LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There's a struggle still going on over an opioid settlement worth billions of dollars. It's being offered by Purdue Pharma, the company that makes Oxycontin. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, a growing partisan divide has added to the controversy surrounding the deal.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: For much of the last decade, the response to the opioid crisis has been pretty bipartisan. But when Purdue Pharma came forward with a bankruptcy plan last month, that changed. It requires members of the Sackler family to give up control of their company and forfeit up to $3 billion of their personal wealth. Democratic attorneys general mostly rejected the deal. Joel Stein (ph), the AG in North Carolina, says the Sacklers should pay a lot more.
JOSH STEIN: They are more responsible than any for all the death and destruction that our nation has experienced. And they have to make a meaningful and certain contribution to clean up the mess that they helped to create.
MANN: The Republican AGs, meanwhile, mostly embrace the bankruptcy plan. They say the deal isn't perfect, but it gets money flowing to communities fast. Dave Yost is AG in Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the addiction crisis.
DAVE YOST: It's I think the best deal that can be obtained, and it's going to put money on the street to help get treatment and do all the other things that we need.
MANN: There are different theories for why this partisan divide emerged over the Purdue-Sackler settlement. Richard Ausness is an expert on opioid litigation at the University of Kentucky. He says there have always been cultural differences in the way Republican and Democratic AGs view the opioid fight.
RICHARD AUSNESS: Some of the Democratic politicians more so than the Republicans are on a crusade. They want to punish the drug companies for what they did and not simply make a deal with them.
MANN: Ausness says some Republican AGs are eager to put the opioid fight behind them. They tend to have much closer ties to the drug industry and in general have been more reluctant to sue corporations. And some Republican AGs who take on companies like Purdue Pharma have risked a political backlash from fellow conservatives.
MIKE HUNTER: It's been tough.
MANN: Mike Hunter, Oklahoma's Republican AG, sued Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson. He barely survived a bitter primary fight last year after a conservative challenger attacked him over his decision to hire trial attorneys to help with opioid lawsuits. He described the pushback he faced speaking to a gathering of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
HUNTER: The extent to which this lawsuit was part of the discussion during the election was certainly regrettable. That was something that certainly gave me pause.
MANN: Much of the political pressure faced by Republican AGs has come from one highly influential conservative - Luther Strange. He's a former U.S. senator from Alabama who served as that state's Republican attorney general. He also led the Republican Attorneys General Association until 2017. Over the last year, Strange has emerged as a prominent critic of opioid lawsuits, arguing that AGs who use the courts to tackle the opioid epidemic set a dangerous precedent, expanding potential liability for companies accused of harming the public.
LUTHER STRANGE: It'll also be used against almost any other broad social issue that lawyers either - they're either frustrated at the legislature or the executive branch won't actually address, so they take it to the court system.
MANN: Strange didn't respond to NPR's repeated requests for an interview. He spoke there at a gathering of the conservative Federalist Society in June. NPR has learned that while Luther Strange was building an influential conservative argument against opioid lawsuits, he was also working behind the scenes as a paid attorney for members of the Sackler family. According to a source with detailed knowledge of the matter, Strange represented his clients at a gathering of the Republican Attorneys General Association over the summer, where he worked to convince AGs to accept Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy plan.
It's clear other factors shaped how individual AGs reacted to this deal. Some states are desperate for quick cash, others have laws that make it hard to pursue the Sacklers individually in court. But this partisan divide over the Purdue-Sackler settlement is now a big sticking point. To get the deal finalized and approved by a bankruptcy court, Purdue Pharma will likely need more Democratic attorneys general on board. Those negotiations are under way.
Brian Mann, NPR news
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