State AG’s wife invested in Walgreens
Ties raise questions amid opioid fight
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has positioned himself as a national leader in the fight against opioids, but longstanding family investments in the massive drug supplier Walgreens have caused some to question his motives.
Slatery’s wife has invested in, and received money from, Walgreens for years.
State ethics filings show the investments and income from 2014 to 2019, even as other states targeted the pharmacy company with investigations and lawsuits related to its role in the proliferation of opioids across the country.
During that time, Slatery advised local officials across the state not to file their own opioid lawsuits, some of which have named Walgreens as a defendant.
Before Nashville filed an opioids lawsuit in 2017, Slatery personally reached out to then-Mayor Megan Barry to argue against legal action.
Nashville’s lawsuit, still pending in federal court, names Walgreens as a defendant.
Tennessee has targeted drugmakers and distributors with investigations and litigation. In October, Slatery’s office announced it was suing drug supplier AmerisourceBergen, saying it must be held accountable for “its role in generating and prolonging the ongoing opioid epidemic in Tennessee.”
Florida, Kentucky and Delaware are among states that have targeted Walgreens, which acts as its own supplier for most medications, for the same reasons.
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The company has not faced a lawsuit from the attorney general’s office in Tennessee.
Some local leaders say ties to Walgreens problematic
Some local and state leaders say Slatery’s ties to Walgreens could call his impartiality into question. A spokesperson for Slatery’s office said he had rightly disclosed of the investments in annual ethics disclosures filed with the state.
“When a real conflict exists, the Office takes appropriate measures to protect the public interest,” Slatery spokesperson Samantha Fisher said in a statement.
Fisher did not say if Slatery considered his wife’s investments a “real conflict,” or if he had taken any steps to guard against undue influence.
Slatery has taken a lead role in litigation surrounding the opioid crisis. Earlier this year, he partnered with three other state attorneys general to negotiate a multibillion-dollar settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The deal comes as Tennessee contends with a mounting number of drug overdoses, with 1,837 overdose deaths reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018. Experts say opioids were behind a large portion of those deaths.
The proposed deal would settle thousands of opioid lawsuits filed by states and municipalities, if the plaintiffs sign off. But some have criticized the deal, saying it doesn’t go far enough to address the toll of the crisis.
Slatery’s investments could be problematic, particularly when it comes to his role as a negotiator for the bigger nationwide deal, Sevier County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn said.
“It does seem like he might have an interest, if it’s true,” Dunn said. “If I had an interest I’d be wanting to settle as low as possible so it didn’t affect my stock.”
Dunn is one of several Tennessee district attorneys who have filed their own opioid lawsuits.
Another person in that group, District Attorney Bryant Dunaway of Putnam County, told The Herald-Citizen in Cookeville the settlement would do “nothing to alleviate the very serious issues these companies have created in Tennessee,” adding that it was “at best, a budget for more body bags.”
AG going after companies for ‘breaking our laws’
Fisher, Slatery’s spokesperson, said the attorney general’s office “recognized the severity and immediacy of the opioid epidemic and has been a leading state in the multistate effort to resolve the opioid litigation.”
She pushed back at the question of a conflict of interest, saying the state’s lawsuits against drugmakers and suppliers “are recent examples of what happens when the AG goes after a company for breaking our laws.”
“Tennessee and most other states have not yet sued nationwide pharmacies with respect to opioids,” Fisher said. “This does not mean the Attorney General is not investigating the role of pharmacies in the opioid epidemic.”
Fisher did not respond to follow-up questions about how Slatery would handle any decision surrounding investigations into Walgreens.
According to state ethics filings, Slatery’s wife has reported investments and income from Walgreens Boots Alliance, a holding company that owns Walgreens and other pharmacies and pharmaceutical distributors.
The potential for a conflict of interest in this case depends on the amount of money Slatery’s wife has invested in and received from Walgreens over the years, according to Scott Cummings, a legal ethics professor at the University of California Los Angeles.
State ethics rules require Slatery to report annual investments or income of $1,000 or more, according to staff at the Tennessee Ethics Commission. But Fisher would not say exactly how much money Slatery’s wife had invested in Walgreens.
Cummings called that “very troubling, especially when it is a public official entrusted with the public interest.”
“There should be more transparency when a legitimate conflicts question arises,” Cummings added in an email. “If there are credible facts at issue about a potential conflict, I do not think it would be in keeping with a lawyer’s duty ... to refuse to disclose the conflict to the client. Here, where the client is ‘the people,’ there should be public disclosure.”