Tierney Blog

Don't Forget the Law Firms that Represented Big Opioids

State attorneys general are closing in on settling lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, distributors and the Sackler family who obscenely profited from the suffering these drugs inflicted on millions of Americans. Utilizing contingent counsel, the Attorney General of Oklahoma recently settled a case against Purdue Pharma for $270 million, $75 million of which is to come from the Sackler family.

Sadly, as I predicted in my January 2018 Op Ed in Buzz Feed that was based on the tobacco experience, Oklahoma legislators are now looking for ways to divert the money away from public health. While not a surprise, diversion of settlements from health will remain a major fight as other cases are resolved.

On a separate but vitally important development, the AG's of Massachusetts and New York, who are not using contingent counsel, are showing how the Sackler family sought to profit from both non-generic and generic opioids and, astoundingly enough, from the life saving prescriptions that are used to save lives of those who overdose on their products.

While many issues remain unclear, one unaddressed question is what the names of the law firms are who set up the complex corporate structures that led to so many deaths in so many communities. As with tobacco, unmasking the identity of those law firms is essential to justice.

Several Significant Bipartisan Mutistate Settlements That the Media is Barely Covering

At a time when the federal government literally has shut down, and when the media proclaims that partisanship is at an all-time high, state attorneys general continue to do extraordinary work on behalf of the public interest.

On December 28, 2018 under the leadership of Connecticut AG George Jepsen and AAG Joe Chambers, all fifty states settled with Wells Fargo for $575 million - dollars that go back to back to defrauded consumers. Connecticut led this case along with Iowa - where AAG Patrick Madigan again played a crucial role - and the entire consumer division of the Arizona OAG.

On January 4, 2019, in another $500 million 48-state settlement, and again under the leadership of Iowa AG Tom Miller and his consumer chief Jessica Whitney, almost 180,000 former students of the for-profit education company Career Education Corporation will see their debt wiped out because of CEC marketing violations.

These bipartisan successes come so regularly that they barely crack the news, but to the hundreds of thousands of victims they show that government can and does still work for them.

State AGs Take Action Against Immigration Services Fraud

There are reports of a jump in fraud against immigrants seeking immigration legal services. State AGs have been using their civil and criminal tools to combat this type of exploitation.

Following a months-long undercover operation, the NJ OAG just announced that it’s seeking civil penalties against 28 businesses for selling immigration services they weren’t authorized to provide.

Back in July, the Washington AG followed up on earlier civil actions by filing criminal charges for contempt and prohibited practices against two individuals who had repeatedly defrauded immigrants by selling immigration services they were not qualified to provide.

And earlier in 2018, the Cal DOJ filed criminal charges against three individuals who allegedly defrauded undocumented immigrants and families seeking lawful permanent residence in the US.  The charges now include 32 counts of felony grand theft,  conspiracy, and violations of the state’s UPL statute and immigration consultant law.

These are just three examples.  For more, check the State Center’s Consumer Protection Report by searching for “notario” or “immigration” where you’ll find actions taken by other states including Nevada, Illinois, and Texas.  These cases can provide a model for other AGs who are surely hearing reports of similar exploitation among vulnerable residents.

For more resources on immigration services fraud, see our earlier post on notario fraud (by Faisal Sheikh now at the ACS State AG Project), the ABA’s Fight Notario Fraud Project, or manuals, like this one, drafted by nonprofits that focus on immigration services.

The Takeaway: Why Attorney General Races Draw National Attention (and Donations)

The US Supreme Court in 2006 gave the states the special right to sue the federal government when other organizations can’t. But the real reason it’s happening is because of the integration of our economy.
— James Tierney

From WNYC’s The Takeaway:

As the state’s “top lawyer,” attorney generals have become national players in fights over everything from the health care law and immigration, to marijuana and gay marriage. They were also responsible for bringing in close to $100 million in election donations this year. James Tierney, Former Attorney General for Maine and founder of StateAG.org, breaks down why attorney general races matter — and what they're worth.

Click the ‘play’ button below to hear this segment.

FTC Shuts Down FL-Based Health Insurance Scam

The Federal Trade Commission swept into Florida and got a federal judge to shut down a Florida operation that was selling fraudulent or "worthless" health insurance plans. Tens of thousands of people across the country were victimized, and the operators appear to have been on the radar of at least some AGs.  

Health insurance scams have been proliferating as the federal government dismantles the Affordable Care Act. And Florida is among the nation’s biggest targets when it comes to scammers using robocalls to pitch fake health insurance.

The FTC did this one without the involvement of the FL AG. But looking at the issue nationwide, this is exactly the kind of issue that the FTC and AG consumer divisions should be prosecuting together. Collaborations increase the amount of monetary penalties that can be imposed and allow the agencies to pool their resources. Read about successful collaborations here and here.  

AG Prosecutions Targeting Debt Collectors

Consumer debt has become big business, and debt collectors are increasingly the subject of AG prosecutions.  

Over the last decade, private equity firms have built up significant stakes in payday lenders and other subprime consumer lenders. The private equity-backed debt buying business has boomed.  And consumer debt has reached an all-time high. Against this backdrop, a number of notable AG prosecutions have been brought against debt collectors.  

The National Consumer Law Center just awarded its "Rising Star" award for 2018 to two Texas AAG's who won a $25 million penalty and injunction against a major debt collector. The case was litigated for four years, and the penalty was imposed by a jury following a two-week trial.  

The NY AG and the FTC teamed up and just recently won a federal temporary restraining order against a NY-based debt collector.  The order included an asset-freeze over all of the defendants’ assets.

A search through AG actions in this area shows that debt collectors are under scrutiny by AGs, the FTC and advocacy organizations. Consumers continue to be plagued by abusive debt collection practices, and more enforcement by state AGs is undoubtedly on the horizon.  

NYAG Investigating Source of Millions of Fake Public Comments Submitted to FCC

The NYTimes reports that the NYAG has subpoenaed more than a dozen telecommunications trade groups, lobbying contractors, and advocacy organizations in connection with the submission of millions of possibly fake comments submitted to the FCC in 2017 in connection with a decision on internet regulation.

The NYAG’s investigation dates back to mid-2017, according to this announcement. Because the fake comments used the identities of real people, the NYAG characterized these filings as a potential violation of state laws on identity theft.

In a statement reported by the Times, Attorney General Underwood said that the “F.C.C.’s public comment process was corrupted by millions of fake comments. The law protects New Yorkers from deception and the misuse of their identities. My office will get to the bottom of what happened and hold accountable those responsible for using stolen identities to distort public opinion on net neutrality.”

In addition to possible deception and identity theft issues, it’s common to have laws, like this federal law or this law in Washington state, against the making of a false statement to a public official. Other states, like Oregon and Alabama, have laws that specifically apply to false statements made to lawmakers and executive officials for the purpose of influencing legislation.

The NYAG action represents a dogged pursuit of accountability in what was potentially a massive undermining of a federal agency’s decision making process.

Uber Multistate Settlement Demonstrates the Power of State Data Breach Laws

On September 26, 2018, the attorneys general of all 50 states and the District of Columbia announced an agreement to settle allegations that Uber had exposed the data of 57 million users, and then paid hackers to cover up the breach rather than reporting it to proper authorities. Additional details on the breach can be found in the press releases issued by California, New York, or Massachusetts, each of which reportedly helped lead the settlement. Reporting from Bloomberg, which originally broke the story on the breach in November of 2017, can be found here.

As other commentators have recognized, the multistate settlement shows that the proliferation of state data breach laws has given attorneys general the power to come down hard on bad actors. The settlement included a penalty of $148 million, which has been described as the largest penalty ever imposed by state authorities for a data breach. The settlement also required Uber to take measures to prevent future data breaches and reform its corporate culture. It includes requirements that Uber report to states any data security incidents quarterly, develop a data security program with an executive officer, and set up a hotline for reporting misconduct.

Bipartisan State Efforts to Control Prescription Drug Costs

At the top of the agenda for the 800 state health policymakers who crowded into this year's annual conference of the National Academy for State Health Policy were bipartisan state efforts to control the costs of prescription drugs.  24 states have passed legislation designed to hold back price increases and almost all of them have been challenged by drug companies in lawsuits that will be defended by state attorneys general.

This is an issue that is only going to loom larger for all attorneys general, their legislatures, and their administrative agencies in the months ahead.

Twenty-One AGs Urge Education Secretary to Reconsider Rollback of Student Loan Reforms

In a letter sent last week, 21 state attorneys general and the Office of Consumer Protection of Hawaii urged Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to immediately reconsider “the Department of Education’s revocation of critical student loan service reforms.” The policy and guidance memoranda withdrawn by the Department addressed industry-wide procedures by student loan servicing companies that were the subject of investigations and enforcement actions by the Illinois and Washington State Attorneys General, among others.

The April 24 letter highlights some of the industry practices that contributed to more than a quarter of borrowers being delinquent or in default on a student loan, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB):

In its 2015 report, the CFPB identified troubling student loan servicer practices – including paperwork processing errors and failure to provide accurate information – that discourage the use of income-driven repayment plans. By reforming service incentives and strengthening consumer protections, the rescinded guidance sought to eliminate the loan servicing failures that keep borrowers from entering affordable repayment plans.
— April 24 Letter from 21 State Attorneys General to Department of Education

According to Forbes, 44 million borrowers owe approximately $1.3 trillion in student loans, making it the second-largest type of consumer debt behind mortgages.

NY Attorney General Fights Fraud Against Servicemembers

Deanna Nelson is the Assistant Attorney General in charge (AAGIC) of a two-person regional office in Watertown, N.Y. The office is located close to the 10th Mountain (Light Infantry) Division at Fort Drum. In addition to her numerous duties as the AAGIC of the Watertown office -  representing state agencies, overseeing charitable organizations, affirmative litigation and other matters - Deanna has taken it upon herself to fight for young military personnel who are away from home for the first time and all too often fall victim to a bewildering array of sophisticated, private equity funded consumer scams. This fight has led to several nationally recognized settlements on behalf of servicemembers and their families. 

The effort to protect military personnel from consumer frauds continues. On March 22, AG Schneiderman, joined by members of the NY AG Consumer Protection Division, announced yet another settlement in what is obviously a nationwide scam. Freedom Stores Inc., a chain of electronics and furniture stores catering to military personnel, agreed to settle claims for illegal debt collection practices against servicemembers in New York. In 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, along with North Carolina and Virginia, reached a settlement with Freedom Stores for the same abusive practices.

The fact is that protecting our dedicated servicemembers requires a large-scale, coordinated effort between federal and state law enforcement officials. Let's hope that the CFPB can continue to work with AG's all over the country to protect our military personnel from consumer fraud.

Ky. AG Fosters Stratgeic Partnerships to Fight Consumer Scams

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is wisely partnering not just with the AARP, but also with local and county governments, various faith based groups and over 100 non-profit and retail organizations as he issues consumer warnings on a wide variety of scams. This is exactly how it should be done.

The State Center Consumer Protection Report (Oct. - Nov. 2016 Edition)

We are pleased to announce the inaugural issue of The State Center Consumer Protection Report. Published by the The Center for State Enforcement of Antitrust and Consumer Protection Laws (“State Center”) in partnership with StateAG.org, the Consumer Protection Report is a monthly compilation of  press releases on local and national consumer protection enforcement efforts, including investigations, lawsuits, consumer alerts and advocacy initiatives by state attorneys general.

State Center/StateAG.org's Consumer Protection Initiative carries on the efforts of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School by publishing this Report and making all current and previous editions available on The State Center website. The website also features a searchable database, allowing visitors to conduct key-word and drop-down menu searches of all editions of the Consumer Protection Report.

Connecticut AG Leads on Pharmaceutical Price-Fixing Case

Led by Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and his staff, 20 attorneys general sued some of the largest generic drug companies for price fixing. These AG's have uncovered what appears to be egregious wrongdoing that falls on to the bottom line of almost every American family. This case is proof positive that state attorneys general - operating on a bi partisan basis - are essential to defending all of us in the marketplace.

  • See, Pharma in their sights: Attorneys general get real on alleged price-fixing, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Dec. 18, 2016).

Mn. AG Lori Swanson's Victory Over For-Profit Globe University Receives Support from U.S. Department of Education

Globe University, a for-profit college, successfully sued by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has been ordered to stop enrolling students by the U.S. Dept. of Education. This comes in the aftermath of September's devastating 130-page ruling from the Judge who presided over the lengthy trial. While the school will not close immediately, the facts clearly show the violations that have so negatively impacted Globe's students.

See: Globe, Minnesota School of Business ordered to stop enrolling students

Resources on Payday Lending

Attorneys General and consumer advocates have long believed that payday lending exploits low income citizens while the industry alleges that payday loans fill a vital credit need for those with no savings. This post by the Journalist Report at the Kennedy School both summarizes the CFPB's payday initiative as well as providing links to recent research.

See: Journalist's Resource, Do payday loans exploit poor people? Research review

NY AG Gives Extensive Remarks on Efforts to Use 1st Amendment to Block Fraud Investigations

The NY AG recently gave a thoughtful presentation before the Big Law Business Summit on why the First Amendment never has protected fraud, and that lawyers should oppose the "very dangerous legal trend of ... First Amendment opportunists" who are attempting to use the First Amendment to block government investigations of potentially illegal behavior.