Kentucky's Democratic attorney general walked out of a politically-charged hearing about opioid addiction Thursday, further heightening tensions between him and the state's Republican leadership.
Andy Beshear spent the first hour of the Program Review and Investigations Committee talking about his plan to sue the makers and distributors of opioid-based prescription painkillers that have ensnared hundreds of thousands across the region in addiction.
But Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll, a former police detective, spent the next hour peppering Beshear with dozens of questions about his involvement in the state's settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. The questions prompted a bitter back and forth that ended when Beshear left the hearing and accused Republicans of trying to use the state's opioid crisis to gain a political advantage.
"I have not seen a constitutional officer treated this way before this body before. I want to work with you. Drugs are not partisan," said Beshear, who also apologized to the families of drug overdose victims who had accompanied him to hear his testimony. "Today I was here to talk about the opioid epidemic. It feels, certainly, like an attack."
A few weeks before leaving office in January 2016, former Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway agreed to end the state's eight-year lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for $24 million, one of the largest state settlements against a pharmaceutical company in the country. After Conway left, Beshear's office then awarded a retroactive contract to a Louisville law firm, giving it $3 million for its work on the case. That law firm would later hire Conway and make him a partner.
"This entire incident just reeks of impropriety, corruption, cronyism and that's not a political statement," Carroll said.
The incident involves the law firm formerly known as Dolt, Thompson, Shepherd & Kinney. The firm won a contract to work on Kentucky's lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, alleging the maker of OxyContin lied to consumers to hide the addictedness of its opioid-based painkiller.
In an interview, Conway said the law firm's contract expired on July 1, 2015, and was not renewed because of an oversight. But the Attorney General's Office mistakenly had thought it renewed the contract, so the law firm kept working on the case.
Conway settled the case in December 2015. Beshear's office discovered the law firm had been working without a contract. But Beshear had decided to recuse himself from any matter involving Purdue Pharma. That's because before taking office, Beshear worked for a Lexington law firm that was hired to defend the company. Beshear said he was not an equity partner so he made no money off the case, but he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Beshear's chief administrator, Holly McCoy-Johnson, said the office issued a new contract and made it retroactive so the law firm could be paid for its work. She said the office discussed the contract with Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's Finance and Administration Cabinet. And the legislative Contract Review Committee, led by Republican state Sen. Max Wise, approved the deal.
Conway said he purposefully did not join the firm until May, several months after the contract was awarded, so he would not benefit from it.
"I went the extra mile," Conway said. "I really resent the implication Sen. Carroll is putting forward."
Carroll was not convinced.
Beshear and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin have had a bitter feud since both men took office, and Beshear is a likely candidate to challenge Bevin for re-election in 2019. Carroll told reporters that Bevin's office helped him research his questions for Beshear, but said he is not being used as a "political puppet." He told reporters the evidence so far is "circumstantial," but said the committee was considering using a subpoena to find more information, possibly requiring Conway to testify himself.
"Tell me that Jack Conway going to work for Dolt Thompson doesn't raise suspicions," Carroll said. "You look at all these things as a complete package, and you can't help but think that this screams of corruption and I think the people of our state are tired of that type of politics."