Holding the federal government accountable and trying to curb the state’s opioid crisis continue to be two areas of focus for the Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his staff in 2018, regardless of the headlines his office generates.
Ferguson spoke about the role of the Attorney General’s Office and some of the lawsuits and initiatives his office has been pursuing at a breakfast event hosted by the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday at Twin Lakes Golf & Country Club. He spoke earlier in the morning to the Kent Sunrise Rotary Club.
While Ferguson has been accused by some lawmakers in the past year of pursuing legal action — specifically against the Trump administration – to push his own political agenda for his own gain, he said the job of the Washington Attorney General’s Office is defending the laws of the state and protecting the rights and legal interests of its residents, regardless of partisan or community support or personal feelings.
“Our job is to represent the state, and sometimes I defend laws that I personally don’t agree with,” he said.
He said his office is the “largest law firm” in the state, with 27 legal divisions and more than 500 attorneys and 600 staff who provide legal services to the state of Washington and its residents by holding special interests’ accountable and defending residents’ civil rights.
“We need to do that in an independent fashion,” Ferguson said. “That is intensely important.”
With his mission to serve residents’ interests, Ferguson said one of the things he and his office are actively pursuing is action to address the state’s opioid crisis. He said, on average, two people die from opioid overdoses every day.
“It impacts families all across the state,” Ferguson said of the opioid crisis, adding at every public speaking engagement he speaks at he hears more stories from people who are affected by someone with an opioid addiction. “It happens every single time, every single time without exception.”
Ferguson said his initiative to battle the opioid crisis is two pronged. The first is through litigation, the second through proposals for legislation.
Last year, the AG’s office filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma LP, the maker of OxyContin, for what Ferguson called “deceptive marketing practices” aimed at minimizing the risks and addictive qualities of its drugs. Ferguson said, after physicians first began reporting patients who were prescribed the drugs for pain were experience addiction, Purdue instead said the symptoms were actually “pseudo-addiction” and the patients were in pain, which should be treated with more drugs. Ferguson said, Purdue and other pharmaceuticals companies being represented by PhRMA, are just as aggressively defending their products.
“The good news is, I’m not messing around, either,” Ferguson said. “But it’ll be a lengthy, protracted battle.”
Ferguson also said, as AG, his second approach has been to introduce proposals for legislation to regulate opioid medication. Ferguson said his first recommendation proposed is to limit the amount of pills providers can prescribe. The second is to require prescribers to enroll in a state program that monitors opioid distribution.
While Ferguson’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma garnered state and national attention, he has garnered even more attention for taking on President Donald Trump’s policies he contends are unconstitutional. Since Trump has taken office, the AG’s office has filed 19 lawsuits – as the lead state or as part of a multi-state group of states – against everything from Trump’s travel ban to the decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Ferguson said the litigation the AG’s office has initiated or participated in was not his goal from the onset of Trump taking office.
“There was no plan, like there was some mission to take on the administration,” Ferguson said.
He said before filing any lawsuit, against the federal government or private businesses, he asks three questions every time. The first is whether Washingtonians will be harmed if no action is taken. The second is whether he has good legal arguments to support of his case. The third is whether he and his office have standing to make the case.
If he can answer yes to each question, then he will file a lawsuit.
“Why would I not bring it? That’s the way I look at it,” Ferguson said.
That said, Ferguson said he and his staff are very thoughtful about any case his office begins, and he realizes not everybody agrees with his decisions. Ferguson said he also hopes he will not have to file 19 more lawsuits against Trump in the coming year, but he will, if necessary.
Ferguson also said the overall cost to taxpayers from all these lawsuits is minimal. He said the Consumer Protection Division supports itself and the Civil Rights Unit through money awarded through successful litigation.