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Attorneys accuse drugmakers of smear campaign as Oklahoma opioids hearing turns heated

A hearing in Oklahoma's lawsuit against opioid manufacturing companies turned heated Thursday. [METRO CREATIVE CONNECTION IMAGE]
A hearing in Oklahoma's lawsuit against opioid manufacturing companies turned heated Thursday. [METRO CREATIVE CONNECTION IMAGE]

NORMAN — A hearing in Oklahoma's lawsuit against opioid manufacturing companies turned heated Thursday with attorneys for the state accusing Purdue Pharma of orchestrating a smear campaign against lawyers to divert attention from claims that drug companies hid the addictive nature of opioids.

"Purdue, especially, has been engaged in a decades long attack plan," said Bradley Beckworth, one of the outside attorneys assisting Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter in the lawsuit.

Beckworth made his allegation during a motion hearing as state and drug company attorneys steam toward a May 28 jury trial date in Cleveland County District Court.

The lawsuit, filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, accuses more than a dozen drug companies of making billions of dollars off the sale of opioids through fraudulent marketing campaigns that misrepresented the addictive properties of the painkilling drugs, leading to thousands of deaths.

Whether the trial will begin as scheduled appears to be in doubt.

Attorneys for the state told District Judge Thad Balkman on Thursday that there are strong signs that Purdue may file for bankruptcy before the trial starts, which would force a delay.

To prevent such a delay, the state's attorneys urged the judge to break the case into separate cases against each of the pharmaceutical companies so the other cases could continue to go forward if the Purdue case is put on hold. Cases against various remaining companies could later be consolidated when it came time for trial. Balkman asked attorneys to file briefs on the issue.

In accusing Purdue of conducting a smear campaign, Beckworth pointed to a memo that a strategic public relations company called The Herald Group had written to Purdue officials. The memo proposed a $270,000 media campaign that would, among other things, "shine a spotlight on the plaintiff's attorneys involved in the cases to call into question their credibility and personal profit motive."

"Our goal is to make state attorneys general think twice about joining the litigation and establish a credible watch-dog organization to monitor the use of contingency fee counsel should other state attorneys general join the suit," The Herald Group's media campaign proposal said.

Robert Josephson, spokesman for Purdue Pharma, told The Oklahoman on Thursday that The Herald Group's proposal was just "one of many proposals" it received from The Herald Group and other similar companies.

"Purdue did not retain The Herald Group or any other firm for this work," he said. Josephson said Purdue officials believe contingency fee arrangements between states and outside counsel create "serious" conflict-of-interest issues. Purdue has raised that concern in a number of cases, he said.

Beckworth, an attorney representing Oklahoma, claimed efforts to discredit the state's attorneys were behind Purdue's efforts to subpoena records from Fighting Addiction Through Education (FATE), a nonprofit organization founded by Reggie Whitten, one of the outside attorneys representing Oklahoma in the lawsuit.

FATE produced a seven-part "documentary" on opioid addiction called "Killing Pain" which featured people who blamed fraudulent marketing campaigns by opioid manufacturers and other factors for causing the opioid epidemic in the nation.

John Thomas Cox III, an attorney for Purdue, told the judge that Purdue subpoenaed FATE's records because the documentary contained statements by some of the state's witnesses acknowledging that overprescribing by doctors and other factors contributed to the nation's opioid problems. That would support the pharmaceutical companies' position that all of the legal blame should not be placed solely on them.

Judge William C. Hetherington Jr., a special master in the case, quashed the subpoena, citing journalist's privilege.

The journalist's privilege is a state law that prohibits any journalist from being required to disclose the source of any published or unpublished information obtained in the gathering or communication of news unless a court finds that the person seeking the information has established by clear and convincing evidence that such information or identity is relevant to a significant issue in the action and could not with due diligence be obtained by alternate means.

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›