MADISON, Wis. — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has taken the unusual step of revealing the state Department of Justice is investigating opioid manufacturers to see what role they may have played in creating addicts, a day after Senate Democrats pushed him to exact compensation from the companies.
Schimel has been on the forefront of Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to stem opioid addiction but he has signaled that he’s reluctant to go after drug makers in the past. Word of the investigation could indicate a more aggressive stance toward the companies as he heads into an election year in 2018.
Schimel said Thursday he and a group of attorneys general from around the country have been investigating whether drug makers have illegally marketed and sold opioids. He said the investigation involves subpoenas for documents and testimony, suggesting the probe could be a precursor to a lawsuit. Other attorneys general in the coalition announced the investigation on Thursday as well, including attorneys general in South Carolina, Alabama, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Several states including Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee have already filed lawsuits against opioid makers over marketing tactics. So have individual cities and counties.
Law enforcement officials often won’t confirm or deny investigations exist. Schimel spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the attorneys general felt it was appropriate to reveal the investigation because Ohio filed its lawsuit at the end of May and it was important “to inform the public and media how seriously they are taking the opiate crisis and that they will leave no stone unturned in solving this problem.”
Schimel has become one of the public faces of Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to slow opioid addiction, launching a public awareness campaign and supporting bills that expand treatment and require police to carry overdose antidote. He also is leading a multi-state lawsuit alleging drug manufacturer Individor of illegally trying to extend a monopoly over Suboxone, a drug for treating opioid addiction.
Democrats have been trying to paint him as weak on the issue as he enters a re-election bid against Josh Kaul, a former federal prosecutor and son of former Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.
They say he’s trying to protect big drug companies. They’ve pointed out he told The Cap Times newspaper in December it would be difficult to go after them for illegal opioid marketing because their actions likely took place 15 or 20 years ago and the statute of limitations has probably expired. He added that Wisconsin and 25 other states won a $19.5 million settlement in 2007 with drug maker Purdue Pharma over marketing practices for Oxycontin, an opioid pain medication. Schimel received a $250 campaign contribution from Purdue Pharma last year.
Schimel also told the newspaper, however, that the Wisconsin DOJ was still monitoring drug makers’ practices. Koremenos said in an email to The Associated Press that Schimel was alluding to the investigation, meaning the probe has been going on for at least the last six months.
During a Wednesday floor session in the Senate, Democrats tried to pass legislation that that would have required Schimel to consider suing the drug makers and report his conclusions to the Legislature. Republicans shot the measure down after Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he was sure a large-scale class action lawsuit against drug makers is coming soon and Schimel would probably be part of it. The attorneys general began making their announcements revealing the investigation less than 24 hours later.
Koremenos said in his email that Schimel believes prevention and treatment are keys to solving the opioid problem and the state can’t arrest or sue its way out of the crisis. But he said Schimel hasn’t ruled out a lawsuit against manufacturers.
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1