm’s Purdue Pharma defense, but on Wednesday, The Courier-Journal reported on a memo from Mr. Beshear in which he recused himself from any involvement in the 2015 settlement. The memo was dated March 12, 2019.

Labeling the memo “unusual at best,” or downright “unethical,” Mr. Bevin hit the theme again Thursday.

“Andy has never been able to give Kentuckians a straight answer on his involvement in the questionable Purdue Pharma case, and his lies have finally caught up with him with yesterday’s release of the recusal memo,” his statement read. “This memo, filed years after the case ended, proves Andy is contradicting himself.”

In Louisiana, incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards allowed Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry to take the lead on the Pelican State’s litigation effort last year, and it has since grown to include 17 different, in many cases politically connected, law firms.

Mississippi’s term-limited Republican Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state emergency over opioids in 2017. This month a consortium of 20 hospitals in the state filed their own civil lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of the medicines. So far, however, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, whom polls show locked in a tight gubernatorial race, haven’t made opioids a major issue.

Neither of those two campaigns nor Mr. Edwards and his GOP challenger, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, responded to multiple requests for comment on the topic.

Also not clear in all three states is exactly what will be done with the money potentially gained by litigation. In the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement, lawmakers pitched it as a reimbursement of medical expenses caused by smoking but instead have used most of the money to plug budget holes or fund pet projects.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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