FRANKFORT, Ky. -- For every 100,000 people in Kentucky, 23 are killed by opioid overdoses — nearly double the national rate. But a political feud is complicating the state's effort to hold drug companies accountable for their part in the epidemic.
Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin are fighting over Beshear's attempt to hire private attorneys to battle the drug companies. Beshear is running for governor, and Bevin is the man he could face in the general election.
The resulting political and legal mess will end up before the state Supreme Court this week — one of many disputes between Bevin and Beshear to do so. And this time it's unfolding less than three months before both men face primary elections.
States and local governments across the country have been suing opioid companies for their role in the drug epidemic. In a few states, the top two elected officials have been fighting about how to carry out those lawsuits. In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry went to court over who would manage that state's opioid-related lawsuits. The two men eventually put aside their differences and released a joint statement saying the attorney general would take the lead.
But no compromise is looming in Kentucky, where feuds have historic connotations.
While Beshear says he needs some high-powered private law firms to take nine drug companies to court, Bevin has tried to block him, saying the contract doesn't do enough to protect taxpayers.
Beshear says Bevin's stance would rob the state of resources to combat the army of corporate attorneys arrayed against him.
But Bevin notes some of the lawyers Beshear hired have donated at least $67,000 to Beshear's campaign for governor. And they could get a big payday if they win against the drug companies.
Bevin himself received $6,000 from them when he ran in 2015 — a detail he rarely mentions. Instead, he's more likely to note that a veteran Democratic lobbyist was recently convicted of bribing Beshear's former chief deputy to steer these types of contracts to certain law firms.
Now, the Supreme Court must decide. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday.
All government contracts in Kentucky must be approved by the Finance and Administration Cabinet, which the governor controls. The Bevin administration says the case "is about procurement laws and ensuring that no one is above those laws." But Beshear says the administration is interfering with the state's top lawyer's "efforts to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic."
"If there is one thing that I've been really saddened to see in Frankfort it's that on this issue people will still fight me because of partisanship," Beshear said. "Gov. Bevin is being more obstructionist in these cases than we see any governor around the country and that should be really concerning."
Bevin spokesman Woody Maglinger said the governor's "commitment to fighting the opioid epidemic is irrefutable," pointing to the $129 million in state spending he oversees for battling opioid addiction coupled with a public outreach campaign to steer people into treatment.
"While this administration takes meaningful action, Andy Beshear files lawsuits," Maglinger said. "One would think that Andy Beshear would have learned by now that pay-to-play politics is no longer acceptable in Frankfort."
The companies that Beshear has sued include drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp., which Beshear says are responsible for supplying 85 percent of the opioids in Kentucky. The lawsuits also target retail giant Walgreens and pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson.
Beshear's legal team includes Mark Lanier, a Houston-based lawyer who last year won a $4.7 billion verdict against Johnson & Johnson for 22 women who blamed the company's products for their ovarian cancers. That verdict has been appealed. The team also includes Joe Rice, a South Carolina-based lawyer who was lead negotiator for the $20 billion settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The team is led by Morgan & Morgan, a Florida-based law firm whose attorneys include former Democratic Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo. He's running for Kentucky attorney general this year.
Kentucky Registry of Election Finance records show Morgan & Morgan attorneys have donated at least $67,000 to Beshear's campaign.
Beshear said he wasn't involved in awarding the legal contracts for the opioid lawsuits. A committee of four people, including one person Beshear had hired, scored each bid and all of their work is available as public records. As for why Morgan & Morgan attorneys would donate to his campaign, Beshear said: "If you want to know their motivations, you can talk to them. Maybe they want good government. It may be they think it is really unfair the governor is trying to tear away a contract that they won fair and square."
Campaign records also show Morgan & Morgan attorneys donated $6,000 to Bevin's 2015 campaign fund. John Morgan, a Kentucky native who founded Morgan & Morgan and has donated to Bevin and Beshear, said the notion that his firm was selected because of politics is "unequivocally false."
"This is not an issue of political parties; it is about the death of our young people and the needless and preventable destruction of Kentucky families," Morgan said. "Governor Bevin's efforts to cancel our contract would be to the detriment of his constituents."